Art collector and critic Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), as his descendant Edmund de Waal explains in his memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), knew how “to spend time with a picture.” Soliciting precisely this kind of extended looking, de Waal’s exhibition, “a thousand hours,” was the product of even slower making, presenting 10 separate works consisting of over 2,000 porcelain vessels in total arranged in specially constructed vitrines and on wall-hung shelf units.
In his best-selling memoir, de Waal makes much of the tactility and portability of the collection of tiny netsuke he inherited from his great-uncle Ignace Ephrussi (1848-1908). Iggie moved to Japan in 1947, temporarily returning to their country of origin the 264 wood and ivory carvings of animals, people, fruit and other everyday objects. Acquired in its entirety from a Parisian dealer in 1870, the collection remains in the family after five generations, having survived two World Wars and crossed two continents. De Waal has been making ceramic vessels since he was a child, and while these are larger than the netsuke—his work here ranged from about 11⁄2 to 2 inches wide for the saucers and from 6 to 8 inches tall for the pots—they are similarly intended to stop time and inspire contemplation.
Display was of paramount importance. The exhibition’s centerpiece, a thousand hours (2012), consists of two containers—each 8 feet tall—together filled with 1,000 small cylindrical white vessels. The containers are composed of stacked boxes made of either white aluminium or clear acrylic. Since the vessels occupy transparent or translucent boxes toward the top and bottom of the columns, the viewer was forced to bend and stretch to examine them. Like many of the netsuke, the pots appeared like creatures, congregating in small groups.
The display units had the clean, no-nonsense character of Minimalist sculpture, particularly that of Donald Judd. In praise of shadows (2012) reads like a parody of Judd, repurpos- ing his aluminium stacks as supports. Small porcelain saucers rest on each of 12 black rectangular boxes, hung vertically on the wall. But rather than Minimalist serialism, de Waal’s works offer variations on a theme; the vessels are the products of a manual craft whose flow needs to be contained.
In an odd way, “a thousand hours” recalled another East-West trajectory—that of Yayoi Kusama. Only a short walk from the pristine rooms of the Alan Cristea Gallery, the Louis Vuitton storefront on New Bond Street hosted a life-size, red- wigged effigy of Kusama, whose riotous polka dots proliferated on clothes, shoes and handbags. If the Kusama/Vuitton objects are indices of art-turned-merchandise, something of the same pervaded de Waal’s exhibition, even as it told a completely different story of obsessive repetition and commerce, of furious coveting and collecting.
Photo: Detail of Edmund de Waal’s a thousand hours, 2012, 1,000 thrown porcelain vessels in two vitrines, approx. 8 by 7 by 7 feet overall; at Alan Cristea.