The studio of the British ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal is a large, bright space, a former munitions factory in deepest South London, walls painted in “Homebase white”. We’re here to talk about an utterly different place. The synagogues of the Venice ghetto, hidden away at the tops of the tall buildings overlooking a sleepy square, are shuttered, dark and dusty, black and red and gold. In active use only on High Holy Days, they have a Sleeping Beauty feel to them, a melancholic place of memory, forever in mourning for the community deported to the death camps in 1943.
De Waal — known for his bestselling book of family history The Hare with the Amber Eyes, as much as his deceptively simple-seeming porcelain pots — is discussing his newest project, psalm, which will be unveiled next week in Venice, part of the city’s Biennale. Years in the making — years of thinking, talking, listening and negotiating as much as actual making — psalm examines the condition of being forced into exile, a homage to the Jews from many nations who were crammed into this corner of Venice in 1516, one of the world’s first ghettos, and the one that gave the world the name for such a place.
With this project, De Waal also extends his gaze beyond the Venice ghetto, to all who were and are imprisoned and exiled, treated as different and separated from the rest of the population. This is, he says, emphatically not “just a one-liner.” It’s been created to provoke thought, not to educate. “It is not another exhibition about Jewish history,” he adds, half ironic, half apologetic.
As readers of The Hare with Amber Eyes will recall, De Waal is a descendant of the Russian Jewish banking and oil dynasty, the Ephrussi family whose wealth and grandeur was stolen by the Nazis. The family scattered far and wide, and his strand of it ended up not very Jewish at all.
“My ancient Jewish father, now 90, became an Anglican clergyman,” he says, the dean of Canterbury Cathedral to be precise, and his mother is the daughter of a vicar. So, for this project, half of which is installed in the ghetto’s Scuola Canton synagogue and museum, the psalms were a choice that link the three Abrahamic religions, and often have the theme of forced exile. They are “devotional and angry”, he says, fitting inspiration for a project that links words and art again and again.
He spent years asking himself how to deal with complex, traumatic history in “a contemporary way”. His answer was to focus on life within the walls of the ghetto and celebrate its peoples and cultures. It was, he says, “a place of connections… of languages and cultures: German, Flemish, Persian, Ottoman, Spanish and Portuguese Jews alongside Italian. It was a place of constant translation, noisy with learning, poetry and music, with a rich literary and musical heritage.”
He has hung a series of 11 vitrines at the threshold to the synagogue, which hold thin sheets of gilded porcelain and blocks of translucent white marble. Other installations feature words scrawled onto porcelain, broken shards collected and held together, and poems by Osip Mandelstam and Rilke.
In a space between the main synagogue and the ladies’ gallery, there is a table, created in memory of 17th-century ghetto dweller and poet Sara Copio Sullam, with the words of Psalm 137 which starts “By the rivers of Babylon”, inscribed in the porcelain surface. At the top of the building is a succah room, where he has installed vitrines containing porcelain vessels and shims of steel.
The works in the ghetto are just half of the project. Across town, in the 16th-century Ateneo Veneto, de Waal has created a gleaming white enclosed space which is a “library of exile”, containing 2,000 books from many languages, both originals and translations. On the walls are written the names of lost libraries, from Alexandria in the ancient world to Mosul in modern times.
The Nigerian writer Ben Okri will open the library next week and de Waal promises it will be “the noisiest library you ever dreamed of”, a social space for events, conversations and discoveries. One wonders how the children’s writer Mary Hoffman will fare when she writes a book there in September.
One lost library that inspired this element was in de Waal’s grandfather’s house in Vienna, torn apart and stolen by the Nazis. Recently, one book was discovered in the possession of the Austrian government and it will take its place in this new space. Another family painting has been discovered in a Viennese museum —de Waal is too diplomatic to name it — along with a letter making it clear that officials decided not to return it to the family, as they’d had enough given back already.
So, there’s a personal element in the creation of this cultural Tardis which will live on in some form after the Biennale. And there’s also a political point to be made about the closure of public libraries in the UK, “a vicious and violent thing,” he says.
De Waal is keen to show his visitors how he works, so we tour the studio, from the “monastic cell” where he has his wheel (he hands out small lumps of porcelain clay so we can feel for ourselves its yielding potential), to the large kiln where the work is fired, to the room full of materials, like an alchemist’s store —marble, silver, salt, shards of pottery, copper and stone.
It’s hard to describe the appeal of his work, displayed on shelves and in vitrines around the studio. One pot alone might feel mundane, but grouped together, seemingly uniform, yet each one unique; seemingly solid, yet fragile, they are extraordinarily powerful. In his installations, the way they are grouped and spaced, often echo a code, or music notation, spelling out a rhythm. One such installation is on the wall of his exiles’ library; it represents Daniel Bomberg’s Renaissance printing of the Talmud.
Tourists don’t generally visit the Venice ghetto, although readers of the JC are probably more likely to have been there than the hordes who go for gondolas and ice cream, museums and churches. De Waal hopes this will mark a new phase for the ghetto, somewhere that was once “a place of beginnings,” introducing it to the art world.
“There are people who come to Venice often and know every work in the Guggenheim,” he says, “and yet they’ve never been to the ghetto. I hope that this project will open it up to new eyes.”
Edmund de Waal’s psalm will be on display from May 8 to September 29