Julian Stair and Clare Twomey talk to Mella Shaw about Legacy: Two works on hope and memory
“I was delightfully surprised,” says Clare Twomey. We’re drinking coffee in Julian Stair’s airy open plan studio in South London, and I’ve just asked both artists about their experience of being brought together by the Crafts Council in a new joint exhibition. Legacy: Two works on hope and memory sees two extant pieces curated to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Twomey continues. “It’s a respectful space for our work to sit and hold dialogues under this curatorial framework that’s about hope, that’s about loss, that’s about remembrance. The theme allows us to have a shared conversation.”
“They address both sides of the coin,” adds Stair. “The idea of memory and memorial. Clare’s work is a projection forward by people who are living, and that’s about hopes and aspirations, where you are at a given moment in time. I suppose mine is more of an assessment of looking back.”
Twomey’s contribution to this joint exhibition is Everyman’s Dream, initially made as a response to Sir John Soane and his legacy, as part of the 2013 exhibition Marking the Line: Ceramics and Architecture. Using her signature approach of public engagement she asked a thousand men what their legacy for the future would be.
I asked her how the idea of commemoration for the war sat with her original intention for the work. “As the title indicates it's a dialogue framed around a man's understanding of his ambition in his lifetime,” she replies. “So the question, the dialogue, was from one man to future men. The thousand legacies that are written on these bowls talk of the future and another thousand men. It felt like a very direct conversation in understanding the loss of so many lives within the war.”
By contrast Stair’s piece focuses very much on an individual. Titled Reliquary for a Common Man, it is a personal and moving memorial to his uncle-in-law, Leslie Cox, and he describes it as “the keystone” of his recent exhibition Quietus.
Stair threw a cinerary urn from clay mixed with some of Cox’s ashes – the rest are contained inside it. He feels strongly that “the material side of it is fundamentally important,” and through a process of making he is “taking an idea and making that idea material and then engaging with that idea. Making a metaphor tangible again.”
In addition to the pot, there is a film compiled from family footage in collaboration with filmmaker Mark Wilcox, Stair’s brother-in-law. Stair’s intention was to make more than a memorial: the piece “is really a person; some of the molecules that were part of his body.”
In addition to dealing with themes of “the containment of the body in death, through vessels”, Stair explains his ambition “to position art as a material mediation of how we come to terms with death, and ultimately, that is a celebration of life. So with Leslie I wanted it to be a celebration of a life, not a kind of feeling of loss and sadness.”
There is a powerful friction between Stair’s hand-thrown vessel and Twomey’s use of mass-produced slipware. I ask Clare to elaborate on her choice of vessel: “You just used the word 'mass-produced', which is lovely: when you look out at a kind of ocean of bowls, a mass, they are all identical but not quite. The thicknesses are different, and so there's this tiny little bit of difference that talks about humanity in so many ways. So much similarity, and then inside, those hopes.”
“It's like the big lens, the wide-angle,” adds Stair, “so you have the equivalent of the graveyards in France, with all the rows of white crosses. They become a multiple, a series, but then of course each individual one, there's a microcosm of one life there.”
Both projects share a simplicity of idea and an impressive audacity of approach. “It sounds like a very easy thing to ask a thousand men their legacy,” says Twomey, “but actually it's very significant for people to write down.” Twomey’s participants ranged “from plumbers to chauffeurs, architects to film stars to politicians. The youngest person was 15 and the oldest was 101.” Poignantly she adds that from those 1,000 collected voices, she knows of two men who have since died.
And the union of these works is certainly much more than the sum of its parts.
“A very moving aspect of the works being together that was unexpected to me was that Leslie's voice seemed to raise up the voices that were written on the pots,” explains Twomey. “So something about this language being spoken seemed to bring more to my work rather than sitting in silence.”
Stair agrees. “Leslie became illustrative, as you say, of the 1,000 specific voices. The multiple becomes the individual, it goes from a general to a specific, and between us, the two works are book-ending that dynamic.”
“It's awful to hear, how many people died in the First World War, but each of those was an individual life, and I think the show, the combination, illustrates that so well”.
I find myself nodding in agreement.