Symposium 2000    

Edmund de Waal

Interpreting Ceramics

Edmund de Waal’s presentation focussed on the importance of interpretation to contemporary makers in ceramics and he posed the crucial question: who owns the interpretation? The text given below is a verbatim account of his talk transcribed from a recording on the day. (The reference to ‘Katie’ in the text is to Katie Bunnell, a previous speaker at the Symposium.)


A response to the phrase: Interpreting Ceramics

Edmund de Waal

When I saw ‘Interpreting Ceramics’ I was reminded of a lovely thing, a letter by the early nineteenth century vicar and bel’letrist, Sidney Smith, who wrote to someone in Edinburgh. He wrote: ‘I am sending you my Godson George, he is a proto-Josiah, he is a neo-Wedgwood. All he needs is an attic and a bowl of soup to meditate intensely on clay. He is going to be the interpreter of vases and the interpreter of dishes’. And off went this letter with this poor young man who was going off to become a potter, meditating intensely on clay and I was thinking actually that’s the kind of thing we should be doing: meditating intensely on clay. And really the things that I wanted to write down and bring up were (which I’ve been meditating on), were ‘who interprets?’, ‘why do they interpret?’, ‘how do they interpret?’ and then after a couple of letters last week from people who disagreed with something I’d written, so what?

Who interprets ceramics? Critics, art-historians, curators, ethnographers, archaeologists, architects, material culture people, and bottom of all the heap: ceramicists, potters, artists in clay, what you will. The question about who interprets ceramics, who owns the interpretation of ceramics, seems to me one of the great questions we have to ask ourselves because the ownership of interpretation is of course a power relationship. The interpretation of your own work, which you cede to someone else, whether it’s a curator of your work that’s in a museum or a collector and a displayer of your work in any other context or indeed an ethnographer arriving in your culture and interpreting it from a different value framework; it seems to me of extraordinary interest and extraordinary value. It seems to me also of great interest within our own discipline, or disciplines, that of ceramics, that who writes and how they write on ceramics. Who interprets and how they interpret. And of course, why they interpret.

When you read about contemporary practice in studio pottery, the making of ceramics now, particularly that of contemporary practice, there seems to me two real problems: one, that actually most of the contemporary makers who are trying to interpret their own work in print don't seem to have very many models of how to do it. There seems to me, if you analyze the written interpretations of contemporary work by makers, to be two main tranches of work. One is the genre of autobiography, a kind of canter through your life, beginning with how you discovered clay as a child and met an extraordinary maker when you were eleven and made pots in your back kitchen and then early days in the RCA and then travails etc. And you go through the whole thing as a kind of very plodding autobiography through clay and you look at articles, particularly in Ceramics: Art and Perception, that seems to me to be the genre of autobiography. The interpretation aspect of it is minimal. It is very much a way of bringing the reader up to speed with the fame and quality of the work you're presenting: your own. There's another kind of genre of contemporary practice: contemporary practitioners writing about their own work, which is that of kind of ceramic tourism and this happens frequently in Ceramic Review, which is someone has been to Java or Namibia for the first time and feels compelled on their return to write about how wonderful the inherent tactile values and haptic abilities of these lovely, lovely people. When they couldn't even speak the language they communicated through miming pottery making to each other, they took some black and white photographs and then the contemporary, usually the western practitioner, feels compelled to write about this great, extraordinary experience, Pauline experience, in wherever they were, somewhere in the third world and actually get them published.

These seem to be the two main genres of the contemporary practitioners interpreting work. Either autobiography: this is how I did it, I did it my way, or I did it somewhere else. As models these seem to lack a certain rigour. They also seem to have substantial gaps in methodology, in conceptual framework, in any ability to see any of the underlying critical problems about these approaches and other kinds of work, or indeed your own work. There are basically vast lacunae here: one in how you collect work, how you actually analyze the work you are seeing and why you're seeing it. The lacunæ, writing about your own work, is how on earth does your own work get commodified. How has your work moved from being in the studio to being out there in the gallery, or out there in an exhibition, or out there for other people to analyze it. And also, the lacunæ in curation and display: how has my work, my work as a contemporary practitioner changed through its interaction in the external world through being displayed and curated.

If we take these rather paltry models which are around for contemporary practitioners and ask how they can be changed, how the language of contemporary practitioners talking about their work has changed, I think we come up against some real problems. One of the problems is that a lot of people who are young students within institutions at the moment are being told that they have to find (that hateful language, that hateful term) the ceramic language, a way of talking about their own work, are also taught that they need an inflated language to talk about their own work, they're not to write simply about their work or find simple models to talk about their own work. They are persuaded that somehow to be intelligent about your work, you have to write in a very convoluted way, you have to use academic models that perhaps you don't understand and you certainly have to be theoretically literate. This is talking to people who actually don't really read very much anyway, so asking them to read Derrida and Foucault or what have you is actually going to be quite a problem in asking them to translate really quite elaborate conceptual models into talking about their own work. Asking a second year ceramics student to have more rhetorical self-consciousness in their own work, or have their writing be more performative in their textuality is a laugh, I mean it's a complete joke. It's also difficult to get people to be as self-conscious as Katie was, in terms of her models of her own work; the sort of hyper-textuality that she was talking about. In institutions which are very hooked up on to high value of theory, when simple kinds of reading aren't being taught, there doesn't seem to me to be any point in talking to people about being meta, neo and post things when they haven't even reached the basic building blocks of being able to write in very simple ways about their work to begin with.

So there's a big lack of models for actually writing about your work and as Nicholas Thomas, who's a very good and interesting cultural historian and ethnographer, has written the problem you encounter in a discipline like our own where people keep on feeling they can talk about the thing itself, they can actually, in some ways there is a way of bringing things back to simplicity, is that you disregard bodies of knowledge, practices and values. So, if you are going to get people to meditate intensely on clay, you've got to get them to meditate intensely on the knowledge, how they acquired the knowledge they know they've got, the practices which they have, with which they're working with those values and also actually how the objects they make have some kind of social life; how objects they've got are illuminated by people who encounter them and use them.

So, in some way, I think that unless the groundwork is done within universities and colleges, actually to get people, students, to actually be able to read quite simple texts about ceramics, there's going to be a big problem about getting them to write about ceramics. And I think that if they can't write simply about ceramics I think the new audience for the kinds of work that need to be done in this new journal are just not going to happen. There's going to become an increasing gulf, an extraordinary gulf, between alienated maker and the sort of illuminati, the people who actually do write about them. This gulf is massive and if you do actually talk to potters, ceramicists, people who use clay, they always talk about critics as them: they're out there, they talk amongst themselves, they write for themselves, they don't write for us. And so they also, there's a big sense of alienation, a big gulf, a conceptual gulf, a critical gulf between these two groups of people. And then there's a sense then when potters, ceramicists, do actually try and write about their own work in some new way, it's thrown back in their faces. There's a strong sense of a kind of unease about this great project having some kind of academic discourse around ceramics, a great sense of insecurity about it.

Now does it matter that potters, ceramicists, should be insecure about what we do? I think it does. It's very, very important to have a refereed journal. I'm not apologetic about having a refereed journal, think it's extraordinary that it's taken this long to have one, about the academic discipline of ceramics, but I think that the challenge is to try and find and see whether there are new ways of people who make objects in clay actually writing about their work that can be inclusive in this kind of journal. There are rigorous and interesting ways that they can write about their work. Otherwise I think you'll get a lot of people submitting sort of ceramic autobiographies and getting dreadfully rejected. A lot of people also doing a much more sort of sad thing, which will be trying to sort of bolster their ideas in to some kind of vague attempt to look academic with no rigour and just a few sort of footnotes at the end and one bibliography taken from Ceramic Review.

So if we're going to get people from the ceramic making community actually not just reading the journal, but actually contributing to it, I think we're going to have to do some serious work actually on initiating different kinds of writing earlier on in the ceramic education process, but I think that can happen but it might have to be led by some of the people here.

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Symposium 2000 • Issue 1