Exhibition Essays

it’s not what you know, it’s what you don’t know

September 2015

risking breakages

Lily Hacking

I should start by saying, outright, that I haven’t seen this exhibition. I’m on the other side of the world right now, so the title it’s not what you know, it’s what you don’t know seems particularly pertinent. There is a lot I don’t know about this exhibition. 

I’m making do with photographs; phone close to my face, peering at a stream of white-light blue-bright images of ceramic vessels; my thumb swiping down, down, down. Some pots are squat, others tall and lean. Smooth. Perfect. Puckered. Polished. Crooked. Some are split, their sides collapsing. But I can't see inside these pots. I cannot touch them or turn them over. I cannot sip my morning tea, my afternoon or after dinner tea from them. I cannot turn one upside down to trap a fly. Or take one to fill with water in which to place these purple thistle blooms, bought just now from the man who doesn't talk outside the Brixton train station in South London.

Looking at these images is like glimpsing an odd, rather beautiful crime scene. There are shards of broken pottery spread across the wooden floor, evidence, a memoriam to some prior event or trauma. A large fragment unhelpfully props up the leg of a table at an alarming angle, placing the vessels on the table top in a precarious situation, perhaps destined to meet the same shattering fate. The white bodies of these vessels are covered in dripping gold paint, calling to mind the Japanese ceramic tradition known as Kintsugi; where instead of disguising breakages, broken ceramics are repaired using lacquer dusted with platinum or gold. Yet these objects have not been broken and meticulously repaired. Rather, these white pots have been covered by copious amounts of exuberantly applied gold spray-paint. In his introduction to the exhibition White, British ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal writes, ‘white is a place to begin and a place to end.'1 Here, it seems it is both—as these sedate white forms at once meet their end and a new golden, reckless beginning.   

Against the tall windows, two chairs sit either side of an open wooden box, upon which is set a large white, modernist style teapot. At least it gives the impression of a teapot. It has two arms, one long and one short. It is not immediately obvious which is the handle and which is the spout. Beside it are four irregular shaped mugs. Visitors are encouraged to sit here, in one of these chairs, and drink a cup of kawakawa tea. Perhaps they will flick through one of the books that rest upon the windowsill: The Book of Symbols, Heal Yourself, Elements of Mineralogy and Medicines of the Maori.  ‘I think’, says McDonald, ‘When you hold something like this, not uniform … sipping or eating from it, feeling its shape, its edges … it is an experience in mindfulness.’2 McDonald hopes then, that visitors to the exhibition will spend time here, in this space; that they will slow their pace a little and take note of their surroundings and the objects that temporarily inhabit it. They might take one of these mugs—covered in a brown-black glaze, applied so thickly that it has bubbled and cracked—and hold it for a while. Looking at photographs, I can imagine how they would feel in your hands. Smooth to touch at first, before your fingers discover the rough spots, bumps, dips and ridges.

Many of the objects in this exhibition are not the prettiest of things—they are too rough, too rude to fit some idealised standard of beauty—but then it seems that is exactly the point. Wabi-sabi, the Japanese Buddhist aesthetic concept that relishes the beauty inherent in imperfection and temporality, informs much of McDonald’s making, and has shaped her thinking around this exhibition.3 Alongside the gold spray-painted pots, and knobbly glazed mugs, the bodies of other pieces have been intentionally pierced, their edges ripped by inserting a needle into the clay. ‘There is beauty in broken and flawed things’, says McDonald, ‘I’m interested in that underlying fragility, and also in this kind of lack of control and what that can do for people.’4Between beginning her ceramics practice just two years ago, and the opening of this exhibition, McDonald’s father passed away. She spoke about his death in her artist talk, which I watched from a distance.FTN-5 In fact there was a lot of talk of death, and loss, and grief, which is perhaps surprising for an exhibition that seems, at least at first, to be about pots. But McDonald is very open about the fact that, for her, this process of making began to take on a form of meditation. ‘The joy that I get from being in a meditative headspace, and the joy that I get from not talking and not being with other humans is the most blissful space.’6 No doubt some of these pots were made from this place of quiet, contemplative solitude. Others from pure delight at this newly discovered art form. And some perhaps from a need to make something physical, tangible, out of something much more abstract. ‘Like loss, you have to surrender to [making], you have to give yourself over.’7

This ultimate surrender conceivably comes after spending hours in the studio. After all, each pot in this exhibition represents not only a period of making—throwing or building, drying, firing, glazing and firing again—but also a unit of time that adds up to many hours, days even. In this way, the trajectory of each object’s making represents a unique narrative that coexists with other narratives within this exhibition. There is of course the maker’s own narrative — the when, what, why and how of a vessel—and the corresponding events and emotions that existed on a particular day in the studio. And then there is the history of each object’s journey since creation. Some pots have been gifted to family and friends and loaned for this exhibition—they have sat on shelves and in cupboards, they have been used and washed and worn. We assume that at least one has been broken since its arrival in the gallery, the shards spread across the floor. And now yet another narrative emerges in the inclusion and positioning of each piece. The ceramics exist in relation to one another, the space and the viewer; their placement designed to guide the visitor around both the objects and the space they inhabit. Again, I cannot help but turn to the words of Edmund de Waal, asked about ceramics exhibitions in a recent interview. A single object, he said, can be ‘a very beautiful noun, but as soon as you’ve got many, you’ve got the beginnings of a sentence, of a phrase, of a paragraph, of a page’.8

I was reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale when I first began to think about writing a response to this exhibition. I paused at the following sentence, and read it again, and again, until people and pots became entangled in my thinking:

It's strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries, as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever-expanding perimeters of our lives.9

Now, looking back through the photographs of the exhibition, I cannot help but see all of these ceramic forms—vases, mugs and bowls—as innately figurative, as individual bodies or characters in an unfolding narrative. Like people, each piece is shaped and moulded over time, until at some point a form emerges. And I wonder how great our capacity is for change once we reach a certain age, whether we become harder to work with, less malleable, increasingly resistant to the potential to reshape ourselves.  

The objects in this exhibition are fragile. Made from clay, they are imminently breakable, yet here they are not treated as precious. They are not shown on shelves, behind glass or barriers. From the ceramic shards on the floor, to the crooked table, to the pots perched on stools, this exhibition embraces the vulnerability of ceramic objects. It questions the very nature of our attachment to beautiful things. It feels like an offering, and also perhaps a gentle provocation: a challenge to risk acknowledging that which we don’t know and to find beauty in being open, fragile, and ultimately breakable.


  • 1.

    Edmund de Waal, exhibition catalogue White (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2015).

    This exhibition was held in conjunction with the release of de Waal’s book The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), a history of porcelain interwoven with personal narratives.

  • 2.

    Skype conversation with the artist, 18 September 2015.

  • 3.

    Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers (Albany: Stone Bridge Press, 1994).

  • 4.

    Skype conversation with the artist, 18 September 2015.

  • 5.


  • 6.

    Skype conversation with the artist, 18 September 2015.

  • 7.

    Skype conversation with the artist, 18 September 2015.

  • 8.

    Alex Clark, ‘Edmund de Waal: You know what you should eat off? White plates’, The Guardian, 18 October 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/18/edmund-de-waal-you-know-what-you-should-eat-off-white-plates

  • 9.

    Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, 1985 (London: Vintage, 2011), p. 238.