casualty list

– Edmund de Waal

…- I note
On a little scrap of paper the names of those
No longer around me. 


Brecht wrote four poems on the death of his friend Walter Benjamin. They are remarkable, spare texts, inventories or listings of people and places that are lost.  This need to name is a kind of collection, a holding in one place of presences and absences. They recall Benjamin’s own obsessional need to record: what epitaph can you write for a recorder of loss? These list-poems have the slightly ragged feeling of a grief that is very present. They feel as if they are unfinished, archival.


I work with things. I make them, from porcelain. And then I arrange them, find places to put them down, on shelves or within vitrines, in houses and galleries and museums, move them around so that they are in light or in shadow. They are installations, or groupings, or a kind of poetry. They have titles, a phrase or a line that helps them on their way in the world. 


I have called this new work casualty list after Brecht’s poem die Verlustliste.


It is a vitrine that contains a series of materials: porcelain, steel, aluminium, graphite, gold. It has emptiness and space. The small black boxes were in my studio when I moved in. It had been used as an ammunition factory for fifty years. It has brokenness: a small shard of porcelain. Shards matter – they record a moment of disjuncture, indicate a loss. It has moments of repetition or cadence. 


And it has gold. Some of the gilded porcelain is obvious and some hidden, some broken, some complete. The gold creates another listing of its own. I’ve used it because of Benjamin’s apprehension that ‘we are alone with particular things, which range about us in their silence...that even the people who haunt out thoughts then partake in this steadfast, confederate silence of things. The collector “stills” his fate. And that means he disappears in the world of memory.’(1) There is something about the fugitive beauty of the change of light and shadow around gold that makes me think of how memory works, how a casualty list navigates the space between the silence of things and the silence of people.


  1. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA:The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 866.