HomeCoronavirusThe curves of a jar say more about the dead than candles...

The curves of a jar say more about the dead than candles or yellow ribbons | Rachel Cooke

B.Ritain is good to remember. No monument is better known in this country than the Whitehall Cenotaph, designed by Edwin Lutyens to commemorate the dead of the First World War; In the 21st century, a football game hardly starts without a minute of silence in honor of someone or something. Sponsored and sanctioned memory is one of our national skills, like standing in line or talking about the weather.

But there are also strange and gaping gaps in the mosaic of our collective memory. There is no public memorial in the UK to the estimated 228,000 victims of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and, until now, volunteers have been left to pay tribute to the more than 220,000 people whose deaths are associated with Covid-19. 19. in form of National Covid Memorial Wall on the south bank of the Thames. This Wednesday will mark three years since the first confinement due to the pandemic began, but the National Day of Reflection that will mark this anniversary is not exactly official but organized by a single charity, Marie Curie. Visit the websiteand you’ll find various fuzzy suggestions related to lighting candles, sending cards, and tying yellow ribbons around the trees.

At noon, we are invited to observe, yes, a minute of silence. Are people likely to honor this? My strong guess is that they won’t. And not just because it has been so little publicized. In March 2021, when the last lockdown ended, a veil began to fall rapidly and, since then, a disconcerting emptiness has enveloped us. It is not, I think, that we do not want to remember. Nor is it that we long to forget (although we do, of course). Rather, it’s just that we need some help: some suitable mechanism or device. The scale of our loss daunts us. How do we process such unimaginably huge numbers? How do we hold them in our mind without being pulverized by fear and sadness? Until now, blank space has been our only answer to such questions.

During the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about art: maybe it would come to our rescue. Personally, he was not convinced. Having read some of the novels that came out then, I thought that if art was never up to the challenge, it would take at least a decade. But then, last week, at the Sainsbury Center at the University of East Anglia, I read the words “Sue was a musician, she played the cornet in the Wrentham Brass Band”, and changed my mind in the time it took my eyes to look. fill with tears Although she did not know the woman whose life she was describing (her name was Susan Faith and she was a police officer in Lowestoft), or even if she had died of covid-19, she at that point became my representative. for the thousands lost since 2020. I was so devastated by this thought that I had to sit down for a few minutes. However, when I got back to my feet, I had the feeling that something had been lifted. People write lightly about the consolation of art, and I am no exception. Yet there it was, as unmistakable as solid gold: the consolation. It was so real to me, something so physical, that I could have kept it in my bag.

The exhibition I was in Norwich to see is called Art, death and the afterlife, and it is a response to the pandemic by the ceramicist Julian Stair, whose vessels are in the collections of, among other institutions, the V&A and the British Museum. Since the year 2000, Stair has been manufacturing cinerary jars and commemorative commissions for individuals. But for this show, he worked with the mourning charity Cruse and the Norwich Death Cafe to facilitate conversations around loss that eventually led to some of those involved donating the ashes of their loved ones to him. Stair embedded this ash in clay, using it to create permanent memorials to the dead. When the exhibition ends, these memorials – there are seven of them: six representing the life of an individual and one of a married couple – will be delivered to their families.

On the day of my visit, Stair talked about how potters view pots in anatomical terms. They have lips, neck and feet; gather them together and form a family. Man, he said, has made funerary vessels since the Neolithic; his own practice is a modern variation of something very old indeed.

But words, even when they come from the artist himself, only get you so far. Nothing prepared me for the contrast between the urns he had thrown for the dead, so still and stark in their glass cases, and the brief biographies written by their families, which can be read in a side gallery (the cause of their deaths has been revealed ). been held back, but some if not all were actually connected to Covid).

Our time on earth is only fleeting; one day, no one will remember a woman who loved dogs, caving and playing the bugle. However, there is a chance that Stair’s beautiful jars, like the archaeological finds she chose from Sainsbury’s permanent collection to display alongside them, will survive for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

While Susan Faith’s face, glimpsed briefly by me in a smiling photograph, is already fading from my mind, I know the Stair pot in her name, made of Etrurian marl and as brown as a conker, will stay with me. forever. Not just the physical presence of her, gently curved but slightly unfinished, as human beings are even at the end of their lives, but also her broader meaning. Especially that. Stair has known loss himself, and has used this, and his talent, to do something both generous and supernatural. He has given us a way to remember: a picture that can be understood, even when numbers still can’t.

Rachel Cooke is a columnist for the Observer

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