March 11, 2023, marked three years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Since then, nearly 7 million people have died worldwide from the virus, including 200,000 in the United Kingdom. Ceramic artist and art historian Julian Stair knew this was an event he needed to commemorate. For an exhibition at the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, UK, Stair used ceramics to bring death to the forefront of public conversation and honor the lives of eight people with cinerary jars.
Last fall, Stair and his team called for volunteers to donate a loved one’s ashes to become part of the sculptures. (Stair and his team decided against narrowing their pool to only those whose loved ones died of COVID-19 or even in the past few years.) Seven families donated family members’ ashes for Stair’s show, working with Stair and grief counseling organizations Cruse Bereavement and Norwich Death Cafe to decide how to incorporate the ashes into the works and support them through the emotional process.
On view through September 17, Julian Stair: Art, Death and the Afterlife features 30 new works by the artist, including eight monumental sculptures (up to 6.5 feet high), seven embodied vessels, and several smaller pieces. With curves that mimic the human form, his ceramics tap into the centuries-long practice of using clay to honor the dead. Stair has curated a selection of contemporary and historical works from the Sainsbury Centre’s collection that also deal with mortality, such as ancient Cycladic marble figures and the pottery of Magdalene Odundo.
Stair told Hyperallergic that the impact of the pandemic’s immense casualties was the impetus for his show at the Sainsbury Centre. He believes the public needs to adequately acknowledge the emotional and psychological toll such a loss took. Through his art, he hopes to broach this sensitive topic.
“Art has the capacity to engage with the subject of death — what the New York-based English philosopher Simon Critchley describes as ‘the last great taboo,” he said.
Stair used these conversations with family members to inform his creative process, playing with form, color, and finish to reflect each deceased person. Following the exhibition, the families will have their ashes returned to them now memorialized with a cinerary jar.
“This project gave the families a specific aim and, subsequently, agency in the unpredictable and destabilizing nature of grief,” Stair said.