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Podcast #90: Edmund de Waal on Porcelain, Time Travel, and Sound


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Edmund de Waal is an artist and writer, perhaps best known for his ceramics. His books include the family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession, The Pot Book, Rethinking Bernard Leach: Studio Pottery and Contemporary Ceramics, 20th Century Ceramics, Design Sourcebook: Ceramics, and Bernard Leach. This week for the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Edmund de Wall discussing porcelain, time travel, and sound.

Edmund de Waal LIVE from the NYPL
Edmund de Waal LIVE from the NYPL

Celebrated for his porcelain installations, de Waal notes that porcelain had often been regarded as a "footnote" in the decorative arts that he wishes to bring to "the main text":

"Porcelain is a footnote. Porcelain, it isn’t, of course it is the most extraordinary thing in the world, but porcelain seems to be a total footnote in decorative arts, it seems to be a sedated part of cultural history. It’s completely forgotten. It’s the province of connoisseurs and collectors and damned art historians and all those people who just don’t care enough about it, or care about it in the wrong kinds of ways, so actually to be able to bring it from the world of footnotes, from the world of the deadly kind of anatomized kind of way, to bring it actually, the fact that actually, the discovery of it brings it out of that sea of footnotes at the bottom of the page right up into the main text, the main body of the story, and then you’re starting to tell stories, which is what it’s all about."

To de Waal, working in the medium of porcelain provides a way of inhabiting multiple timeframes at once like a time traveler, even as the act of creation is imbued with immediacy:

"But the immediacy of actually making something beautiful in porcelain, that extraordinary moment when something is—it feels totally, totally, totally alive, totally present in this moment of creation, and also, simultaneously, a thousand years ago you’re deep within, you’re deep in China, you’re deep within—in Edemissen, you’re in the Cornish hills, you’re wherever you are, so all the tenses get completely muddled under, under the lens of immediacy, which can only happen if you’ve done it forever, if you’ve done all that walking, all that research, all that making. You know, the first day of my apprenticeship, my teacher said to me, my elderly, you know, this is seventeen, he said, 'Edmund, the first thirty thousand pots you make are the worst,' and that’s kind of cool because it says you need a certain amount of reflection before you get to the immediacy."

As a creator also of texts, de Waal is particularly interested in playing with sonic negative spaces. He says that he hopes one day to attain the austerity of Lydia Davis's prose:

"The spaces in the book are aural, they’re my way of listening to different gaps and pacing things in different ways, and they’re visual, because actually I find that as I get older I need more space around words, you know. I’m going to end up like Lydia Davis, God help me, if I’m lucky, in my very, very old age with very, very short, very, very short things on very big pieces of paper. You know, that’s my aspiration, almost nothing there, lots and lots and lots of white space, but fragmentation also gives you rhythms and energies across a whole book in a way that great chunky Midwestern prose just can’t do."

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Could I ask what the piece of

Could I ask what the piece of music played at the end of this podcast is? Thank you in advance for any help.

Had the same question after

Had the same question after seeing a clip of the interview at the end of Frederick Wiseman's film "Ex Libris: The New York Public Library." It's Bach’s Goldberg Variations (

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