Magazine - February 25, 1999
By SI SI PENALOZA
Time gives new meaning to intimacy
Rachelle Viader Knowles
really gives a shit. The Wales-born, Windsor, Ontario-based installation
artist is in-
trigued with the bathroom as a site of vulnerability and bodily anxiety.
The John, can, loo, crapper..., it's her primal scene, where the nature
of the beast is painfully obvious. Porcelain, vanity mirrors and claw-foot
tubs -- Knowles abstracts these trappings, exposing our inner impulse
to ritualize and sterilize the act of doing one's business.
Rushing into YYZ a bit late, I stop short at the sight of a woman
sitting cross-legged inside a white-tiled hot
tub. Knowles had told me on the phone that her work was "rather
large-scale." Monolithic,1'd say.
Knowles is dwarfed by the massive frame she's bolting together. The
tableau looks a little like the intro to an Alfred Hitchcock Presents
episode, when Hitchcock's head might pop out of a laundry machine.
The circular sculpture has a sci-fi feel to it. It's reminiscent of
50s ime machines, those stark pods out of which, it was imagined,
visitors from the future would emerge after landing in a suburban
lima-bean swimming pool.
When the installation is finished -- itopens Saturday (February 27)
-- the cool, ceramic surface Knowles has built will become a blank
screen onto which she projects her fear of holes, dread of decay and
fascination with defecation.
"Photographic images will be projected at eight-second intervals
onto the surface of the sculpture," she says. "There's quite
a bit of distortion as the images are projected over the deep dip
in the tub. I incorporate bathroom images, body images and nature
She sets up the projector to show me slides she's using in the installa-
tion. A crown of curly brown hair. A shower-curtain ring. A wisp of
underarm hair. A rusty drain. It takes a minute to discern what some
of the fractured shapes are.
Knowles cues up the accompanying recording for me, then leaves me
alone to listen. A voice, Knowles' own, with a British accent I associate
with Mary Poppins, starts to relate neurotic narratives. But Mary
Poppins never sang about shitting quite this way, though even the
way the British say "shitting" is kind of melodic.
All four stories relate to distress, time and black holes: Knowles'
girlhood dream about being swallowed up by the floor, a repetitive
dream about defecation, an episode where she's certain she'll break
her neck, and a flashback about a man fondling her breast while asking
her the time.
I try to imagine I'm seeing the finished installation, watching images
morph with the randomness of the narration. The piece presents itself
as a psychological space -- one of private parts, nakedness and humiliation.
"I really wanted the images and the narrative not to exist separately,
and not to be programmed together. When you see a certain image, you
don't hear a corresponding text. It's about making spontaneous connections
-- having images and words rubbing and relating," says Knowles.
This is highly personal, self-referential work. But as wary as I am
of the epidemic of art as therapy, I can't dismiss the value of Knowles'
personal experiences and how she has integrated them into her art.
If the piece seems self-indulgent or self-obsessed, it's only because
Knowles has been incredibly generous and honest in her work. She
hasn't succumbed to fashioning her identity and gender into precious
brown-paper packages tied up with string. That isn't sculpture, that's
a line from a Julie Andrews song.
Speaking of a few of my least favourite things, gratuitous bodily
orifices rub me the wrong way. I like hanging balls as much as the
next girl, but this had me gagging. Some of Knowles' images are a
tease, jarring just for their own sake. I tend toward her subtler,
more abstract suggestions.
From islands to continents, from parts to wholes, she weaves the rhythm
of words and the distortion of images.
Her interest in the body is related to her sense of ever-changing
"I had never used stories or narratives in my work until I got
to Canada. And the nature images I'm working with here also respond
to what it feels like to move to this hyped, hypernatural country
and wind up living in industrial Windsor."
On a practical level, Knowles is attracted to installation because
it requires her to demonstrate many skills -- from photography to
shaping fibreglass to sound recording.
''Every time I make a new piece I'm learning new skills and using
different equipment," she says. Before this
installation, she had never worked with grout or tiles. Approaching
the task with Bob Villa know-how, she executes her design very cleanly.
"It was quite a task," she says, "tiling that dip in
Knowles is exploring what we reveal andconceal, and how nature intervenes
and serves as a catalyst for revelations. Using everything from soapy
curtains to pristine white tiles, she opens up a sycophantic spa of
corporeal horrors. •