Experiencing the human condition ‘in-between’

Rachel Kneebone’s intricate works address and question the human condition: renewal, transformation, life cycles and the experience of inhabiting the body. Her sculptures operate in a near-subliminal space, oscillating and blurring the boundaries between the conscious and the subconscious, the real and the imagined, everything and nothing. Working in porcelain, the material properties of her work further heighten and convey an awareness of opposing states, appearing to be not only heavy, solid and strong but also light, fragmentary and soft. In the work fragments of the human body multiply, merge and cascade down, unfurling around a complex tableau of organic and geometric forms.

In this exclusive interview, Rachel Kneebone discusses her work and her interest in addressing the human condition that is centred on the human body.

Interview Questions from Richard Bright (Interalia Magazine) and Simeon Nelson (Professor of Sculpture, University of Hertfordshire).

Rachel Kneebone: I Express Myself Better Through Silence / Wailing Wall, 2015,                        Porcelain, 23 5/8 x 32 11/16 x 18 1/8 in. (60 x 83 x 46 cm) © Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

Rachel Kneebone: I Express Myself Better Through Silence / Wailing Wall, 2015,
Porcelain, 23 5/8 x 32 11/16 x 18 1/8 in. (60 x 83 x 46 cm)
© Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

You have said, speaking of your working process, that “it’s war”. What do you mean by this and how does it relate to the finished work? What are the capabilities and restrictions of working with porcelain?

Rachel Kneebone: Porcelain is a definite material to work with; initially it is malleable and plastic, easily manipulated and formed by hand, but the longer you are working – exposing the material to air – the more the malleability and plasticity decreases. This gives a timeframe or pace to working. You can employ technics to slow this down but as a general rule, the moment you start the more rigid the material becomes, and ultimately tools have to be used to replace the hand. The material dictates this. It is a form of conflict, working into what becomes increasingly ‘un-workable’.

Porcelain is also definite or perhaps has a rigidity in terms of what it will or will not ‘willingly’ do, there can be battle there.

My practise is a response. During the making process things are thrown up that demand resolution, including how the work is feeling, its visceral temperature. Sometime I follow a given path, sometimes I fight to contradict the direction the work wants to go in. It’s a process of working with and against what is ‘unfolding’.

During the period of making, the days or weeks, the work is unrelenting. I don’t ‘switch off’ from it. There is a kind of haunting that occurs, whereby both true and false memory, thought and doubt, is left wrapped, waiting for the next attack. It is a state of relentless flux, a mercurial process, until the work is made.

I accept there is a violence attached to saying ‘it’s war’ (which it isn’t always), but I think I described it that way as a means to communicate the physicality of it, an active state. Neither the material nor the making process is passive.

I am frequently told that my practise is ‘therapeutic’, and I think this is me taking arms against that sentiment.

Rachel Kneebone: Remember that we sometimes demand definitions for the sake not of content, but of their form. Our requirement is an architectural one: the definition is a kind of ornamental coping that supports nothing. 'The smoothness the tumescence the milky flow of feminine nudity anticipates a sensation of liquid outpour which itself opens onto death like a window onto a courtyard' 'But a sort of rupture - in anguish - leaves us at the limit of tears: in such a case we lose ourselves, we forget ourselves and communicate with an elusive beyond' 'Emerging out of an inconceivable void into the play of beings', 2014 Porcelain, Dimensions variable © Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

Rachel Kneebone: Remember that we sometimes demand definitions for the sake not of content, but of their form. Our requirement is an architectural one: the definition is a kind of ornamental coping that supports nothing.
‘The smoothness the tumescence the milky flow of feminine nudity anticipates a sensation of liquid outpour which itself opens onto death like a window onto a courtyard’
‘But a sort of rupture – in anguish – leaves us at the limit of tears: in such a case we lose ourselves, we forget ourselves and communicate with an elusive beyond’
‘Emerging out of an inconceivable void into the play of beings’, 2014
Porcelain, Dimensions variable
© Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

Metamorphosis of the human form is primary to your work, creating a sense of constant flux. You also reference both art historical and ‘classical’ literary sources. Can you say something about the role of literature and metamorphosis in your approach to addressing and questioning the human condition?

RK: My interest in addressing the human condition is generally centred on the body – how it feels to be alive. It is the visceral experience of living while acknowledging the ‘failure of language’ to ‘universally’ narrate what it is to be alive and all that comes with it, that I question. Metamorphoses, to me, belongs in this realm of ambiguity, outside of definite classification to decode our experience of living. As Lacan said, ‘thought is an enterprise of enslavement’. Life is freer than this, sometimes beyond ‘reason or reasoning’, and the pursuit to lock it down is inadequate, lacking, and in a sense, futile.

Metamorphoses as a term as well as it’s meaning goes some way to narrating the ‘in-between’, when something is no longer that but not yet that either. The cracks or ruptures within my work are intrinsic to integrating the gaps and voids in ‘meaning’ that are present but don’t exist in language, can’t be spoken with words. Metamorphoses speaks more of the narration of the unknown, and the process of living. To quote Bataille, ‘life is movement, nothing within it is proof against it’.

My answer to your question goes someway in showing the role of literature around my work. It’s a sort of on going collage of other peoples thought and words in order to try and create a sense of what is felt.

So whilst I am saying language is inadequate, my use of literature also indicates that I am as subject to it as everyone else. Reading is part of the enquiry. I read alongside the always making, not just philosophical and classical texts, all stories are equally important. It’s the shared challenge, no matter what material is used, of how to address how to explain ‘it’? How to exist other than in silence? Anais Nin wrote, ‘the language of the senses is yet to be explored’. I read this as the language of the body, which creates a thoughtless space and I work from there.

Rachel Kneebone: Driving the blind excess of life to the very edge of death, 2014 Porcelain 26 3/4 x 21 7/8 x 22 5/8 in. (68 x 55.5 x 57.5 cm) © Rachel Kneebone. Photo © White Cube (Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

Rachel Kneebone: Driving the blind excess of life to the very edge of death, 2014
Porcelain, 26 3/4 x 21 7/8 x 22 5/8 in. (68 x 55.5 x 57.5 cm)
© Rachel Kneebone. Photo © White Cube (Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

Rachel Kneebone: Driving the blind excess of life to the very edge of death, 2014 Porcelain, 26 3/4 x 21 7/8 x 22 5/8 in. (68 x 55.5 x 57.5 cm) © Rachel Kneebone. Photo © White Cube (Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

Rachel Kneebone: Driving the blind excess of life to the very edge of death, 2014
Porcelain, 26 3/4 x 21 7/8 x 22 5/8 in. (68 x 55.5 x 57.5 cm)
© Rachel Kneebone. Photo © White Cube (Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

In many ways our human brains interpret information through pattern recognition and re-arranging pattern, which is an evolving dynamic process. What importance does pattern play in your work?

RK: I am going to interpret pattern to mean repetition. Repetition of movement, in making the work, not only the physical pattern but also repetition in terms of forms or the ‘vocabulary’ I use, for example, plinth, ball, body, limbs, matter, vines and roses.

I feel that having this restriction or the regularity of form within my works and within its making, creates a pattern. This I think creates the movement, from one to the other, from geometric to organic, and the recurring use creates a sense of time and distance within the works. Simply put, the pattern of moving from one limb to the next limb.  Pattern is also evident in fracture, fracturing of form, an abstraction that articulates the sense of building, collapsing and re-building, or forming another body. I think it is impossible to abstract without knowledge of the whole being part of that abstraction. Pattern is inclusive of this. For example, the modelled limb repeated creates a sense of movement through its occurrence and reoccurrence. The placement of limb, abstracted from the ‘whole body’ brings the whole body with it. Through pattern and prior knowledge we can build a whole or complete for ourselves, to form the whole.

How emergence and destruction, form and formlessness can coexist within one work. This simultaneous exchange within each work would not be possible without the structure, the reinforcement through repetition of any given motif, that pattern provides. It is to be familiar, known and alien and strange at the same time. In this sense it is pattern that creates movement (metaphorically) throughout static, vitrified porcelain.

Rachel Kneebone: What if we do not think that which exceeds thoughts possibilities, 2014 Porcelain, 27 9/16 x 29 1/8 x 22 7/16 in. (70 x 74 x 57 cm) © Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

Rachel Kneebone: What if we do not think that which exceeds thoughts possibilities, 2014
Porcelain, 27 9/16 x 29 1/8 x 22 7/16 in. (70 x 74 x 57 cm)
© Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

Rachel Kneebone: What if we do not think that which exceeds thoughts possibilities, 2014 (detail) Porcelain, 27 9/16 x 29 1/8 x 22 7/16 in. (70 x 74 x 57 cm) © Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

Rachel Kneebone: What if we do not think that which exceeds thoughts possibilities, 2014 (detail)
Porcelain, 27 9/16 x 29 1/8 x 22 7/16 in. (70 x 74 x 57 cm)
© Rachel Kneebone. Photo © Stephen White Courtesy White Cube

How important is scale in your work in influencing both the conceptual interpretation and the overall experience?

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All images copyright and courtesy of Rachel Kneebone and White Cube

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