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Art review: Julian Stair: Art, Death and the Afterlife at the Sainsbury Centre, UEA, Norwich

04 August 2023

Susan Gray sees Julian Stair’s exhibition for the Sainsbury Centre, UEA

Jan Baldwin

Installation view of Julian Stair’s exhibition at the University of East Anglia

Installation view of Julian Stair’s exhibition at the University of East Anglia

THE ceramicist Julian Stair’s work creates a much-needed response to how death is honoured and memorialised in an increasingly secular society. Offended by the reduction of Covid’s 200,000 deaths to a statistical breakdown in official narratives, the artist wanted to respond to the pandemic’s toll in a way that did not belittle the grief felt by so many. Working with the bereavement charity CRUSE and Norwich’s Death Café, he used the material arts, especially the vessel with its symbolic and social associations, to mediate feelings of loss.

Stair has addressed death as an artistic subject for 25 years. In 2013, “Quietus”, his touring exhibition of cinerary jars and sarcophagi, was displayed at Winchester Cathedral. “Quietus” included Reliquary for a Common Man, commemorating his uncle-in-law Les Cox, whose ashes were incorporated into the clay of an urn.

Entering “Art, Death and the Afterlife” feels akin to visiting the British Museum’s Egyptian gallery, with a series of soaring Monumental Figural Jars in beige, black, cream, and terracotta rising from the floor and dominating the sightline. But the setting of the Sainsbury’s Centre’s mezzanine gallery, overlooking the University of East Anglia’s landscaped grounds, gives a sense of expansion rather than enclosure. This collective of ten figural pots represents the diversity of human shapes, based on Albrecht Durer’s drawings of the human figure. Marls, shales, and stoneware clays achieve the earthy palette.

To emphasise the millennia-old traditions of containing the departed in vessels, the ceramics are interspersed with objects from the Sainsbury’s permanent collection. A two-part Mayan effigy vessel (AD 400-500), made from terracotta and red paint, with an animal head topping a cross-legged human figure, is displayed next to a Byzantine silver reliquary box made in the sixth or seventh centuries. The curved, hinged lid has crosses on either side, and a central haloed figure in the centre, with fluted, fish shapes dividing the images. Beside the cabinet, Alberto Giacometti’s Standing Nude (1955) depicts a spectral body with elongated limbs. Heavy shading on the neck and shoulders emphasise the anatomy beneath the flesh. This dense shading continues up to the face, which is skull-like and has round, sunken eyes.

When Stair’s project was reported in the local press, families came forward, donating their loved one’s ashes to be part of a cinerary jar. Seven people’s ashes are incorporated into a series of Embodied Cinerary Jars. No families of faith were part of the project. The artist is a Humanist and says that “Birth is easy to celebrate, death is harder. But the religious and non-religious are equally devastated.”

Artists’ interventions and dialogues between permanent collections and temporary displays can be underwhelming, but “Art, Death and the Afterlife” brings the Sainsbury’s collection alive. As you come down from the mezzanine to the main gallery, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury’s focus on figurative art is all the more apparent, from the 16th-century Benin brass and iron Head of an Oba (king), to Henry Moore’s monumental Green Hornton stone Mother and Child (1932) and Chaïm Soutine’s portrait Lady in Blue, from a year earlier. Anthropomorphic pots, capturing raw memories of the pandemic’s death toll in the UK, have shone new light on centuries of art worldwide.

“Julian Stair: Art, Death and the Afterlife” is at the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norfolk Road, Norwich. www.sainsburycentre.ac.uk

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