Installation view of RACHEL KNEEBONE’s “Ovid in Exile” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2017. Photo by Kitmin Lee. Courtesy the artist and White Cube.

Ovid in Exile

Rachel Kneebone

White Cube
Hong Kong UK

A fresh coat of burgundy on the interior walls of White Cube gallery in Hong Kong evoked the feeling of theatre drapes, providing a classical backdrop for the grouping of Rachel Kneebone’s lily-white porcelain sculptures interspersed throughout the two-floor venue. For her first solo show in Hong Kong, inspired by themes of transformation and ephemerality in Roman poet Ovid’s magnum opus Metamorphoses, Kneebone created a series of works based on the myths narrated in the epic poem, with explicit referential titles such as Daphne (2015), Salmacis (2016), Narcissus (2016) and Ovid in Exile(2016).

In these works, Kneebone subverts traditional qualities attached to porcelain, such as stillness, symmetry and solidity. The ceramic models, most of which measure from 30 to 60 cm in height, feature amorphous limbs, collapsed pedestals, fluid porcelain strips and floral clusters. Traces left by the artist’s fingers reveal the hasty and frantic modeling process, yet the virginal pallor of the material and the watery glaze coat counteracts the chaotic assembly. In this series, Kneebone once again turns to a familiar shape and form that has appeared previously in her work: the orb. Appearing like the eye of the storm, the sphere appears three times in the sculptures of Salmacis (2016), Daphne(2015) and Narcissus (2016). In these works, the orb acts as an amulet or a panacea to these tales of turmoil, transformation and anxiety—conditions that Kneebone considers as symptoms of contemporary psyche.

RACHEL KNEEBONE‘Ovid in Exile’ I, 2016, pencil on paper, 59.4 × 42 cm. Photo by George Darrell. Courtesy the artist and White Cube.

RACHEL KNEEBONEDaphne, 2015, porcelain. Photo by Ben Westoby. Courtesy the artist and White Cube.

RACHEL KNEEBONESalmacis, 2016, porcelain, 62 × 56 × 54 cm. Photo by Ben Westoby. Courtesy the artist and White Cube.

RACHEL KNEEBONENarcissus, 2016, porcelain, 40 × 64.8 × 83.4 cm. Photo by Ben Westoby. Courtesy the artist and White Cube.

As legend goes, the nymph Daphne was attempting to flee from the aggressive sexual advances of the god Apollo, and in the process morphed into a laurel tree. Kneebone’s statue reflects this tale aesthetically. The upper part consists of a cluster of legs reaching to the sky like the boughs of a tree, while the lower part is twisted into chunky clumps, appearing mud-like and rooted to the earth. At the center of this transformation sits an orb that appears to have absorbed the essence of Daphne’s human form, which is absent from the sculpture. In comparison with the famous, figurative 17th century sculpture Apollo and Daphne by Bernini, Kneebone’s sphere among the abstraction of clumped clay is symbolic representation of perfection transcendent of any formal detail. The statue also suggests a critical view on the high value placed on beauty—the only way Daphne can escape being raped is to surrender her female form, which has become a point of obsession for Apollo, arguably a metaphor for contemporary media.  

The orb in Narcissus (2016), on the other hand, sits within a much looser and unstable ensemble. The statue is covered with white strips of formless porcelain, much like the limbs of the self-absorbed Narcissus, who was so entranced by his own reflection in the water that he fell in love with and transformed into a daffodil. When one gazes at the symmetrical round globe, he or she might feel connected to Narcissus’ all-consuming desire for perfection.

The orb’s representation of beauty is even more apparent in Salmacis (2016), which depicts the moment when the titular character merges with her lover Hermaphroditus, forming a singular hermaphrodite figure. When viewed from the front, one sees a bound mass. Only when viewing the work from behind could one see that the sculpture is actually formed of two parts, with a ball nestled in the porcelain pleats. This orb, located at the heart of the hermaphrodite, signifies society’s failure to recognize singular male and female forms as being whole. Even in biology, only monoclinous flowers possessing both stamens and carpels are referred to, clinically, as “perfect.”

Kneebone’s sculptures capture the otherwise fluid process of transformation, a process that has been at the crux of society’s struggles from the time of Ovid’s literature till now. The omnipresent orb reveals humanity’s shortcomings in our obstinate, and often futile, pursuit of beauty, and underscores the myth of Narcissus, whose ending should be a cautionary tale to all.

Installation view of RACHEL KNEEBONE’s “Ovid in Exile” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2017. Photo by Kitmin Lee. Courtesy the artist and White Cube.

Rachel Kneebone’s “Ovid in Exile” is on view at White Cube Hong Kong, until August 19, 2017.

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