white – a project by Edmund de Waal

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Attributed to Sawaki Rizo Masatoshi, The Hare with Amber Eyes, c.1880.

white – a project by Edmund de Waal at The Royal Academy of Arts until 3 January 2016

White has obsessed Edmund de Waal since he made his first white pot as a child. His bestselling book – The Hare with Amber Eyes – features a white netsuke hare as its talisman (an object extremely precious to de Waal which makes an appearance in white), and de Waal has been exhibiting his white porcelain vessels for over a decade. Displayed in the Print Room and Library of the Royal Academy, white symbolises a plateau in de Waal’s journey with white, a chance for him to cast a retrospective glance on the ‘images and objects that mattered to [de Waal] most’, as realised during the 6 years he has spent chasing his obsession and writing The White Road.

The exhibition invites us to share in this act of re-experiencing white through the objects on display – an experience necessarily (not on account of the subject but because of de Waal’s approach) reliant on encountering white as and through concrete forms. Considering this, the darkness in which the Print Room was shrouded shouldn’t have been surprising. For it was obviously intended to stress the contrastive radiance of the white objects (a C4th-5th marble fragment notably shone upon entrance), and to concentrate our attention upon them. Nevertheless, in a show entitled white, the surrounding darkness was somewhat stupefying. And de Waal seemed to be confused too: the first words of his introductory manifesto declared, ‘White is aura’, but in the dark and cramped upper-tier of the Print Room, these words rang hollow.

Here, most of the objects were presented in vitrines lining the walls. A blank page of Tristram Shandy sat alongside a score of John Cage’s 4’ 33’ and an 18th century porcelain cup – one of the first porcelain objects made in Europe. The combination of these different manifestations of white seemed to introduce the theme of the dual appeal of white as potential and ‘experience’ and white as object – perfected realisation. For de Waal, perfected white has always been porcelain: fragile, delicate, diminutive. Together with his own porcelain on display, the 18th century porcelain cup possessed a beautifully satisfying solid whiteness – a pure, glazed whiteness that cannot be tarnished but only cracked, and even in that instance, it would be the object that loses its integrity, and not the white. A large Rachael Whiteread collage hung in the lower-tier of the Print Room in contrast to this: featuring concentric circles, complete with a wiggly deviation, taped onto the canvas, the violation and disruption of the potential of the white space for this result seemed entirely pointless and absurd.

Though in truth the Whiteread collage was just a random object in two rooms full of random objects, connected only through de Waal and his love of white. The incorporation of some of de Waal’s own work into this miscellaneous display of whiteness created an interesting – albeit self-reflexive – dialogue, as the de Waal works mirrored and remarked upon the environments in which they were displayed. De Waal’s a mind of Winter (placed at the very end of the Print Room) seemed to be a microcosmic representation of the room itself, but one which acknowledged its failures, as the white porcelain vessels were carefully arranged within the compartments of the black vitrine far more satisfyingly than the tensions between the white objects and the surrounding dark could have ever been balanced in the Print Room.

In the Library, only the larger objects an unfinished statue, Ai Weiwei’s Lantern and a striking Arabian stele – were immediately discernible upon entrance. Nearly all of the other objects were unobtrusively and naturally dispersed among the book-shelves, like personally significant items decorating a domestic space. On top of this, the rich, motley back-drop of the antique books not only provided a more nuanced setting for the exploration of white, in comparison to the monochrome quality of the Print Room, but even dwarfed the impact of the white objects. Acknowledging and encouraging this effect, the de Waal porcelain vessels on display in the Library were encased in glass vitrines that enabled them to be infiltrated by light and the various angles of the Library which were visible through the glass.

In an exhibition dependant on the individual significance of whitish objects, it may seem strange that de Waal would willingly display them in an environment that essentially overshadowed them. But de Waal has always typically exhibited his work in spaces of architectural and aesthetic interest. It is almost expected of him to select those spaces which facilitate a dialogue between the work and its situation within a wider environment. The presentation of white in the Library was an obvious continuation of this practice, but moreover one in which all of the objects, whether created by de Waal or not, were drawn into a wider de Waalian frame. For example, rather than speaking to us of the illimitable white space – the exhilarating white aura which was so sorely lacking in white – a replica of Malevich’s Suprematist Teapot was almost hidden on a high shelf ­– just another porcelain object, emptied of its original significance – and the small Malevich sketch de Waal chose to squeeze between two shelves, was dominated by a dark cross motif (a strange choice considering  Malevich’s prolific production of white upon white paintings).

In the Library, the white had to be looked for and the boundaries between displayed object and environment became blurred. There was a pure white spine of a book on a high shelf, featuring indented words which were not discernible from far away. At the time it wasn’t clear whether it was part of white or not — it turns out that it was and it wasn’t: the white book was not listed in the provided exhibition guide (none of the objects were directly labelled), but it was almost certainly a copy of de Waal’s The White Road, which has a pure white cover with indented lettering on its spine.

Similarly, as most of the white objects were unobtrusively dispersed in the library without any protective frames, they inhabited the same existential plane as the books with which they shared the shelves: like the white objects, the aesthetically and historically rich antique books were both within and without of reach, as they begged to be appreciated and explored – essentially to be used – but this was of course firmly prohibited by the watchful eye of the museum staff. The presentation of the objects cultivated a consciousness of this through facilitating an illusion of informality that was inevitably undercut by the circumstances in which it was framed.

The effect generated here also reflected another consistent aspect in de Waal’s work: the books were drawn into a liminal space between art and non-art just as de Waal’s porcelain pots, plates and piled-up bowls resemble or even replicate objects that we’re used to touching and using everyday but which are deprived of their potential functionality, and thus arguably rendered as art, by the glass frames in which they’re presented, and also merely on account of being put on display. In view of this, the dialogue initiated between object and environment was surely not dependent on the whiteness of the objects, but on the tensions inherent within such a situation of quasi-informality.

Upon exiting white, I came upon an object that recalled the misplaced potential of de Waal’s ambitious opening words (‘white is aura’) – two huge, thick, blank pages of an C19th elephant folio album which stood open and exposed opposite the entrance into the white, drawing you in. I had a pen in my hand and all I wanted to do was to throw it at the pages – to attack the white and thereby to experience it, break it, perfect it. This is the power of white that I mistakenly expected de Waal to show me – white as aura, impetus and realised object. But although it was technically part of white, it was literally relegated, like de Waal’s unfulfilled declaration, to the outskirts of its experience. Offering a subtle and muted experience of white objects that buttressed and shed light upon de Waal’s own signature practices, white may have been conceived as a cumulative event in de Waal’s mind, but I’m not sure it will be realised as such in anyone else’s.

By Lizzy Hajos