It stings the heart, this installation by Edmund de Waal. The ceramicist and author has lined the walls of his room within a room in the British Museum with books by writers in exile. Albert Camus’s ‘Exile and the Kingdom’, Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. Shelf after shelf of stories written by people far from home, thinking of home.
De Waal wants you to come and sit in this quiet space, read the books and write your name in the ones that matter to you. He wants you to ‘remember those who have been exiled and those who are still in exile’. It left me thinking of my grandmother, who fled Poland for an England that didn’t want her, of my mother, who spent all but three years of her life outside her ‘native’ country, of all the stories of immigrants risking their lives in boats crossing the Mediterranean, of people fleeing persecution and war. It hurt.
The walls are also lined with de Waal’s stunningly fragile white porcelain sculptures – unbearably brittle cups and shapes, arranged in reference to a version of the Talmud printed in multiple languages in Venice. A beautiful tribute to an itinerant culture.
This is the third version of this installation; previous ones were in Dresden and Venice. It’s not half as atmospheric or beautiful as the Venetian one (I didn’t see the German one), which is a shame, but this little library of exile, this space of escape and reflection, still left me full of emotion. And it will probably make you feel similar things, because all of us, somewhere along the line, have a link to exile – family, friends, whatever. We can all relate somehow. I wrote my name in a book that mattered to me; I wrote my mother’s name in a book she would have loved. Before this library heads off to its next destination – the destroyed library of Mosul – go write your name in one and help this work communicate across barriers in a world still intent on putting them between people.