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. Ageing and death is a concept that binds all humans together. No one is exempt; it is a natural process of life yet it is held as a social taboo Julian Stair explores what the British Philosopher Simon Critchley refers to 'as the last great taboo of modern society'.
The practices surrounding death are often regarded as a difficult subject in our contemporary secular society; Stair is offering his artistic response.He has drawn on the historical role that ceramic vessels have played in rituals surrounding death. I enter the cathedral to the voices of a choir. You have to walk towards the back of the cathedral to reach the Stair’s work. The setting of the cathedral immediately sets the tone of the exhibition and depending on the associations you have with a religious space different feelings will inevitably be conjured and will determine your initial feelings entering the exhibition. I thought my initial reaction to the cathedral setting would heavily influence my perception of Stair’s work. However, although the work fits perfectly within the space and is very sensitive to its surroundings it still manages to speak about the universality of death not just a Christian response.
You are confronted with a series of large vessels, their height reflecting human scale and their potential purpose, a very humbling experience. 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. I see the vessels as another form of portraiture. Your thoughts turn to fitting inside each vessel and the space that they occupy. You have to navigate round each vessel they speak of negative and positive space, the immense volume and yet also their emptiness an absence. The external presence they command along with the internal void. The vessels push out with an energy created from their making space pushing out but with the dead space pulling you in. The monumental ceramic pieces were made on a residency at three different brick factories using industrial kilns, yet still have the artist touch. The clay is left unglazed and raw. You can see the joins, grog and scrape marks, where the clay oozes out between each joined layer. The raw brick clay makes you want to feel it’s rough texture and stand very close to each vessel to inspect its surface, the bubbles, blisters, scrape marks. You engage closely with each vessel and cannot help but touch the skin of each sarcophagi. The only details found on the pots are the circular joins where the slip is rough and oozing out expressing their handmade quality. The rest of the vessel is left plain contrasting with the ornate, heavily decorated cathedral. The colours echo the cathedral’s tiles, ochre’s, whites, creams, black, and terracotta.
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 and celebrates the cultural and sensory aspects of pottery, how the simple vessel can express complex ideas and themes. The material, rawness and minimal lines emphasises the universality and speaks about returning to earth. Where we came from and where we all will return to. Clay is used as a synonym to death and a means for considering the life cycle.
You next encounter horizontal life-size sarcophagi placed along a wide corridor. This positioning affects your interaction with the pieces. You walk starring downwards towards them as though you are viewing a passage of time. The light through the stain glass is dim and peaceful. Creating the optimum pensive atmosphere and lighting of the raw terracotta clay to give it a softness and shadow. They lack any decoration or glaze and do not try to compete with cathedral. The raw, bold, and minimal aesthetic defines them as contemporary symbols. You reflect on your own mortality. You sense their weight and the depth of the void. The Minimalistic forms are in the unison with the simplicity of the subject he is bespeaking. Simplicity is the key word to describe the whole exhibition as it speaks about the eternal subject – death, through the symbolic language of ceramics. At the same time it conveys opposites; Light/dark Life/death Presence/absence negative / positive.
Surrounding the choir enclosure different shaped vessels look down upon you. They are reminiscent of Roman statues standing above buildings. They varying in sizes and shape and tone of clay, a few stand out from the rest in glazed porcelain. They are simple vessel forms that hold their own against the over whelming beauty and intricate carvings they reside over.
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. 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. Death is the one thing that unites everybody, the one thing that is certain in life. The exhibition is simple in idea and concept yet universal and profound at the same time. 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 us of the only thing that is certain and universal in life. The collection of Stair's beautiful funerary vessels
confronts our fears of death and our struggles with mortality. It is a deeply spiritual and brave exhibition. In our fast pace culture this exhibition provided a meditative space and the luxury of completive time for me. However, what I want to question is what the cathedral surroundings added to the work that the gallery space could not. I enjoyed the works’ simplicity rather than any religious connotations, the power of the ceramic objects to relate to the body and its mortality. 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 marking death, the exhibition also celebrates life. In contemporary western culture death is hidden, when perhaps one’s life should be celebrated in mausoleums or on mantels.