The Need to Touch

If you ask anyone that works with clay what it is that attracted them to the medium, the vast majority will begin to tell you how the raw material feels: moist, soft, cold, malleable, squishy. And if they close their eyes, they will tell you that clay smells of the earth after a soft spring rain. The tactile qualities of clay make it appealing to everyone from toddlers to seniors. For those that throw on a wheel, the “magic” of taking a ball of clay and creating something useful “from nothing but mud” astounds them. They love feeling the clay move between their fingers as they shape it.

One of the exercises that my first year ceramic students would undertake was to create forty 15-centimetre tall perfect cylinders. (For those used to measuring in inches, that would be six inches tall). A perfect cylinder does not lean; it has a clean 90 degree angle where the base meets the wall on the interior. It is not an easy task and across North American many wheel throwing classes begin this way. It is an assignment that is both frustrating, anger producing, and exhilarating when completed correctly. The successful completion of this assignment ensures all future achievements on the potter’s wheel because “everything begins as a cylinder.”

Student cylinder projects.

Once the centring of the clay is mastered and the students can repeatedly pull even walls to a height of fifteen centimetres, they are ready to move on, with confidence, to more complex shapes. In order to demonstrate that there are contemporary artists who employ the cylinder as a device for conceptual installations, I often had my students research the work of British artist, Edmund de Waal.

Porcelain vessel with lid courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

de Waal is internationally known for his book, The Hare with the Golden Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.

The subject of his best selling book is his inheritance of 264 netsuke from his uncle, living in Japan, Iggie. In it, de Waal barely mentions his own work with clay while he traces the fate of his Jewish family in twentieth century Europe. One area that fascinated me that began in the book is the idea of sacred objects, grouped together, and encased in a glass cabinet or a vitrene. That theme permeates much of de Waal’s porcelain cylinders that are grouped together, never alone, in various styles of installations but either always in some type of enclosing device or placed so high, as in his exhibition at the Victorian & Albert Museum in Kensington, that no one could possible touch them. They were removed from the very tactile nature that is ceramics. Whether the raw material or the finished object, people want to touch the vessel or the sculpture, rub their fingers along the smooth or rough surfaces, always turning the item over to see the base. That was then and this is New Year’s Day 2021.

A new exhibition of work by Edmund de Waal is opening at the Gagosian Gallery in London. As a reaction to 2020, when everyone in the world wanted to touch another living person or have a good long hug, de Waal has created a series of work that are deliberately intended to be held.

In its press release, the Gagosian Gallery said that the London based artist worked on the pieces during lockdown. They note that it is the first time in sixteen years that de Waal has made single pieces rather than installations. The brochure quotes the artist: “I made these pots in lockdown during the spring and early summer. I was alone in my studio and silent and I needed to make vessels to touch and hold, to pass on. I needed to return to what I know—the bowl, the open dish, the lidded jar. When you pick them up you will find the places where I have marked and moved the soft clay. Some of these pots are broken and patched on their rims with folded lead and gold; others are mended with gold lacquer. Some hold shards of porcelain.”

Touching and being touched is widely known to be important for both mental and physical health. Touch can actually convey many emotions to a person including the most positive ones of being loved, of compassion, gratitude, happiness. Touching another human or non-human has the ability to alleviate their stress. Touch has the ability to demonstrate that one is loved.

One of the things that most people said they missed during 2020 with the lockdowns during the SARS Covid-19 pandemic was hugging.

I would like to think that Edmund de Waal has, during his time of working alone in his studio during lockdown, returned to that most fundamental element of working with clay: touch. I trust that as an artist he has realized that the absence of touch in his earlier installations speaks to the preciousness of a grouping of objects just like his inherited netsuke but they do not address some fundamental human conditions. The pandemic separated family members from one another, the death of one often meant that they could only see their loved one through glass or on a digital screen. What was missing was a human finger running down the cheek, stopping a tear. What was missing was a human hand grasping another as the last breath leaves the body. What was missing was a husband holding his wife as they both lay dying in separate hospital beds in separate rooms. As a contemporary artist, Edmund de Waal has responded to that great absence by allowing us to feel every surface of the vessels in the exhibition. By doing so each of us can close our eyes and hold the hand of the maker who alone in their studio working might have wished for someone, just once, to reach out and touch them.

Wishing Everyone the Happiest New Year

The featured image is by Japanese printmaker, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) (courtesy of the British Museum and WikiCommons). His image captures the tradition of fireworks over the Ryogoku in Tokyo made famous by Utagawa Hiroshige in his One Hundred Views of Edo of 1858, seen below.

The Ryogoku Bridge was one of the most famous bridges that spanned the Sumida River, if not the most famous. Hiroshige repeatedly drew it.

Unlike the fireworks in Western society at New Year’s (and now a tradition also in Asia), those over the Ryogoku Bridge are at the end of summer during the Obon Festival. This Japanese holiday remembers and honours the spirit of the ancestors. This annual celebration often consists of as many as 20,000 separate displays. It began in 1613 when gunpowder was introduced to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It is thought that gunpowder and fireworks explosives were a present from the British diplomat acting on behalf of King James I and a Chinese trader. Known as hanabi with hana meaning flower and bi meaning fire, these fire shaped flower displays first took place for the public over the Sumida River in 1733. At that time they were in remembrance of the million people who had died from extreme poverty the year before. They have continued to today where the lights and smoke entertain people for one to two hours as part of the annual summer festival.

It is somewhat fitting to think of the fireworks going off around the world to close 2020 and welcome 2021 as a way of remembering all of the souls lost to SARS-Covid 19 during 2020.