399 Days – Rachel Kneebone

Contemporary sculpture at the V & A, London.

399 Days is a tower of white ceramic, a monumental contortion of barbie legs by Rachel Kneebone  at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Standing nine panels high and seven around, each one the size of a large floor tile, it consists, as much of her sculpture has, of female human limbs sticking out at all angles – a 3D tumble of lower body parts. Holding its own amongst the classics, it is sited cheek by jowl with traditional male statuary – sculpted nudes the colour of blanched almonds: the Rape of Prosperpina, the massively violent Samson Smiting a Philistine (by Giambologna), Jason, and Narcissus (incidentally the name of one of her other works) – and is redolent of Rodin’s famous studies but lacking the muscularity.

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Samson Smiting a Philistine by Giambologna in the V & A Museum, London

Complex in both its sexuality and asexuality, the shiny, almost alabaster surface is similar to, but contrasts with, the matt marble skin we are used to in the halls of the Greeks. 399 Days is chaotic and disorderly next to the Classical form and structure of the ancient ones. Some of Kneebone’s have neat, hairless hints of vaginal cracks – there is nothing natural or wild about them except the overall disarray and partial sculptural splits as if they broke in firing and have been purposely left as reminders of the changes we undergo through age, and of imperfection. These types of legs in fact call to mind the physical ‘perfection’ of upright models with oh-so-slim pins. Have these shop dummy legs been discarded? Are they unwanted or rejected? If so, by whom? 

We think of  more contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois’ Untitled (with foot) who subverts the feminine image in order to both comment and question.

Louise Bourgeois Untitled (with foot)
Untitled (with foot) by Louise Bourgeis

There are sections which include the ornate decoration familiar from Old Master’s picture frames: cloth and wreaths cast in cold porcelain not gilt, orbs and semi-orbs which are a recurring theme in her work (The Area on Whose Brink Silence Begins 2015), and which I then notice on building facades and ornate Rococo altars as I make my way around London. Referencing the art and decoration which went before hers in this way forces us to site the work in the context of the voyeurism and appropriation of that tradition.  

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399 Days by Rachel Kneebone

More chilling are the images of mass graves which are invoked – interlaced piles of chilly nudeness – again that implication that human life is worthless, throw-away, making it impossible to identify them. There is no personal element, as if that would make us question the apparently random distribution. On closer inspection, it is clear that some have pregnant bellies though they are the bodies of girls not women. There is no prettiness, and there are some arrangements and juxtapositions which almost trick the viewer into forgetting they are life copies, where the legs protrude from a central point, for example, like a bunch of stalks with feet as flower heads.

Depending how you approach the Medieval and Renaissance Collection where Kneebone’s sculpture is situated, you may glance into the Cast Courts and see Master Oudrey‘s plaster version of the original 1st century AD stone Trajan’s Column, ‘iconic monument of the classical world’.

Trajan's Column
Trajan’s Column, V & A Museum, London

It is a frieze of low relief from Rome depicting the history of Trajan’s campaign. Once again using a form from an earlier era, 399 Days literally turns such figures upside down, depriving them of the rest of their body and fascinating the onlooker who must tour and crane to appreciate her artistry.

shop deco Regent Street, London
Lengths of white fake flowers adorn a shop in Regent’s Street London. 


This V&A is at Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL. There is also a new one in Dundee., Scotland.

The Just Festival, Edinburgh

Just Festival St John’s Church, Edinburgh.

3-26 Aug 2018

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Age and Stage, Just Festival theatre, Edinburgh.

At a time when I hear so many people worrying over the future and being anxious about the lack of care they see around them, I welcome the annual socially-conscious Just Festival. On their classy website, they state that they are “in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrating humanity in all its differences, and promoting the exploration of new perspectives with the aim of reducing religious, political and social intolerance.” This is a tall order but a mighty refreshing one.

The festival is divided and formed into sections: performance (dance, theatre, music), visual arts, conversations, talks, storytelling and a view (includes a short film) are all encompassed in this programme which hopes to challenge perceptions, celebrate differences and promote respectful dialogue, both religious and non-religious.

Just has made impressive alliances with recognised charities, universities, social groups and community projects which add specialist knowledge, depth and cudos to their events. In the conversations it is notable that there are experts, academics as well as artists on the panels, promising a well-rounded approach.

The honest shape of our communities, where many people do not have the type of contact with others which they desire, is tackled across the genres: Inner Circle, one of these conversations focuses on the LGBTQ population; Trapped in Isolation and Connected Lives, in the theatre category, look at loneliness and the complex reasons why folk may feel alone and ostracised. Let It Art, in the visual art camp, shows the work of youngsters in response to how they view peace, conflict, terrorism, and violence; and Identity and Belonging uses storytelling and photographs expressing individuality in the light of ageing.

The stated aim of tackling “freedom towards a united world” shows itself in Mandela’s Legacy (100 years after his death the panel ask what can be learned from his work and influence), Brexit Means Anxiety, and Faith In Politics. Closely related is the international connection: Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s play The Island examines “the situation of black political prisioners”; Sounds from Gold Coast will no doubt bring exuberance and joy to the hall at St John’s using rhythm, harmony and dance; and We Are will be “bouncing off their own ethnic roots” and, “Inspired by, and dedicated to, the women of Ghana, West Africa, who gather under the full moon, they tell stories of sorrow and joy.”

There is a sense of genuine self-questioning and fresh topics of conversation with Slaves In Scotland, Ethics of Aid and in the theatre section with Where Are You Really From? looking at migration and asylum.

It is clear that here has been impressive attention paid to the balance between the sexes throughout the planning stage (see Faith-based Courts for example); and Fierce Females (a view which includes a film), Every Girl Matters (conversation), and Take Refuge Under My Shade (dance) all contribute to equal representation.

There is a most promising sub-section entitled Death on the Fringe. Death is a subject about which we have been famously silent in the west, that is until the last few years when the rise of the Death Cafes (started in Fife btw) and the preponderance of blogs and books on related issues have launched a new era of openness and a desire to speak and share about this topic (see the Wee Review of Richard Holloway’s Waiting for the Last Bus). This talk series encompasses the “surprising history” of the Scottish Funeral by acclaimed speaker Eddie Small; and an account by Awdri Doyle of her Life of a Funeral Director. In addition, you might have heard of birth doulas. This model has now been used for the end of life, so given that “The mortality rate in Scotland remains at 100%” the third presentation in this sequence, End-of-Life Doulas, is from Hilary who works in the role of  “making death better”.

The Just programme has some great images, a wide spread of events covering a diversity of right-up-to-the-moment ideas and themes and a plethora of participants from young to older and from all over the world.

Top of the agenda is respect and the right to self-expression, and using the arts as well as more straightforward debate and exchange, this festival is seriously Just!

 

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Where Are You Really from? theatre, Just Festival, Edinburgh.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans.

Ecstasy is vital to life! Philosopher advocates losing control with humility. 

4 star

In The Art of Losing Control, A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience,  Jules Evans is concerned with ecstasy – ”Can we learn to lose control safely,’’ he asks, ”or is it always dangerous?‘’ In 10 chapters and 250 pages of compact type, he makes a clear case for this basic human need and concludes that without it, we, as a species, are in danger.

This is Evans’ second book after Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations about Ancient Greek philosophy; and as a modern day philosopher and stoic with a high profile (he runs The London Philosophy Club, and is a Research Fellow at the University of London), he has some considerable authority in the field, which is not immediately apparent as I plough my way through the first half. This is partly because he can be dismissive of views he cannot understand: ”all sorts of nonsense, from horoscopes to…”, and partly because it is a mixture of formal and informal writing where one minute there is a first hand account of an orgy, and the next, the author is getting to grips with deep intellectual debate.

It is not that this is a tricky academic tome or too choc-full of dense language, but that there really are very many references, and its scope is grandiose, covering as it does, all of civilisation. In fact, as I move from a chapter on psychedelic drugs to a chapter on rock music through the ages; from The Contemplation Zone to The Tantric Love Temple at an imaginary festival (which is his device and thence his structure), I become increasingly persuaded that Evans is an authority and by the Mosh Pit – chapter 8 about war being an ecstatic experience – convinced also that this is a vital book and ecstasy is something we should indeed all be concerned with. He gets closer than most in identifying why we have not yet attained the nirvana we are searching for, and makes a good stab at how we might go about getting it.

It is a work of far-reaching research, both literary and personal: He attends a Vipassana meditation; an Alpha Christian course where the ensuing community support means a lot to him; as well as often referring to his teenage NDE (‘near death experience’. He has the ability to sum up huge bodies of work (eg. CBT) and human movements (eg. Romanticism) in pithy understandable phrases, and though he does increasingly state his own view: ”We need to worship less, consume less, and play more.’ ‘ p. 90, and repeats that finding peace is hard work and can only be learned gradually, the book trips along and is very entertaining.

The Art Of Losing Control is published by Canongate.

Jules Evans own website with very popular blog.