Julian Stair: Quietus
Vessel, Death and the Human Body
13 July - 11 November 2012
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
Ageing and death is a concept which binds all humans together. No one is exempt; it is a natural process of life yet it is held as a social taboo. In his first major museum solo exhibition Julian Stair explores what the British Philosopher Simon Critchley refers to 'as the last great taboo of modern society'.
The title Quietus refers to a final moment, a finishing point. The exhibition features a series of funerary works, from cinerary jars to life size sarcophagi, addressing the containment of the human body after death. Stair draws upon the language of clay and offers an alternative engagement with this challenging subject. 'He wants to give his audience - habituated to averting its gaze from death - a chance to look it in the face. The means he does are matter a fact, solid rather than symbolic.' Glen Adamson.
The exhibition deals with the fundamental concepts how human societies have confronted death. The practices surrounding death are often regarded as a difficult subject in our contemporary secular society; Stair is offering an artistic rather than a religious response. The past can resonate in the present to articulate our anxieties and experiences. He has drawn on the historical role that ceramic vessels have played in rituals surrounding death.
The first piece you are confronted by struck me the most in this exhibition-Columbarium, a tower of cinerary Jars in shades of terracotta and brick clay, each in its own separate cube that spans from floor to ceiling. It is reminiscent of a Cathedral space and makes you look upwards, it almost feels endless leaving you destabilised. The columbarium is ten meters high with 130 vessels, every one slightly different, symbolizing life- the individual and collective. It reminded me of family mausoleums in Roman Catholic cemeteries. A very humbling experience.
The next two rooms develop this theme with horizontal life-size sarcophagi, and a series of large vessels, their heightreflecting human scale and their potential purpose. They reference a tradition known as Extreme Inhumation where the body is buried upright. They call to mind the body without depicting one, exploring the relationship between the vessel and the human form. The metaphor of the vessel as 'body' has been evident throughout ceramic history with the descriptive terminology used; foot, neck, shoulder, lip, waist and belly. The analogy between the vessel as container and the body as a physical container of the human spirit further reinforces their connection. "My subject is the containment of the body in death, working from the scale of cinerary jars for the cremated body, through to trying to contain the body fully extended in burial" Julian Stair
The monumental ceramic pieces were made on a residency at three different brick factories using industrial kilns, yet still have the artist touch. There are echoes of the industrial process yet resonate soberness and grandeur providing a surreal contemplative space.Whilst relating to a universal theme, the exhibition concludes with an intensely personal work. A single bone china cinerary jar, round, white and matt is spotlighted on a lead plinth. This is Stair's Reliquary of a Common Man, 2012, made from the cremated remains of Lesley James Cox, Julian's late family member; whose life we are shown through an accompanying Super-8 film, a slide show of portraits and narration.
Stairs use of clay underpins this exhibition; the connotations of the raw material, beautifully crafted vessels and societies daily engagement with this material. The relationship that humans have to the ceramic vessel form is one of the most fundamental, from most essential to the most precious we engage with it on a daily basis and it has been the primary material throughout human history. His work re-examines familiar historical pottery within a contemporary context and celebrates the cultural and sensory aspects of pottery, how the simple vessel can express complex ideas and themes.
In contemporary Western society, with its borderless identity, loss of past beliefs and traditions the question of our humanity is ambivalent. There are no boundaries to the human experience. What was once thought impossible has now become reality. This exhibition is a reminder of our mortality, It shatters the quest for eternal youth, our fascination with material possessions and the cosmetic surgery we turn to, it reminds of the only thing that is certain and universal in life. Stair expresses through clay our most fundamental feelings towards our mortal bodies. The work engages with the human condition in a tender and thought provoking way. The collection of Stair's beautiful funerary vessels, confront our fears of death and our struggles with mortality. It is a poignant exhibition exploring a universal theme while also expressing personal tragedies. While marking death the exhibition also celebrates life. In contemporary western culture death is hidden, when perhaps ones life should be celebrated in mausoleums or on mantels. Instead of the denial and fear of death perhaps we should celebrate and remember our lost loved ones. It is a deeply spiritual and brave exhibition which evoked many memories for me. In our fast pace culture this exhibition provided a meditative and completive environment.