Lettres à Camondo

I had an invitation. Please consider making an exhibition here in this family house. This is not simple. What can you do in a place that is so storied? Where is off-limits? This house is not an empty house.

In his will Moïse de Camondo writes that he doesn’t want anyone to move thing. Don’t lend things. Keep the blinds down, don’t add anything. This is my gift to France, my marking of our becoming French. This house is to become a museum, a place of memory for my father and my son. It was a way of reaching into the future, an attempt to control what he could. He knew he could not protect Nissim, his son, killed in the war. He did not know that could not protect his daughter and son -in-law and his grandchildren.

I listen to him. And then I go to my studio and start to make things out of porcelain and gold and stone. I think of where I can place them so that they gently amplify some of the echoes of the house, hold some of the silences. I think that it is possible to be here, briefly. I think it is possible not to move things, but to add. For this is a house of archives, of things cared for and put away. You open one door of a cupboard and it is full of light-fittings, another and it has Louis Vuitton luggage. One room is full of gilded chairs. Beatrice’s dressing-room is shrouded.

It is a house of sounds from the kitchens, the butler’s pantry, the library. It echoes.

It is a house of letters. I wrote fifty-eight letters to Moïse de Camondo. It became a book for him, an attempt to ask him questions and to ask myself questions about belonging, about family, about collecting beautiful things, about being Jewish and creating a memorial.

I’ve made Moïse a desk. He had plenty of desks. In most rooms there is a place to sit and write. He loved furniture that moved, transformed. This is not a coincidence. He was part of a family who moved and transformed. My desk is in the form of a letter, words written into porcelain brushed over gold-leaf. I write I find this difficult.

I make small groups out of porcelain and oak and gold. I shuffle these porcelain fragments. I stack them onto the desk of the chef, the butler, Moïse wrote their lists, their orders to the tradespeople, to friends. I want to add another layer to the archive.

I put some shards into a drawer of the Sèvres table. I put some notes into the Library and a few bowls into the Porcelain room to keep Buffon’s beautiful birds company. There are some bowls stacked in the butler’s pantry because this is where the careful calibration of the passage of objects is focussed.

I make five black vitrines and put lead and shards in them. These are fragments shored against the ruins. These are stele for the family, for Nissim, Beatrice, Leon, Fanny and Bertrand. They are i.m., in memoriam.

And in the attics I hide some vessels. I put some into the oak-cupboards that house the archives. I put some the velvet-lined drawers in the pantry. Not everything has to be on view. Sometimes it is enough to inhabit a space. And walk away.

I put eight stone benches in the courtyard, places to sit and pause by yourself or with others. They are made from Hornton stone, golden-brown with beautiful dark bands running through them. They are polished smooth so that they feel worn away. A few edges have small gilded lead folds. You may not even notice them. They are my form of kintsugi, the manner in which some broken porcelain in China and Japan are repaired with lacquer and gold, a way of marking loss.

You cannot mend this house or this family. You can mark some of the broken places. You can mark them properly and with dignity, with love.

And then move away again, let the house be.