Experiencing Rachel Kneebone’s exhibition The Dance Project, it is not difficult to envisage a relationship between the gallery floor and a dance floor; between the open space of the gallery and its potential to echo the space of a stage. Touchstones Rochdale has an exemplary legacy of showcasing women artists, and also of engaging with its local community. For this exhibition, Rachel Kneebone and the gallery collaborated with the acclaimed dancer and choreographer TC Howard to work with a group of women across the Borough of Rochdale on developing a new piece of contemporary dance that was premiered at the exhibition’s preview. In the placing of Kneebone’s sculptural works across the gallery space, there is also a kind of choreography involved in the curating. Even without seeing the dance performances that marked the beginning and end of the exhibition, a sense of movement and flow is created by the sparseness of the installation that allows the work to breathe in the light and airy spaces of the gallery’s beautiful architecture. As a viewer inevitably in motion, one engages in a looping around and circling back on the sculptures, emphasised by their mostly circular plinths.
Eleven sculptures on plinths, three wall reliefs and seven small framed drawings are sensitively interspersed across the gallery’s four large and interconnected rooms. They engage overtly with bodily experiences, dependent upon the embodied actions of both their viewers and their maker. Given the exhibition’s explicit reference to and engagement with dance, unsurprisingly all the titles relate to dancing or other forms of bodily movement: stretch, balance, bend, twitch, whirl, skim, roll, rise. Such actions clearly relate also to Kneebone’s making process in her manipulation of the porcelain forms of these sculptures, which are assembled in a kind of controlled chaos. The making process itself allows the clay to fracture in the kiln, creating unpredictable ruptures, fissures and imperfections, so the sculptures are formed through the material’s inherent movement during the firing process, arrested and captured in porcelain. Each work incorporates a tumble of fragmented limbs amongst looping and twisting ribbon-like bands, occasionally embracing a perfect sphere or sometimes a bundle of roses. The complex tangle of representational and abstract forms in each individual sculpture is held together by the unifying glossy ivory-whiteness of the porcelain. Viewed from a distance, as the spacious installation allows, they are reminiscent of classical sculpture deconstructed, formal beauty contorted by the ravages of elemental forces. Up close they are tortured yet delicate.
To use the word torture is to imply the body in extremis. There is an ever-present sense of movement in this work that relates not only to dance but also to pain and violence. Freedom of movement combines with constraints upon it, in images of simultaneous strength and vulnerability. A sense of life and death is intertwined: the life of dance, of bodies in motion and melding with one another, but which can simultaneously be read as bodies subjected to the carnage of war or natural disaster. Even in the sensitive pencil drawings of dancers, where limbs, as in the sculptures, are combined erotically with amorphous organic and priapic shapes, the violently disturbing forms of the surrealist artist Hans Belmer’s dolls come more readily to mind than do dancing bodies. So not so much life and death but sex and death are invoked, and it is no surprise that in interviews the artist has often spoken of the influence of the 20th century French thinker Georges Bataille, and in particular his book, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. Intimations of violence, destruction and decay, images of tortuous writhing and wrestling, are both countered and heightened by the caressing, sensuous and seductive qualities of the work’s form and materiality. There is an inescapable darkness in these pure white sculptures that reflects not ambiguity, but a genuine and dialectical duality.
Rachel Kneebone: The Dance Project runs until 12 January 2019 at Touchstones Rochdale.
Image: Derek Horton