An Internet Search for Meaning

Mike Bruce, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery
Edmund de Waal's "Atemwende, I" (2013), 476 porcelain vessels arrayed on an aluminum and plexiglass cabinet, at Gagosian Gallery.
As I have just read, with great pleasure and moments of surprising sorrow, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I was interested to find out more about a show of his ceramic work at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Today, after finishing the NYT online kenken puzzle, my eye strayed to the sidebar where current articles are listed and there was a review of de Waal's show, Atemwende. I clicked. Critic Roberta Smith is obviously no fan of his work. She doesn't mince words:
"Time spent with Mr. de Waal’s work can teach a lot about the nuances of ceramics, but his work is ostentatiously precious and ultimately naïve. It forces a pastiche of received art ideas through the sieve of a different medium, gaining a physical distinctiveness, but little more. Too bad he found ceramics itself so deficient." 
Ouch! What a slam! It hit me personally, as my own work might be described in the same way, substituting "stitching" for "ceramics". (I am my own worst critic, and Ms. Smith's words seem cuttingly familiar.)

Seeking some balance, I looked up the meaning of the German title of the exhibit. Atemwende mean "turning of the breath." Oh, how beautiful. Google also provided me with links to some ways the term is used, and led me to a quote from Paul Celan, poet, translator, essayist, and lecturer, influenced by French Surrealism and Symbolism. (Who I had never heard of before...)

“Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automaton runs down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?”

Whoa! Celan was obviously given to some deep and dark thoughts. Not surprisingly, since he was born between wars in Cernăuţi, at the time Romania, now Ukraine, he lived in France, and wrote in German. His parents were killed in the Holocaust; the author himself escaped death by working in a Nazi labor camp. 

I kept searching and was led to Keith Harvey's blog. He discusses  his reading of Celan's book of poetry, also titled  Atemwende, concentrating on the first lines:
Du darfst mich getrost/ mit Schnee bewirten (You may confidently/entertain me with snow.)
"The image of snow is an allusion to the time of the camps where there was little or no actual nourishment, only ash and snow to fill the mouths of the starving prisoners. So, perhaps, he is saying that he will allow himself to be celebrated through snow, an icy nourishment but nourishment nevertheless."
All of which leads me to believe that Edmund de Waal knew exactly what he was doing in his installations. Ash and snow? Rows of white and black vessels, each one unique, yet on first glance indistinct from its shelfmates? I can't help but see a direct reference to Celan and his poetry dealing with his experience in the camps.

As his book reveals, deWaal is a deeply thoughtful artist, a researcher with the heart of a poet, and whose Jewish family suffered irreparable losses during the Second World War. All that is left of his family and their fortune is a vitrine filled with tiny netsuke, Japanese carvings, inherited by de Waal, and the inspiration for his book.
In this context I see de Waal's ceramic work as deeply personal. Wish I could see the show in person.

I'll end with another quote, this one from author Willa Cather. I don't know the context of this line, but I have carried it around with me for several years. It seems fitting here:
"The irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand."
P.S. The title of this post is, of course, a play on Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Which is, of course, relevant. I'm no dummy. But I do have to get off the computer. I could be following this trail of crumbs forever.


  1. Amazing post, Heather. I love that I learned so much. That new word, atemwende. The new poet, Paul Celan. I shall look into reading the Hare with Amber eyes now. And that Willa Cather quote rings true for me as well.

    Happy Canadian Thanksgiving.

  2. Thank you for a calm moment here, Heather. The webs can be so tricksy but so capturing in the blink of an eye if the right eye is looking (ha--and the left one as well :) )

  3. Wow, that was a very disturbing review of de Waal's work. I often wonder what gives critics the right to do that. I mean, here is a man who obviously puts his heart and soul into his work. Yet, this so called "expert" who I have never heard of before slams him unceremoniously. In my view she and people like her are perfect examples of what is wrong with society these days. How dare she!

    On the other hand, your compassionate look is something worth thinking about. Ashes and Snow is a profoundly different view and one that clearly has merit. It seems to me that having the ability to look into the art is considerably more valuable than the ability to "look at" the work in such a cynical and destructive way. I commend you for making the connection between these two. One would feel privileged indeed to participate in a conversation between these men. Your compassion and desire to understand are rare attributes Heather. I feel honored to share my life with you.

  4. Here is another article about the show from the NYT:
    Sorry, I couldn't make a link to it. Much better article, actually a preview to the show.

  5. Anonymous8:41 PM

    I think that critic was in a bad mood. Well, living in New York would put almost anybody in a bad mood. Think of the traffic! Maybe if she had seen the show in a less aggressive environment she would have seen the work in a better light.

    Speaking of poetry and hares with amber eyes (BRILLIANT book) and ashes and atemwede I have to throw this completely unrelated poem in the mix. I went to Kyoto yesterday for a conference on Irish literature. One of the presenters was a poet named Gerard Fanning and he read from his collection, including the following.

    Day-trip to Vancouver Island

    We drive through the spine of the island,
    where pockets of lives
    wait for rain and the mailman.

    Reclining on the invisible grain of the world,
    their lock-up doors, endless gardens,
    dandle like unchartered nerve-ends

    and screen the uncut land, which must lie
    where the roads are still being planned.
    In a filling station, burning Mobil gas

    I bought a card of Mount St. Helens
    hoping to send it to you,
    a slight tremor to conceal

    like the shy scooped up lunar dust
    or the ash that basks here about
    in a relaxed stare, on temperance houses,

    Salvation army platforms
    and the batten wooden concaves
    of the various sun worshippers.

    The sea at Victoria was no surprise-
    couples promenading, gazing at Japan,
    horizons defined in snug harbour lights

    all mapped, all comprehended
    like the fading zones of space.
    Nightfall, and we rode the ferry-ride

    back to our miniature selves
    caught smiling on the mantlepiece,
    delighted it could be so simple.

    Elizabeth, Elizabeth, what can I tell you-
    how the comforting life of car explorations,
    or the Polaroid guide to the narrative

    ignores the constant filling of the water barrels
    and the nocturnal gauze of happenings
    as natural events for sleeping through.

    God bless poetry and the Irish! Jean-Pierre

  6. Also---have you seen the film ASHES AND SNOW by Gregory Colbert? More poetry, and now, thank you, more meaning. . .


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