white island

– Edmund de Waal

This is the white island. The white of the salt flats, the foam breaking in the breeze. The white of the rock. The white haze. Light at midday so intense that your eyes lose distance.

This is a place of transition and exchange. You dig down and reach the Roman, then the Phoenician. All the gods are here.

All islands face the compass.

This is an island of refuge, a place of exile. In the 1930s the island becomes an agora: artists, writers, architects from Berlin, Vienna, Paris, walking the dusty hills. What is needed here? It is the question you can ask in this white landscape. Raoul Hausmann, Viennese artist and writer, photographs a well, a chair, a doorway, a woman sitting, a naked body on the edge of the sea. This is essential, he writes. He notes the structures of the village buildings, the way forms repeat. He fixates on the cast of shadows on white walls. This is a place he can start again.

Walter Benjamin, Berlin via Paris and everywhere else, walks here too – the slow pace of his city life slowing even more. He notices the economy: ‘Three chairs along the wall of the room opposite the entrance greet the stranger with assurance and weightiness as if three works by Cranach or Gauguin were leaning against the wall; a sombrero over the back of the chair is more imposing than a precious Gobelin tapestry.’ There are long days of ‘doing without countless things, less

so because they shorten life than because none of them is available, or when they are, they are in such bad condition that you are glad to do without them – electric light and butter, liquor and running water, flirting and reading the paper.’ The white island gives him ‘an image of such immutable perfection’ that hovers on the very brink of the invisible. He starts to write a history of solitude.

The chairs make Benjamin think that the secret of the value of things is that they have ‘enough space to take possession of whatever new positions they are called upon to fill.’ He starts to think about the aura of things.

White is not a stripping back to reveal, but a starting place. A page, a wall, a handful of white clay, porcelain, a block of stone. It is the pull and push between the object and its shadow.

Here are my white works. There are fragments of poetry, a winter song, part of an elegy by Osip Mandelstam. There are sculptures made for strong light: gold behind alabaster, porcelain held within vitrines. They are my three chairs glimpsed through an open door. They are my objects taken on a journey. All they need is light, architecture, a window. And I’ve written on the wall. I’ve always wanted to write on walls.

You want it now? The light changes. The senses get tired, writes Lydia Davis. You are on an island. Slow down.

When Paleolithic man made that first clay vessel with his hands, the force of the sun would have been felt overhead, and its energy forged this primal material – Prometheus was yet to steal fire from the gods to bestow on humankind. That vessel meant a giant leap toward something that would later be called culture. The form of primitive culture symbolised by a vessel.

A vessel held seeds, water, the ashes of the dead, or libations to the gods; some were raised high as symbols of fertility, others became a place where everything imaginable was welcome and all metamorphoses were possible.

The vessel was a repository of life itself.

One day, with the help of a blazing flame, an alchemist – indebted to myth – transfigured that elementary matter by turning white clay into gold (salt was then as valuable as gold); a gold that had the texture of silk, the vibration of a bell, and the milky translucency of a cloud. The stunning new vessel, made of porcelain, rose to dizzying heights as it journeyed the cosmic paths of destiny, its trajectory driven by the imperatives of destination and change. With the passing of time, it is lost among the strata of the centuries, mere fragments of its former glory.

Edmund de Waal, following the mythologized path that leads from Northern Europe to the Southern Mediterranean and Ibiza, faithful to the spirit of the pioneers who brought the modern movement to the island in the 1930s: the philosopher Walter Benjamin and the ‘Dadasoph’ Raoul Hausmann (1), has brought his vessels to meet the same light and the same symbols that illuminated them. The sun guides them – if not by itself, then by its shadow. There were earlier travellers, ancient voyagers who brought civilizations and cultures, but these hailed from the East. We know this thanks to surviving terracotta fragments, decorated with motifs born between the Euphrates and the Tigris.

The past becomes present when you pull at the thread.

On their arrival, these travellers – like many others – discovered the necessity of establishing contact with the divine balance that prevails in paradise, or be overwhelmed, like the whirlpool that swallowed Phlebas the Phoenician (2). De Waal integrates the golden ratio into his vessels, as well as in their arrangement in vitrines and on plinths of marble or alabaster, as did the collectors who assembled the Wunderkammer of the Enlightenment.

We are delighted to stage Edmund de Waal’s first exhibition in Spain, here at the Museu d’Art Contemporani d’Eivissa, a place where the memory of those journeys and former travellers is alive. The thread has become a loop. ‘Memory is a place,’ says de Waal (3). His works unfold and a mystery occurs at MACE in a building that was once an armoury, a mystery that is unveiled slowly.

At the same time, these vessels evidently open to the influences of the heavens – offertory vessels – speak in the clear yet silent voice of both the sacred and the profane, of the spirit and the flesh, of Apollo and Dionysus, and remind us of Greece and Rome, this work – epyllion – soothes and enchants us with its Ovidean hexameters (4).

The white of his porcelain reflects the rhythm of the light that enters through the windows according to the movement of the heavens. The exhibition is called white island because the artist worked with white porcelain. There is a work that incorporates salt from Las Salinas, called Eivissa – white, of course. The pulse of light is encrypted in the whiteness, and white is the symbol of life and death, of rising and falling. The soil of the island, free of venomous creatures and purified by the god Bes, has ceased being red to become white.


  1. Walter Benjamin (Berlin, 1892 – Portbou, 1940), Raoul Hausmann (Vienna, 1886 – Limoges, 1971).
  2. See T. S. Eliot, ‘Death by Water,’ The Waste Land (1922).
  3. Edmund de Waal: Irrkunst, exh. cat. (Berlin: Galerie Max Hetzler, 2016).
  4. Metamorphoses, Book XI. Song X which narrates the myth of Alcinous, is written in hexameters.