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How a 17-foot porcelain sculpture pushed artist Rachel Kneebone to her limits
Updated 5th May 2017
How a 17-foot porcelain sculpture pushed artist Rachel Kneebone to her limits
"At the start of making '399 days' I felt almost like a tiger circling its prey," explains British artist Rachel Kneebone.
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"I just kept moving around it but I couldn't commit to the making. Because you are so resistant to knowing, you would be so dominated, your life and everything you do, by a single piece of work."
"399 Days" is a porcelain tower, named after the amount of days it took to complete.
The inspiration for its form was drawn from architectural columns and historical sculptures.
To begin making the first "layer" Kneebone referenced nature and film.
"I read about stalagmites and stalactites. If one grows above the other, over time, they fuse to become a column. Also, I had watched 'Last of the Mohicans' and I wanted to have the pace at the beginning of the film where (Daniel Day Lewis) is running through the forest for the hunt, that was all I needed to start with."

A physical challenge

More than a year later, the resulting 17-foot sculpture is by far Kneebone's largest work to date and, she admits, working on this scale may never be repeated.
The physical challenge and intensity needed to create "399 Days" took a toll on her wrists and hands.
Artist Rachel Kneebone stands next to "399 Days". 70 tiles envelop the exterior. A narrow crack enables the spectator to glimpse the 67 tiles inside. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
"My body was constantly moving and working without break unless I was asleep. Using your body in that way, it was tough. I got stronger through the process of doing that, but weaker towards the end because of over doing (it) ... It's very different from my normal practice."

Pushing the boundaries of porcelain

Within her body of work, porcelain is sculpted to appear animated. Miniature legs spread wide, entangled and dismembered, seem to writhe both in ecstasy or the throes of death.
Details of "399 Days" Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The themes at the core of her work are transformation, the cycle of life, and the experience of inhabiting the body. But the artist will not reveal one specific meaning behind the imagery.
For Kneebone the monochrome quality of porcelain acts as a blank canvas. She encourages the viewer to decide for themselves.
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"My work moves around metamorphosis, change and simultaneous states, so nothing about it is fixed," she says.
This theme of impermanence slices through the artwork.
Each clay sculpture, destined for the kiln and fired to more than 1000 degrees, may not survive. The heat can either create or destroy, something the artist is totally at ease with.
"I am quite reassured when a work explodes because I think that means I am pushing the boundaries of the material."
"399 Days" by Rachel Kneebone is at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until 14 January 2018
Watch the video above to learn more about "399 Days"
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