One of the great moments in the life of an arts writer is when a talent one has watched for decades, admired and yet felt it was not fully realized, bursts into full bloom in a way that is unexpected and breathtaking. It’s much like a gardener patiently watching a plant that suddenly, but not without anticipation, produces unimagined flowers. This what Julian Stair has done with Quietus: The vessel, death and the human body, a touring exhibition now at its last venue (Somerset House, December 4, 2013 – January 26, 2014).
What makes Quietus all the more impressive is that it is not new, in the sense of a radical departure or reinvention that leaves the rest of the career as an aside, a warm-up routine, but this body of work is a summary of every step of Stair’s journey into ceramics and the vessel, with all their attendant history and symbolism. Quietus equally combines his academic studies and the depth of his experience with pottery, giving this exhibition palpable intelligence.
Clearly, I am beyond my first stage of encountering the work (which left me speechless), but even now the enormity of this achievement is difficult to encapsulate in language. It gives so much gravitas to potters and pottery, to the medium’s atavistic power that is enmeshed in its key role in human survival and civilization and it’s ancient and iconic place in creation myths, life, death, and the hereafter.
The exhibition has been to four venues in Britain; two were conventional white cube, art environments (it was conceived by James Beighton, the Senior Curator at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Middlesbrough and it traveled to the National Museum, Cardiff) and the other two were privileged, historic buildings that breathe the past and offer contextual wealth and complexity (the Winchester Cathedral and Somerset House, London). It is interesting to note in the images that follow how different the art looks and feels in its various homes.
The contemporary art venues are a more astringent agent, flushing most romance from the tableaux and heightening its conceptual and academic qualities. The ‘use’ of the vessels is felt less than their formal values: proportion, balance, and volume vs. mass. In the historic settings, the latter is backgrounded and a wonderful, reverential, elegiac mood takes over, the comfort of mourning. In the great, old buildings an uncomplicated acceptance of the vessels’ beauty is allowed. And beautiful they are; the clays are warm and texturally inviting, particularly given the scale of some of the funerary urns.
Anguished contemporary art babble is silenced. One submits to the music of tone, shape, and material. Seeing the work in both types of spaces gives a rounded completeness to experiencing the exhibition that one alone would not give.
Regardless of the work’s setting, there is precision (always the keystone of Stair’s carefully considered, minimalist art), which can easily be lost as works become this large. Increasing scale, particularly when everything is handmade, can come at the cost of undermining the control of line and shape. But Stair pulls this off magnificently; nothing is lost as his work become larger than himself (in more ways than one).
The exhibition is comprised of four parts. Columbarium (the name for a group resting place for human cremains contained in vessels, a niche format that has been in use for over 2,000 years) was ten meters high at mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, and contained 130 cinerary urns thrown in a variety of clays: porcelain, Wedgwood’s basalt, and stoneware. I am exceedingly cautious of this aesthetic of multiples in ceramics, perhaps the most misused device of the last decade, so I approached this with a little, albeit short-lived, cynicism.
It works totally and for two reasons. First, the installation soars powerfully to the ceiling—a momentum of death ascending into heaven or the universe. But second, and as important, each lidded pot is an independent artwork in itself. Maybe there are a few in the group that are below par, but I was not able to spot any. Each is imbued with its own creational sensitivity, distinct and poetic but never assertive, in a manner appropriate to its solemn role. This aspect of the show is a tour de force.
Unlike Edmund de Waal’s pots-a-plenty at his recent Gagosian exhibition in New York, the closer one gets to the Columbarium the better it gets and the more the fundamental power of the individual pots takes over. In other words, the many adds to the value of the assembly of pots, but they are not reliant upon the device. Interestingly, in the historic venues the Columbarium is not the star. In Winchester, the urns seem to lean over the balcony like spectators at a service.
At Winchester and Somerset, Inhumation is the next stage of the exhibition, part two. Inhumation, is comprised of sarcophagi for adults and children. Most have lead lids and they were made in brick factories, some took as much as six months to complete. In the historical settings they take on a presence that is mournful and more connected to the host building’s brick, mortar, and legends. Conventional thinking might categorize these as sculpture, but Quietus reminds us that they too are vessels, and that a container is a container.
They are very different objects than the pots, due to their heightened sensuality and nudity. The skin of these objects is smooth, the contours fluid, and the forms have a sexual elegance. More than anything else in the exhibition they symbolize, curiously, the erotic force of life.
Part three, Corpus, is of burial jars, some lidded and some open, that are thrown. The most impressive are the jars that are six to eight-feet in height. The most symbolic are those that take on human silhouettes.
The coup de grâce, literally, is part four, Memorium. It consists of a single, whitish cinerary jar on a lead plinth in the center of the room. It is dedicated to one man, Lesley James Cox; the room contains screens that offer his biographical narrative. He is not just any man. The man is Stair’s uncle Les. Nor is the cinerary jar just number 131. It was made (by agreement) with his ashes—bone china in the most literal sense.
In a review in The Guardian, Alan Sykes makes a poignant connection to the writings of Thomas Browne, specifically his book Urn Burial, in which Browne writes, “to drink of the ashes of dead relations (as Artemisia of her husband Mausolus) [seems] a passionate prodigality. He that hath the ashes of his friend, hath an everlasting treasure; where fire taketh leave, corruption slowly enters; In bones well burnt, fire makes a wall against itself.”
The effect of this homage is so personal, so without artifice (but not without some calculated theater), that any charge of pretension or bombast that may be leveled against the exhibition’s patent ambition is effectively neutralized. It is almost dizzying, as one plummets down from high art, abstraction, metaphor, and imagination until one’s feet hit the ground with a smack. Death suddenly becomes real, absolute, mourned, direct, personal, felt, and the province of the everyman. In the canon of pottery as art, Quietist is a new and daunting monument.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Installation view in Winchester cathedral of Julian Stair’s Quietus: The vessel, death and the human body. Image courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Jan Baldwin.
The British potter Julian Stair makes vessels to contain the human body after death. Built on a monumental scale, his pots and sarcophagi can only be fired in giant industrial kilns.