An image keeps appearing and reappearing in my mind of a single dancer turning and turning in the middle of a dark stage. There is something hypnotic about it, their arms opening and closing and one foot held to the stage, something that loses the person and becomes a form. This image took hold when I saw the drawing ‘Ovid in Exile X’ (2016), exhibited in a series of drawings alongside Rachel Kneebone’s porcelain sculptures in the Chapel at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In the drawing, multiple legs, some pencilled strongly and others partly erased, turn around a central point. Rotating the paper as she works, Kneebone’s process is dance-like, capturing motion as it takes place. This performativity is also evident in the artist’s porcelain sculptures.
The title of the series ‘Ovid in Exile’ (2016) calls to mind Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, especially Daphne. The naiad nymph, as she flees the threat of rape, throws her face towards the sky and fervently prays to be saved her from her pursuer. Scarcely has she uttered the words when she feels her limbs seized with immobility. At the first moment of transformation, a thin layer of bark grows rapidly over her skin and her hair turns into foliage. Her arms, caught in the movement of escape, become branches and her feet, now roots, are pulled to the earth. ‘Ovid in Exile V’ (2016) might be seen to pay tribute to this transformation, where five delicate overlapping legs fall as though losing control of their mobility. They seem held from a hollow circle in the upper right of the paper from which a connected twisting form falls vertically, like a cloth caught in swirling motion. The furling evokes Daphne’s hair and the circle like one of her eyes as it becomes foliage, looking to the sky. Emblematic of the ‘turn’, furling and unfurling, leaves open as they are born and close as they die.
Walking round the exhibition’s centrepiece ‘399 Days’ (2012-13), a column comprising a tangle of limbs and foliage, the viewer finds a small opening from which to peer inside. A flap of porcelain comes down from one of the top panels like cloth or skin, as though promising to reveal something within. What is at the centre? What is on the other side of the column’s porcelain shell? Describing this piece, Kneebone refers to Rainer Maria Rilke’s interpretation of the rose, with its petals wrapped tightly around a mysteriously hidden centre. In his poem ‘Les Roses, XXIII’ (1927), Rilke writes the rose ‘in birth, imitates in reverse / the slowness of the dead’. For him, the life of a rose holds movement in two directions. The poem ends with ‘For days and days / I see you who hesitates / in your sheath bound too tight’. On the page, the word ‘hesitates’ is followed by blankness, forcing the reader to face the same. I felt this sensation of slowing time as my eyes traced the limbs in a circular motion around Kneebone’s drawings. Her forms appear bound, merging into one another and circling round a hollow centre. Their disappearance into a single mass reminds me of Michelangelo’s unfinished works known as the ‘Prisoners’ (c. 1519-34): left in their unfinished state, legs, arms, or parts of the torso escape from the stone that holds them captive. Kneebone’s sculpted figures – half familiar, half things of the landscape – appear to similarly hesitate in the instant that they step from or dissolve into their material.
The title ‘399 Days’ references the length and passage of time it took to make the work, prompting a consideration of what time means in relation to artmaking. How does the work change and transform, physically and conceptually, over time? Kneebone says that she has grown accustomed to the unpredictable nature of porcelain, her main material, and in fact works with this behaviour. A certain amount of control must be handed over to the material, as though it already has a life of its own. While the exhibited objects depict scenes or forms in moments of transition and transformation, they also speak to their making as a form of metamorphosis: such as when the concept is given material form or when something unfurls from the mind onto the page or into a sculpture. Perhaps the centre of the rose, for Rilke, is the thought before it is born, waiting to find form. Centre points, then, are also key to Kneebone’s works. The works appear as traces of an unravelling, and I feel that I am coiling my way back inwards to find the centre.
Movement and metamorphosis is also conveyed in ‘Eddy’, ‘Whorl’, and ‘Pulse’ (2020), porcelain works referencing water, which grow out of the white walls. The shapes resemble the human heart, veins and organs. I remember another transformation in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’: the poignant tale of Cyane, a water nymph who, having tried to prevent the goddess Proserpina’s rape and abduction, was ‘reduced to tears, dissolved right into its substance’. Ovid describes how her limbs soften and how her feet, legs and fingers – the things with the least flesh – turn quickest into water, until finally the blood in her veins is transformed. Cyane is so overwhelmed with anger and anguish that she becomes her tears, the expression of her grief. These three works seemed to me like a retelling of Cyane’s transmogrification in the way they appear to bubble out of the wall, fusing with the whiteness of the chapel and evoking water and viscera.
Foaming up and falling in a turbulent heap, ‘Roll’(2017) sits in the mysterious, darker space of the vestry. Multiple cracks can be seen along the bottom, emphasising the work’s potential fragility. I find myself projecting human qualities onto the heap which looks as though it might have erupted from the sarcophagus-like base, its heaviness the cause of the cracks. The expectation is to have a sculpted body displayed on top, in memory of the dead body buried below. Instead, there are yet more forms caught in an instant of transition. Following Ovid, we find the inanimate vivified, the animate petrified, marble becoming flesh, men becoming stone. Although static, nothing in Kneebone’s work is fixed and my gaze moves in multiple directions: figures at the top of the ‘399 Days’ column appear to point upwards, but the mass of limbs is reminiscent of a fall downwards. It creates an urge to pull out some narrative; to read a story from each of the panels and as a whole.
Beyond the double movements in this exhibition, there is another duality in the ‘reading’ of the works. The use of realistic, recognisable limbs, Kneebone notes, is a way of exploring abstract concepts; the outermost forms are a vessel for something inside. Thinking with Kneebone’s literary references, I recall St Augustine relating the spoken (and written) word to the body and soul. He describes the sound of the word as a body, a vessel carrying the meaning of a word, its soul, from the speaker’s mouth to the listener’s ear. Travelling through the air, the sound (body) dies but the meaning, the word (soul), lives on. If Kneebone’s works are being read in this way, the porcelain acts as the vessel for the abstract mystery at its core, the sound carrying its meaning. This idea of symbolic duality resonates particularly in the chapel space. Used now solely as a gallery, St Bartholomew’s Chapel was originally built in 1744 for the families living on the Bretton Estate. The bright whiteness of Kneebone’s porcelain works, like the glazed white of devotional Della Robbia terracotta, ubiquitous in Tuscany, complements the chapel as a place of signification, for celebrating birth and resurrection, for mourning death; a place that connects to the otherworldly, the abstract and mysterious.
Following their furling forms, I am reminded of ‘The Dante Project’ performed by the Royal Ballet (2021), in which dancers turn into shadows of the Underworld. They disappear into the smoke, stirring it with their movements so that it curls and coils around them like cloth. Kneebone’s sculptures move likewise in the Chapel space, and her drawings on their pages. Imbued with literary references, the exhibition brings to life the metamorphosis of thought to paper and porcelain, of art coming into being.
Rachel Kneebone: 399 Days is in the Chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 24 Apr 2022.
Gertrude Gibbons is a writer based in London and York.
This review is supported by Yorkshire Sculpture Park.