One of the world’s most acclaimed potters, Julian Stair’s work is well know for its subtle palette of greys, reds and white, as well as its variety of scale; from domestic to monumental. In his forthcoming solo exhibition Stair addresses the containment of the human body in death. Quietus features a series of artist-made funerary works, from cinerary jars to life-size sarcophagi, drawing upon the symbolic language of ceramic vessels and offering an alternative means of engaging with the challenging subject. Aesthetica spoke to Julian about Quietus and his future projects.
A: What is it that inspired you to focus your exhibition on human containment in death?
JS: This exhibition is an attempt to mediate what the British Philosopher Simon Critchley refers to ‘as the last great taboo of modern society’. I believe that art becomes richer when it engages with the social fabric of human culture.
A. Does Quietus look at the relations between religion and death?
JS: The practices surrounding death are often regarded as a difficult subject in contemporary society but I am offering an artistic rather than a religious response. However, I have drawn on the historical role that ceramic vessels have played in rituals surrounding death, and on the many ancient death and creation myths that inform society.
A: Do you have a particular favourite from this collection?
JS: Figural Jar II: this is one of the last pieces I made, and in this pot I attempt to articulate my ideas about the relationship between the vessel and the body. I hope that the figurative nature of the piece, its scale and the material from which it is made evoke a visceral response that complements its conceptual and visual qualities.
A: What first inspired you to work with ceramics?
JS: It’s difficult to articulate, but somehow creating pots is a process of making ideas tangible and material; a practical philosophy. It’s a belief that pottery, the simplest of all things, can articulate the most complex of ideas. It’s about the fusion of the haptic and the optic, it’s about the ambition of scale, and the intimacy of the hand held.
A: As a potter, what are the central concerns in your practice?
JS: One of the central aims of my practice is to demonstrate what the cultural historian Philip Rawson referred to as the ‘transformative’ relationship between ceramic vessels and human form. The metaphor of the vessel as ‘body’ has been prominent throughout much of ceramic history, evident in the use of physical terms to describe the constituent parts; foot, neck, shoulder, lip, waist and belly. The analogy between the vessel as container, its ability to hold, and the body as a physical container of the human spirit further reinforces the somatic identity of the vessel. Ceramic forms remind us that we are physical creatures living in a material world.
A: What can we expect to see in the future?
JS: My next project is an installation for York Museum in St Mary’s, a deconsecrated medieval church, in the summer of 2013. It’s too early to be specific but ideas of the body, haptic perception and material engagement will be central to the work.
Julian Stair Quietus, 13 July – 11 November 2012, mima Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Centre Square, Middlesbrough, TS1 2AZ. www.visitmima.com, later touring to National Museum Cardiff and Winchester Cathedral.
Photography: Jan Baldwin