The opening lines to one of David Bowie’s final songs, ‘Lazarus’, had many thinking that the great musician and performer had written his own epitaph, a public farewell to the world just days before he died. In a world where most pop songs churn out familiar tales of love and heartache, it’s unusual to see a song about death topping the charts. But how we feel about death, grief, and the brief flame of human life, continues to be a topic of fascination for artists, writers and musicians alike.
A recent V&A acquisition that boldly explores these themes is a group of artworks by the British artist Julian Stair, from his exhibition ‘Quietus’. Having produced thrown, domestic tableware earlier in his career, in the past few years Stair has shifted to creating works that explore links between the vessel, death, and the human body. These take the form of large scale monumental jars and life size sarcophagi, as well as smaller cinerary jars designed to contain ashes. When looking at these vessels, Stair directly confronts us with the inevitable arrival of death, and prompts us to question the different ways we treat and contain the body after we die.
An interesting element of the ‘Quietus’ show was seeing how these funerary containers interacted with the spaces they were displayed in. First shown at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima), they were an incredibly arresting sight. The sheer scale of the jars, their natural earthy tones and funereal qualities all provided a stark contrast to the brightly lit white cube style gallery.
After mima, ‘Quietus’ travelled to National Museum Wales, Winchester Cathedral and Somerset House in London, each offering a distinct yet immersive atmosphere in which to experience the vessels. Once the show had drawn its final breath, the V&A were able to acquire a selection of the works: three small cinerary jars, an infant-sized sarcophagus, and one monumental jar.
These works were recently put on display at the V&A in Room 141: Contemporary Ceramics, placed together in one corner of the gallery. The double height room and sombre grey walls provide yet another distinct setting for these vessels, this time in dialogue with other contemporary artworks in the gallery. To display them we wanted to echo the original ‘Quietus’ show at mima, which meant placing one of the cinerary jars unusually high up on the wall, resting on a shelf about seven metres above ground level. To do this our technicians erected a tower of scaffolding and worked at a nerve-wracking height. It’s exciting to be able to use the full height of the room and have objects in surprising and unexpected places. Those visitors inclined to let their eyes wander are usually greeted by Edmund de Waal’s ‘Signs and Wonders’, an installation of 425 vessels sitting up high in the ceiling’s dome. Now Julian Stair’s cinerary jar creeps up the wall towards it.
With the two remaining jars installed at eye level, five people were required to carefully move the monumental jar across the museum and into place. Finally, the child-sized sarcophagus was laid to rest beside it, and the group was complete. These powerful and skilfully made pieces are currently on display in Room 141: Contemporary Ceramics on the 6th floor. To feel their full impact when you visit just remember Bowie’s advice to ‘Look up’, you never know who or what might be up there, looking back down.