Art unfinished – looking at ‘399 days’ by Rachel Kneebone

Sometimes a work of art is transformed completely when displayed in a different place. Those who prefer the ‘white cube’ mode of display will argue that white walls allow the viewer to focus on a work of art without any distractions. I agree to a certain degree. I am not a big fan of old-fashioned art gallery displays where paintings are stacked on top of each other, or cramped rooms where it is impossible to give undivided attention to a single painting or sculpture. The curators at the V&A London decided to incorporate this contemporary sculpture into their Medieval and Renaissance gallery where it became the new centrepiece, partially due to its large size.

‘399 days’ by Rachel Kneebone (2012-2013, 540 × 287 × 283 cm, porcelain and mild steel )

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399 days by the British artist Rachel Kneebone is a towering ‘monument in the absence of a monument’, in the words of the artist [1]. The title reflects the length of time it took to complete it. Without a descriptive title there is no hint on how to read this piece. But there is something about this sculpture that makes it work, it has a strange beauty to it. Many of Kneebone’s works resemble ceramic wasters, piles of porcelain damaged in the process of firing and fused together. In 399 days the walls of the monument are constructed using porcelain plates. Each panel is different, there is no visual narrative, little sculptures simply morph into different things. Incomplete human figures (Kneebone often reduces human bodies to their lower parts or just legs) are interspersed with floral elements, discs and spheres. The plates are cracked, so are the steps forming the pedestal. Some of the individual panels look like classical monuments or tombstones breaking apart and swallowing the figures in the process.

In my eyes this work is close to an apocalyptic vision. When looking at it from different angles multiple art historical references spring to mind. Its form resembles Trajan’s column (a cast of which is displayed at the V&A in another room [2]), the figures echo sculptures by Rodin (several in the museum’s collection, but 399 days made me think specifically of Rodin’s Gates of Hell, which itself references a subject from medieval art) or visions of paradise and hell by Bosch. Bearing all this in mind I think this gallery is the perfect location for this work. The other artworks in this room add different layers of meaning to this sculpture and are themselves enriched by its presence. Look how the classical sculptures can be viewed almost as an extension to this piece.

the modern in dialogue with the old

I think the way we look at art is shaped by our previous experiences. Every artwork we see is informed by our past encounters with art. So there, this was my reading of 399 days, someone who loves religious art, who spent a large chunk of the past two years studying illuminated medieval manuscripts (and enjoyed every minute of it), and who marvelled at Rodin’s Gates of Hell in Paris.


Rachel Kneebone at the V&A is on view until 14 January 2021.


To learn more about this sculpture see the artist’s interpretation here:

See V&A website for more information about the Rachel Kneebone at the V&A display

For a definition of wasters see this link (scroll down, it’s under the letter W):




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