September 28, 2014
Hybrid body parts, severed limbs and phallic figures populate Rachel Kneebone’s 399 Days (2012-2013). Towering over visitors as they enter the White Cube’s 9x9x9 gallery space in Bermondsey (London, UK), the artist’s psychosexual hinterland takes the form of an erect column that soars towards the cubic room’s bright skylight. Porcelain tiles depicting erotic states of flux cascade towards the beholder’s feet, as organic outlines ambiguously morph into bodies. Unfolding in an infinite spiral narrative that purposefully lacks a cohesive beginning, middle and end, the ivory sculpture refutes both history and the passage of time. Instead, Kneebone chooses to focus on the now, or rather the viewer’s immediate visceral reaction to the anagrams of vehemence and violence that inhabit the porcelain chrysalis. Hence, recognizable shapes rub shoulders with the quintessentially bizarre; 399 Days simultaneously conveys familiarity and strangeness, beauty and horror, purity and adulteration, ecstasy and mortality, fragility and monumentality, playfulness and menace, and completeness and provisionality. It is through these acts of negation that the artist’s uncanny plot unfolds.
Seductively treading the line that exists between aesthetics, philology and philosophy, 399 Days is firmly anchored within the contemporary art canon. Yet, it seeps art historical references through its physical form, speaking of Trajan’s Column, the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and August Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Furthermore, for her oeuvre, Kneebone relentlessly engages with transgression, sin, existentialism, romanticism, eroticism and the unconscious, mining Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy, R. D. Laing’s Knots, as well as the writings of William Blake, Georges Bataille and Sigmund Freud. Thus, while the purity of the medium instills the artwork with transcendental beauty, these subtle allusions present gallery visitors with a portal into their own dark subconscious minds.
In many ways, 399 Days is a natural progression from Kneebone’s previous large-scale seminal installation The Descent (2007). Yet, while the two works speak the same visual language, their themes diverge. The earlier sculpture communicates fear through beauty; this dichotomy, according to the artist, represents “an attempt to access the state [of fear] through making an equivalent in beauty.” 399 Days, however, effaces meaning through its saturation of form. Its title reiterates this sense of nothingness, as it points to the facture process’s temporality – the time it took to mould and construct the work – instead of imposing a preconceived meaning through the title. It is also worth noting the disconnect that exists when we encounter both installations. To fully explore The Descent, the beholder must view the work at close range and physically bend forward to peer into its depths. The audience stares down onto the piece, and ultimately retain full control for the duration of the physical encounter. Adversely, 399 Days presents us with a series of 54 highly detailed porcelain tiles, yet it is only when distancing ourselves from the colossal architectural structure that the work takes on stature and complexity. This distance is needed to completely explore the piece visually. We look forward and upwards dwarfed by its size. Much like she inundates with detail, Kneebone dissolves meaning through exaggerated dimensions.
Divided into seven sides and 63 outer tiles, the column uses a heptagon as its base. The plinths that support the porcelain pieces have cracked and ruptured during firing, allowing the pillar’s various parts to stands a couple of centimetres apart. This creates small visual openings into the otherwise hidden core of the artwork. Here, one can observe the erratic states of erogenous transgression as anthropological forms mutate into amorphous shapes within the darkened cavity. Arguably, it is within this core that Kneebone’s hybrid fiends are born, subsequently spilling out of the top of the column and clinging to its outward facing walls. A palpable reference to Marcel Duchamp’s last major endeavour, Étant Donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946-1966), 399 Days toys with the idea of voyeurism. However, unlike Duchamp’s oeuvre, it simultaneously refutes the notion of prurience, as images of heightened sexuality and fetishism also saturate facets of the work that are clearly visible to the outside world.
The White Cube’s 9x9x9 space, as the name suggests, is a 9 x 9 x 9 metre room. In many ways, a mise en abyme of the gallery that houses it, the area epitomizes a literal interpretation of the museological ‘white cube.’ Akin to Carlo Rossi’s 2 Architect Rossi Street or Street of Ideal Proportions, in which the height and width are identical (22 meters) and the length is exactly ten times the width (220 metres), 9x9x9 appears to represent mathematical purity. Standing as a blank backdrop to the artworks that have been presented here over the years, objectivity and impartiality are proposed. Yet, while neutrality is attempted, in this instance the room seems to heighten and accentuate the climactic struggle and incongruous scenes it harbours. Likewise, the divine bright white sunlight that seeps through the skylight presents a stark contrast to the artist’s netherworld-like column, as the environment facilitates the meeting between heaven and hell.
By far Kneebone’s largest and most ambitious project to date, 399 Days fosters the artist’s unique formal language and exploration of the human condition. Deeply entrenched in an infinite chronicle of existential lore, the deceptively delicate porcelain tower interlaces the narratives of myriad knowns and unknowns. Echoing Bataille’s notion that the imagination joins together that which is never given except in parts, the artwork’s disparate fragments are fused together only through the beholder’s interpretation of the object as a whole. Above all else, it is this encounter with the audience that will forever be anchored within the annals of time.
Ariane Bélisle is a Canadian London-based art advisor and freelance writer. Since graduating from the Courtauld Institute of Art (MA Curating the Art Museum), she has managed two major private art collections of international scale. She has written critical reviews and feature articles for publications such as ARTUNER, This Is Tomorrow: Contemporary Art Magazine and Courtauld Reviews, as well as catalogue essays for Sotheby’s London, the Courtauld Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.