The Matter of Life and Death
Within the atmospheric space of York St Mary's The Matter of Life and Death a major installation by potter Julian Stair explored themes and perceptions surrounding death. Shown alongside groups of archaeological objects selected by the artist from the rich collections of York Museums Trust, this contemporary interpretation of the rituals surrounding death demonstrated the enduring tradition and life affirming nature of funerary ware.
Title The Matter of Life and Death Historical Sites York St Marys Lead Artists Julian Stair Artwork Installation of new ceramics and archaeology collections from York Museums Trust Partners / Stakeholders York Museums Trust, University of Westminster, Arts & Humanities Research Council, Arts Council England, University of York Budget 18,000 Development October 2011- May 2013 Dates 9 May – 7 July 2013
Potter Julian Stair curated an installation of his own ceramic works, juxtaposed with historical objects made for containing the human body in death, drawn from York Museums Trust’s extensive archeological collection. Sited in York St Mary’s, a deconsecrated medieval church, this exhibition revealed how different cultures have approached this profound rite of passage. From Neolithic and Bronze age funerary urns to an English casket designed to contain a human heart, Stair's response animated the historical collections and demonstrated how artifacts associated with the subject of death can also be a celebration of life.
The main objectives of The Matter of Life and Death were to:
- Present a new interpretation of a historic building and collection
- Present new work by a contemporary artist
- Trial a new way of using the space to display collections
- Invite the artist to engage with the site as a venue to present his work and research
- Develop new work for a site-specific installation
- Pursue his research aims as part of the ‘Ceramics in the Expanded Field’ AHRC research project
- Communicate his ideas through the installation
- Encourage audience engagement with the theme of the installation
- Offer learning opportunities through the installation, interpretation and talks.
The Matter of Life and Death was developed over a period of 19 months; following an AHRC funding bid, Julian Stair was approached and invited to propose an idea for a new exhibition, and then work began on identifying objects from the collections, and developing new artworks.
The new and existing work that was loaned for the exhibition from Julian Stair, and the pieces selected from York Museums Trust historic collections were all condition checked by specialist curators, and a team of experienced technicians worked with Stair to install the works onsite.
The fragile historic objects were moved by archeology curators from York Museums Trust, who also advised the technicians on the handling and installation of the pieces onsite, and completed a final site visit before the exhibition opened to ensure that the works were safely positioned and installed.
As a deconsecrated church, the environment, narrow steps, and limited access routes of York St Mary’s created a number of challenges, causing constraints on the scale and nature of the work that could be installed. Some of the objects that Stair wanted to display in the exhibition included two large stone sarcophagi from Yorkshire Museum's collection, with lids weighing several tonnes. These proved impossible to include; maneuvering them would have required specialist equipment and manpower, and access to the space was too prohibitive. The environmental conditions within the church also meant that some of the organic materials that the artist wanted to show were unable to be displayed.
Despite some of the difficulties encountered, the exhibition’s subject matter and content worked harmoniously with the heritage site and helped visitors to understand the themes expressed in both the building and the objects.
The Matter of Life and Death filled the vast interior of the York St Mary’s with a multitude of vessels of varying sizes, colours and textures. They were presented on stone coloured plinths that blended with the natural stone of the walls. The work was predominantly lit by the natural daylight from the stained glass windows, which continuously transformed the atmosphere as the light levels altered throughout the day.
Ranging from funerary jars, bronze age pots through to contemporary work that spanned approximately 4500 years, Stair meticulously positioned the vessels to achieve a careful balance of colour, texture, and scale, creating unexpected connections between the contemporary and historical. The objects were on open display rather than cased, allowing visitors to get close and engage with the objects, and the labeling and information was kept to a minimum allowing the form and material quality; Julian Stair’s brick clay, earthenware and porcelain and the historical objects; clay, gypsum, stone and alabaster to become the focus.
By taking the historic objects out of the context of the museum and placing them within the symbolic space of the church, it was anticipated that visitors would view the objects, the artists who made them and the people who were buried in them in a new light.
Julian said: “In the last few thousand years art has changed significantly, but our perception of death and our reaction to people close to us dying has remained remarkably consistent.
“The artefacts relating to the rituals of death can be seen as a window into the lives of our ancestors who used art and objects to help them try and come to terms with death just as we do today.
“We can still relate to these objects and be moved by them because the feelings which inspired their creation haven’t changed. It was a dream to be given the chance to work with the vast collections of York Museums Trust and then to create new works as a response.”
The budget for the exhibition was £18,000 with a significant proportion put towards transport costs, technicians and interpretation including panels, photographs, film and booklet. Artist’s fees, the exhibition build, private view and the learning and events programme used approximately 20% of the budget. Additionally, the artists travel and accommodation expenses were funded by the AHRC project budget.
York St Mary’s has been used by York Museums Trust as a venue for showing contemporary art since 2002 with one installation per year running from spring to autumn, however in 2013 the programme was extended to include three installations to fill the void left by the temporary closure of York Art Gallery. As well as offering an opportunity to see a range of art in the city of York, the increased programme at York St Mary’s also promotes and builds anticipation for the reopening of York Art Gallery in 2015.
Marketing for The Matter of Life and Death targeted 3 different audiences; those interested in the contemporary studio ceramics collection usually shown at York Art Gallery, the contemporary arts audience familiar with York St Mary’s and the Yorkshire Museum audience interested in archeology.
The marketing material for The Matter of Life and Death included a film about the exhibition, a leaflet about the installation, and the marketing team approached regional, national and specialist journals and publications for coverage. A press call was held the day before the installation where Julian Stair was available for interview, and a private view was held the same evening at which Dr Joann Fletcher (York University’s professor of archaeology and star of the BBC’s recent series on Egypt) officially opened the installation. The project was also publicised on the University of Westminster’s and Julian Stair’s websites.
The installation was open to the public 7 days a week, and during the exhibition a range of learning activities and events were programmed alongside. A series of five free curators lunchtime talks were scheduled, an illustrated lecture by Julian Stair for members of the Northern Potters Association and the Friends of York Art Gallery and two ‘Family Saturday’ drop-in events with the opportunity to work with an artist and make clay pots took place during the of the installation.
There were 8558 visitors to the exhibition over a two-month period and two sites were provided where visitors could leave comments; the general response to the exhibition was extremely positive. Detailed survey information is still being gathered at the time of writing and the installation will also be evaluated as part of the University of Westminster and the AHRC research project.
- Installation - The Matter of Life and Death was a successful pilot for presenting objects on plinths outside the museum setting and challenging the traditional presentation of museum objects in a new ‘open display’.
- Site Responsive Subject - The sensitive display of human remains and related objects within the context of a spiritual and historic site, enabled visitors to engage with subject matter of death, to learn and be enlightened by Julian Stair’s interpretation of it through his work and practice.
- Historical Objects - A major concern with the ‘open display’ was the fragile nature of many of the objects. Many are reconstructed, most were made of low-fired clay or plaster, both of which are prone to crumble or deterioration, particularly in the environmental conditions found in the church. Problems were avoided by confining the exhibition to the central space in the Nave, this ensured that the two invigilators could maintain a view of all the objects. Plinths were made large enough that if anything did tip over, it would not immediately fall to the stone floor and smash, they also created a distance between viewers which discouraged touching, whilst still maintaining the intimate connection with the objects from the open display.
- Heritage Site - The building presented a number of challenges, including access problems, environmental and installation issues and significant attention was given to securing works without damage or disturbance to the site. A building conservation expert would have been called if a project would potentially impact on the fabric of the building.