Rachel Kneebone in Conversation

Melanie Vandenbrouck: Your work is concerned with bodily forms, albeit fragmented, malleable and changing, heaped together or torn apart. It expresses both the uniqueness and the universality of the human condition, where expression is movement, and movement is expression. Tell us more about this concern with the body?

Rachel Kneebone: The form that is specifically identifiable as body in my work is my use of limbs, legs and feet. Then there are the more abstract bodily elements that evoke flayed skin, stretchmarks… The limbs express a sense of movement, ‘life is movement, and nothing within it is proof against it’ to quote Georges Bataille in Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. We are always, in a sense, in a permanent state of metamorphosis. My work and the nature of the material I use – porcelain – have an ability to make permanent the transient – what is always fleeting or in a state of flux. As for the fragmentary elements, these are not fragments as in broken, disconnected from the whole, rather they operate to instill differing paces and depth of movement within the work. The placement of these fragments is significant, too. For instance, the form that culminates in a limb, changes to create and build another body, depending on the perspective from which you look at the work. 

The body is what we all have. Even though everyone’s experience of the world and life are uniquely theirs, and we are all alone amongst other alone people, the commonality of this visceral experience, of being in possession of a body and feeling informs your experience of the world and what is happening to you, which can or does exist distinctly from what you think about what’s happening. There’s a dislocation between the impact of the experience on your body the inner sense of how it feels, what is actually felt as response, that can never be fully communicated outside of ourselves with language – because there is a rupture between ‘the thing in itself’, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant defined it, and words.

And I guess to some extent you are sharing this experience with the viewer because you are making the object, you are embodying yourself as you are, physically, wrestling with matter, and then they are experiencing the object as bodily movement and shape. There is a closeness between you and the viewer that is being brought through the body, theirs, yours, and those expressed in the work, isn’t there?

Yes, particularly through the physical nature of making the work. It’s formed and informed by the hand, and that immediately brings the presence of the body to the work. My energy or movement to make is directly invested in the porcelain as I am working it. But while that’s talking about my role and my body in the making process, my sculpture is not autobiographical. The work has its own movement, a formal autonomy, through the firing process. The ruptures, and all the things that happen to it that are outside of my control, they stop it being about me or being mine – it is separate to me and my experience. 

I feel there is always an ambiguity, a duality about your work, purposefully unresolved meaning and forms. Your pieces feel at once terrible and joyous, exquisite and disturbing, supple and sharp, visions of ecstatic delight or the circles of hell, seductively teetering on the edge of obscenity. Can you tell me more about that tension in the reading of the work is it deliberate?

Perhaps it is deliberate, but to me that’s how things are. If we start with the fundamentals, life and death, clearly they are separate, if you are not alive, then you are dead. So with life there is always the presence of death, and I don’t feel that that is negative in any way. To accept and understand there is an end-point to being alive imbues it with more beauty and offers a clarity upon how extraordinary life, the very thing of being is.

As for the ambiguity, it’s not either, or, is it? In your work it is always both, it seems to me.

It is neither and both. Simultaneity is very prevalent in my work. The idea of decay or putrefaction is accentuated or heightened by the beauty within the work, and some of the beauty comes from the seductive quality of the material. In a sense, you can be poking around in what we deem dark areas of consciousness and being, and yet it is never only ever that, because it is accompanied – always – by something that is gentle or beautiful, and soft. That duality through the work is not ambiguous, because it is very clearly more than only one thing. My work is very resistant to classification and that’s where things unravel: when definitive meaning is projected onto it.

That external reading may enrich or constrain your work as well, limit or open what you want to express…

That part has to not matter, because for me it’s always enough that I make the work. Then I want it to be part of the world independently of me, to exist on its own terms with nothing to do with my narration of it or with what I think, or would like people to think, because however it is seen is what the work is. It’s free, in that way, from any singular definition. 

Staying with the idea of ambiguity, one senses it in your physical relationship with your work and its making. Looking at 399 Days for instance, one detects something almost amorous, sensual in its making, but also a sort of obsessive wrestling with the herculean task at hand. As if in making it you were almost fighting the matter, as well as making love with it at the same time (figs.3,4 & 11).

It was exactly like that! In some ways it was horrifying but that became part of the drive – that until it was made it wasn’t done. I had to work to end it, but then doing the work was very pleasurable at the same time. To exist purely in terms of the work made life very simple, because the making process defined what and who I was and that was pretty much it, aside from the basic sleeping and eating. It was a real privilege, to live purely on those terms.

How did it feel, then, to share the work with the world, once you’d had this exclusive, unique relationship with it?

To start with, I struggle with visualising things, so until it was made I did not really know what it would look or feel like. I just felt the drive to make the work, and what I wanted to explore through making it. For me the governing force was to do it, to be able to see it, in order to know whether it worked or not, because all the while I realised it could be a complete failure. That in a sense, was the only reason it was worth doing. As for sharing it with the world, I don’t know, I never considered it, because it just had to be made.

I sense this ambiguity in the presence of your work in the V&A, whether 399 Days, in the Renaissance sculpture court (gallery 50a), amid sixteenth-century marble and bronze figures and the terracotta roundels by Luca della Robbia (figs.4 & 11), or in the Hintze Sculpture Gallery (gallery 21), where three smaller, but no less ambitious pieces are shown alongside those by the father of modern sculpture, Rodin. Do you think your works are at home, in their new surroundings, or are they more like subversive agents provocateursconfronting the canon of Western sculpture? Or are they both at once? 

I think they are both. They do look at home, it terms of form. For 399 Days, there are all sorts of visual tie-ins in gallery 50a, from the shape of the fonts to the look of the glazed terracotta. Initially you get the sense that 399 Days belongs, and then immediately you are hit with ‘what is it?’: it is so very alien among the clearly definable Renaissance sculptures. That’s why 399 Days looks so great there, because of what it brings up. 399 Daysspecifically, but all my work in general, is very visceral, focused around the body and how things feel. Set against more classical renderings of form, it jars amongst them, which perhaps also makes you respond differently to those works too.

Have you been to the V&A to re-learn and rediscover your work then, as you look at it afresh in its new setting?

Yes, but then whenever I look at my sculpture it is something different from what I thought it was. I love seeing it with other works, because I think it becomes much more interesting from the interaction or the dialogue with the other pieces, how it changes and is changed by its context, but at the same time resolutely remains what it is. 

Tell us more about the materiality of your medium, porcelain. Again thinking about ambiguity, pushing definitions, breaking or eluding classification – usually porcelain would be associated with ideas of delicate fragility or polite society, and yet there is a fierce strength, defiance almost, in your pieces. They look both solid and liquid at the same time and play with your eyes in an almost haptic way.

The aspect of porcelain that is really overlooked is how robust it is. Obviously it is breakable, and there is a part of the work that is about breaking. But sometimes feelings of its frailty and delicacy are imposed on the work by the viewer, because the material – from the final firing and becoming vitrified – is actually incredibly resilient and strong. Porcelain also has a movement that is separate from what I do with it. So maybe I am more like a choreographer, than the director of the final piece.

You’ve spoken elsewhere about the whiteness of porcelain and it being like a blank canvas…

I think colour locates meaning much more than surface does, because of the fluidity of the glazed surface. Whiteness adds mobility to that. For me, it is what brings any meaning, how form can merge into one thing and emerge as something else. In a sense, it is the blankness – but whiteness is also the opposite of blankness because it is so full and rich – that enables the work to be all these other things at the same time. While colour would tie the work down much more, whiteness keeps its openness. The work dissolves and then comes into focus and dissolves again when you are looking at it. 

You embrace cracks, flaws, accidents, how the clay takes a life of its own, sometimes tragically so, during firing. There’s an element of surprise, too, where you are wanting to see where the work is leading you, isn’t there?

The cracks and the ruptures, for me, bring it back to the body and the experience of inhabiting the body, to periods of breakdown and how you can be broken but still be strong, and still continue. Strength and vulnerability, those very human qualities, are present and inscribed onto the surface of the porcelain.

As for letting the work lead me that is something which first happened for me, rather than being deliberate. There was a big adjustment in my making process in that I used to always try to understand and anticipate what it might do. Over time I built up the experience of firing and seeing where the ruptures happen. For instance, where the porcelain is thinner it cools quicker and is more likely to rupture than in areas that are of even thickness. So as I was making, I could slowly bring this knowledge to bear, to direct or have the ability to reason my work. Then I made The Consciousness of an Unbearable Tragedy At Once Dreaded and Desired (main image), one of the sculptures exhibited at the V&A, which through its firing, became something completely different from my loose intent of what I wanted it to do. This was a significant moment in my practice, I recognised the work has the potential to operate, to make itself or to continue the process of its creation independent of me.

I am actively exploiting and pushing this potential of porcelain with my current work. Using the material’s inherent movement, during the firing process, to form the work itself. Rather than making works about movement, the sculptures are formed through movement itself, which is arrested and captured in porcelain.

You are enabling movement to happen, as it were, so the work is getting a life of its own and having its own gestation.

Yes, and to quote from Bataille again in Inner Experience, ‘What matters here is not what can be said of inner experience but rather experience itself.’ I think the shift in my practice has made the space for this to dominate.

Speaking of movement and staging, you’ve made three new pieces for the Glyndebourne Festival – two inspired by Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra, a strong woman defying paternal expectations for the sake of love, and one inspired by Hamlet, Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about revenge, thwarted desire and destiny. How did you respond to these two operas?

Of course the first way I think about opera is the narrative, I love stories, because that is what we can all have; we cloak ourselves in words and storytelling. Hipermestra is a dramatic story with revenge and jealousy, and love and betrayal, but beyond that in a general sense with the Glyndebourne commission I wanted to create my work almost as though it were music with loud, quiet and soft passages. It felt very natural to create in this way because rhythm and tone translate in the handling of the porcelain into parts that are rapid or slow…. So there is this commonality, but I also wanted to recreate the operatic emotional build-up within, the excess, especially in Act I. I wanted to make something that was intense, like a crescendo in that way of feeling, and I loaded that piece with as much modelling as I could. With Act II, inspired by Hamlet, there is the idea of hidden secrets and disclosing and how we hide behind things. But Hamlet in a sense is about life, and life ties in to everything I make. So my work can be read independently of the reading of Hipermestra and Hamlet, it’s all a matter of perception and interpretation, it’s those things and not those things at the same time.

The comparison with Rodin often comes up when people talk about your work. Hipermestra is one of the Danaids. How do you think your Glyndebourne work might compare to Rodin’s own Danaid, subdued in her flowing form and submissive body? While the formal language, fluidity and movement might be quite similar the emotional language between the two works is very different, isn’t it?

Yes, but I think the linking with Rodin is more general. I think it’s about the hand, and using the hand as a voice through figurative sculpture in a broad way. Of course Rodin initially modelled in ceramic, and putting my work in proximity with his brings out the presence of the hand more strongly in his, while mine is softened and made harder at the same time. As for the female form or subject, I cannot make the feminine passive, because that is not how things are. 

One of the themes at the core of my work is the experience of inhabiting the body rather than any gendered classification. I don’t think that division exists, other than in anatomy. It’s only language that classifies and attributes qualities to either sex.

Perhaps where your work really meets Rodin’s is in the expression of the body in movement, that metamorphosis from one stage to another, expressed through a medium, which is itself in stasis. Sculpture, whether it is bronze, marble or porcelain is hard and still, and yet, the commonality of Rodin’s and your work is that expression of being between stages.

Yes, for example in the V&A’s galleries, The Solitude in the Depth of Her Being Begins the World Again But Only Begins it For Herself  is placed with Rodin’s Fallen Angel . When you look at both these works from a distance, they just look like mass and form, but as you come closer, they start unravelling. As you differentiate textures or density through the handling of the materials, something ripples through the surface, an active state of metamorphosis. With The Fallen Angel you start discerning the feathers and the surface of the body against the feathers. With Solitude, it looks quite dense at first, and when you approach it you realise that that perceived solidity is actually layer upon layer upon layer of forms over nothingness. 

How important are other art forms such as music and dance to you? Is it their performative element that attracts you? The way that they use, express and denote the body in different, yet analogous ways to your own work?

What attracts or inspires me with literature is the creation of another world, a sense of place and time conveyed with language. With dance it is exploring through the body but without words – what it is we are doing here, and what it feels to be here and to be present. But all sorts of different things inform my work, not just other art forms. I can’t have a hierarchy of what informs my work, just as I don’t believe there is a hierarchy of emotions. Some are more enjoyable to feel than others, but they are all valid. So everything goes in.

Would you say there is an element of social engagement in your work – perhaps through confronting us with the human condition?

Yes I do. When your work resists classification it becomes accessible, and anyone can connect with it in some way or another. When people look at my work they don’t feel the expectation that they have to say what it is. They just like it or not. Their experience of the work is very instinctive, in that way.

So your work eschews classification and by doing so it eschews boundaries, social class, gender, disability…

You don’t need anything other than to be human to approach my work. Whatever you think of it – whether you think it is good or not – you don’t need a training in art history to be able to tie it in to other things, you just need to be alive.

The first reaction I have to your work – and I have no doubt many people feel the same way – is an instinctive, almost irrepressible desire to touch it.

One weekend I went to the V&A to look at my sculptures. A couple were going through gallery 21, and as they walked past my sculpture, one of the women put her hand out and touched it. When the gallery assistant intervened to tell her she could not touch the work, she recoiled, and I could see that she had no idea she had touched it. It was such a strong instinct that she had not registered ‘I want to know what it feels like to touch that work’, before she was actually doing so. It was automatic, just like the reflex when doctor taps your knee and your leg shoots out. I think that spontaneous reaction is triggered by the fact that it’s made by hand. It attracts the hand, because it’s speaking the language of the hand.

Can you tell us what is coming next?

In September 2018 I will show work in Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery in Greater Manchester, that is around dance and movement, and hopefully work with local women to do some sort of intervention with movements of their own, created in response to my work. But that’s all in the very early stages at the moment.

Main image: Rachel Kneebone, Act III, detail, 2016, porcelain overall dimensions 71×68.6×56.5cm.© Rachel Kneebone (photo © White Cube, Ben Westoby)

Aurora Corio