An Oblivious but Ambitious Artistic Intervention in White

Detail of Edmund de Waal's 'white' installation in the Royal Academy Library and Print Room (screenshot via Vimeo)
Detail of Edmund de Waal’s ‘white’ installation in the Royal Academy library (screenshot via Vimeo)

LONDON — white, Edmund de Waal’s intervention at the Royal Academy (RA) library, is a wonder. The artist has placed pale, whitish objects, including some of his own sensuously simple vessels, among the gray and brown furnishings and vintage leather bindings of the library’s intimate rooms. I loved looking at them.

But, perhaps because I’m an American, I was also vexed by de Waal’s seeming ignorance of the privilege that allows him to probe his own ideas about whiteness without considering race. I was disappointed that this otherwise intelligent man could fail to acknowledge the benefits of his white life — benefits that place him in a position to do this project. And I was befuddled that this blind spot remains unacknowledged in any of his writings, at least to my knowledge.

Meissen cup from de Waal's personal collection, on view in 'white'
Meissen cup from de Waal’s personal collection, on view in ‘white’ (all images courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

For better or worse, I was impatient even before entering the library, thanks to a flurry of incidents too trivial to detail. As such, I was inclined to quibble. De Waal’s inclusion of a John Cage score made me think only of how interesting it would have been to borrow the notorious “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” by Cage’s friend Robert Rauschenberg, instead. From there I disputed his choice of a darkly bound, nine-volume edition of Tristram Shandy, which is notorious for its solid-black page; better, I thought, to have included a dummy — a blank-paged codex — so that the idea and dimensions of a printed book could be assessed as a void.

Once I began agreeing or disagreeing with de Waal’s choices, I started digging into the reasons why he had been permitted to take on such a project, which involves borrowing precious objects and then installing them in a space not normally open to the public.

One remains indisputable: de Waal is a successful ceramist and a keenly sensitive, creative thinker. But success often stems from a privilege that’s rooted in gender, race, and socioeconomic class, as Linda Nochlin and other critical thinkers have taught us. If you’re British that indisputably means being white, male, and at least upper-middle class, and having enjoyed the richly textured cultural milieu that class inhabits.

Edmund Arthur Lowndes de Waal has had the luxury of working with clay since he was five years old, and with white clay since he was ten. What has developed into a widely publicized obsession with whiteness was enabled by an affluent, cosmopolitan family life that gave him the resources and security needed to explore it. His father, of Dutch stock, was Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. His mother’s family amassed a fortune from oil and banking, but as Jews lost everything to the Nazis.

"The Hare with Amber Eyes," one of the netsuke inherited by de Waal (click to enlarge)
“The Hare with Amber Eyes,” one of the netsuke inherited by de Waal

In his bestselling, award-winning 2010 book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal addressed his mother’s family’s illustrious history and told of the marvelous collection of netsuke that was part of that heritage. In a recently published excerpt from his new book, The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, de Waal ponders the Nazi obsession with whiteness and with porcelain, and writes about Jewish prisoners at Dachau who created porcelain objects — the white of the clay contrasted with the black coal used to cremate the thousands who were killed. Yet he fails to make any connection between Nazi claims of Aryan and white superiority and the realities of white supremacism as they play out in even the most democratic societies. I have no sense that he sees a link between the success he has earned, the privileged milieu within which he has earned it, and his own white, male identity.

His essay in the exquisitely white brochure for the RA intervention serves as an example. De Waal writes:

White is aura. White is a staging post to look at the world from. White is not neutral; it forces other colours to reveal themselves. It moralizes—it is clean when nothing else is clean …
I have spent my life thinking about white.

How can he obsess about whiteness without ever linking it to race, and without implicating himself as a beneficiary of that racial identity? How can he state that white “forces other colours to reveal themselves” without realizing that whiteness imposes difference on every other skin color? Perhaps obsession simply breeds myopia.

It’s for the best, then, that de Waal’s shortsighted subjectivity isn’t overtly expressed in the RA installation or in his ceramic works, but only through his verbal commentaries. I realized that if I stopped reading I could simply savor the privilege of viewing his deft placement of objects, which were culled from public and private collections from around the UK and beyond. Yes, they testify to de Waal’s privileged access, but they also share it with visitors. And some of their placements are especially inspired, including a full-scale Ai Weiwei marble lantern rakishly lounging on a shelf, a mesmerizing, pre-Islamic Arabian stele off by itself in a corner, and a scrumptious little oil painting by Giorgio Morandi nestled amid the books.

View of the Royal Academy Library (photo by Benedict Johnson)
View of the Royal Academy library (photo by Benedict Johnson)

At their best, de Waal’s interventions call attention to themselves as well as to their secluded, intimate surroundings, without seeming at all out of place. Instead, they evoke that vaguely surreal Western tradition of acquisition and display known as the cabinet of curiosities. In doing so, they also reflect both the humanism and the colonialism of the RA and other, similar Western cultural institutions.

The tensions generated by white extend so far beyond de Waal’s commentary that they create a cohesive installation which outdoes him. Artist’s statements can leave ample room for visitors’ own experiences; de Waal’s instead precludes dimensions of reality that simply must not be ignored. By all means, visit white and prepare to enjoy the experience. But take the artist’s commentary with a grain of (white?) salt.

white: a project by Edmund de Waal continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (The Library and Print Room, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through January 3, 2016. Visitors must book tickets with timed entry in advance.

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