Charged Spaces: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain (2017)

When Tower Hamlets Council opted to indulge its more philistine tendencies and demolished Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ in early 1994, people with even the slightest sensitivity could imagine how they would come to regret it. For those with eyes saw what jobsworths like the infamous Councillor Flounders could never see; that ‘House’ was the most significant public art work in Britain for at least a generation. It was also the most uncompromising and mysterious. A building turned inside out that linked together our individual experiences of the domestic spaces we inhabit. Every detail a reflection of something lost, absence made solid. Before it was even finished, Whiteread spoke about how she imagined ‘House’ as having the quality of a excavated fossil. Marking something relevant that had once existed. 193 Grove Road in East London was the lone building from which the sculpture emerged. It had been a home with a unique story, but now would serve as a collective memorial. Not to the fallen in war or a great leader, but instead to the lost spaces we each carry within us. The work was a logical extension of her 1990 breakthrough cast ‘Ghost’, which itself was born from a desire to somehow “mummify the air in a room”. To hold it’s history and reveal poetry. Or as Adrian Searle called it in his review of this exhibition in the Guardian newspaper “making solid a volume of air”.

For just a short time then, ‘House’ stood alone and vulnerable as the press pictures and grainy video footage were seen all over the world, making it a cause célèbre. Yet long after its demise the artist remained philosophical about the whole affair: “Its a shame it didn’t have the chance to become invisible, like architecture is invisible”. To fit into its setting and play a useful role once the fanfare had subsided. Yet in a strange way, it could be said ‘House’ did go on to have a second life (or even a third one, depending on how you interpret the sculpture). If one considers that it still has meaning, reverberating today as a powerful idea and ‘after image’.

Whiteread hates what she calls ‘Plop’ art. Public sculpture ‘dumped’ in a location without any relevance or sensitivity to its surroundings. Having been accused of occasionally ‘plopping’ herself, she is actually very careful to do thorough research about the context and history of the locations for her own public works; making sure they are in place for a ‘coherent reason’. “I think a lot of public sculpture is ill-thought-out and put in places it shouldn’t necessarily be. It then becomes something that is sort of invisible. People don’t even notice it”.

'House' (1993)

‘House’ (Front View 1993)

The ‘House’ case was interesting in other ways too. For in the early 1990s Britain was reevaluating its relationship to contemporary art (even if only superficially) and here was a work that divided opinion between people; especially in influential media circles who loved to make a sensation out of anything cultural. In the same way, general public reaction to ‘House’ was mixed; yet many identified with the subject matter as seen in a new and surprising way, that somehow managed to touch them. Somebody even wrote on it’s side ‘What For’, to which the riposte ‘Why Not!’ was later added. Sadly, the work disappeared before it could acquire the mainstream status of a sculptural icon like ‘Angel of the North’. Personally I feel that had ‘House’ survived, it would probably have been accepted by a grudgingly affectionate public, who usually ‘come round’ to new ideas in the end. Perhaps it might even have acquired a nickname in the time honoured tradition of ‘The Gherkin’. Whiteread had produced the work as her entry for 1993’s Turner Prize and won. But she also gained the ‘Worst’ art of the year award from the so-called ‘K Foundation’. Unlike the Turner Prize however, the criteria for the latter seemed more a reflection of the Foundation’s attention seeking tactics. Fun though as both prizes added to the growing debate about the purpose of public and contemporary art during that time.

Since the late 1980s, Rachel Whiteread has had a consistent approach to making art; creating diverse work that invites the viewer to a shared experience, through the reconfiguration of familiar spaces and objects. Her current exhibition ‘Rachel Whiteread’ is a ‘So- far’ retrospective. Containing three decades worth of sculptures and other material, it runs at Tate Britain until 21st January 2018. It’s worth quickly mentioning that Turner Prize aside, from early in her career the artist has had a supportive relationship with the Tate. I’ve seen several successful shows and exhibits there over the years.

Whiteread has a gift for the powerful yet understated; as well as an intuitive sense of the transformative power of artistic techniques. Each artwork is the product of an intense amount of thought and experiment. Although primarily known for casting objects in a variety of materials, she has explored several other areas of (artistic) practice. These include her exquisite and powerful drawings (Some on show in this exhibition, but exhibited in their own right by the Tate back in 2010). But there are always risks. As Laura Cumming pointed out in her review, also in the Guardian, “Everything (Whiteread) makes balances the possibility of poetry against the risk of banality”.

Does it matter that her technique and approach might be said to derive from Bruce Nauman, whose ‘Cast of the Space Under My Chair’ (1965-8) is an obvious forerunner for a work like ‘One Hundred Chairs’? I don’t think so. Surely what’s important is where that initial idea took her. Also, although there are formal similarities to Minimalist sculpture evident in her work, no piece by Whiteread is ever abstract in the conventional sense; because however altered, each has a reflection in the real world of objects and spaces. When confronting her floor piece for the first time, it might appear to be a simple sculpture, but is in fact quite the opposite. Not purely formal, even though it could be said to give a conscious nod to Carl Andre’s famous ‘Pile of Bricks’ ‘Equivalent 8’. Because it is a cast of a floor, not the floor itself (Andre’s bricks are after all, just bricks arranged and re contextualised). The ideas of Gordon Matta-Clark too; who’s interventions in architecture were also an early inspiration for Whiteread. His investigative approach.

One of the criticisms for the way Whiteread works has been that it is basically the refinement and extension of a single idea. i.e. the casting of hidden spaces. Some see only so much mileage in this. Like Mark Hudson in ‘The Telegraph’. But “similarity doesn’t mean sameness” as Adrian Searle puts it. Laura Cumming makes the insightful point that “Replication can border on repetition; facsimile, no matter in what medium, colour, configuration or scale, doesn’t always lead to transformation. But when these elements are in perfect alignment, she is a poet of the past.”

The artist once summed up her modus operandi as “a linear process of thinking, illustrated by sculpture”. Over the years, Whiteread and her team have developed ever more complex and surprising techniques that are the means to create works, not ends in their own right. Techniques that feed back into the creative process, suggesting other possibilities. Some of these are in the area of casting, but others like two dimensional laser cutting for example, take the artist in altogether different directions. Whiteread’s choice of titles for her work sometimes give us an insight into her thinking at their time of making. ‘Shallow Breath’ for example offers a poetic and suggestive interpretation, laced with humour. Yet many pieces are left untitled or given purely descriptive names like ‘Closet’ or ‘Table and Chair’. Many more are numbered or partly titled, as if the product of a process.

In her work, Whiteread manages to strip away unnecessary surface in order to reveal the ‘bare bones’ of spaces we inhabit. The resulting forms are solid ghosts that trace the parameters of our human activity, parred down so as to reveal hidden patterns and traces. Or she will identify and extract forms from objects found amid the cacophony of everyday life and change them into something new. Her enquiring mind is constantly in ‘receive mode’ and she is an avid collector of unusual things, which can inform her choices of subject matter. Examples of these are presented in the adjacent room to the main gallery.

This exhibition is presented in a huge extended gallery space; especially adapted to contain examples of work from throughout her career. The open setting really does Whiteread’s work justice and enables the viewer to confront each piece in sympathy with its scale; giving them plenty of room to be adequately experienced (even if the lighting might appear a little too ‘even’). The layout of the show is ‘open plan’ and examples are placed with nothing but lines on the floor to demarcate the artificial boundaries set between the space of the works and the viewer. Nothing to spoil a direct connection. Certain examples are stood leaning against the bare white walls, resting on the floor, such as the ‘Door’ space casts. There are no plinths either, only a few works displayed on small shelves or where necessary, behind glass. This setting makes the appreciation of the larger works easier. Such as ‘Stairs’ and ‘Room 101’. Not to mention the floor sculpture.

It is worth mentioning at this point that even the best reproductions I’ve seen cannot adequately convey the experience of seeing Whiteread’s sculptures or drawings at first hand. So this show is a very welcome opportunity to view many varied examples not often brought together.

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‘Untitled’ (Clear Torso) 1993

‘Torso’ (1988) is the first object we see in the show. An early example of the artist exploring the transformation of an object through the casting process. In this case, the interior of an of old hot water bottle. Laying there, it appears supine and helpless. In some way provoking in the viewer a human response without using especially ‘human’ features. You can see why she returned to the subject over and over in the nearby vitrine, producing a variety of these little casts in different materials; each with their unique quality and character, like the one above. But I have to say none of these comes close to the magic of that first example.

Her work is never obvious, but can seem deceptively simple. Take an early piece like ‘Ether’ (1990). You are presented with the cast cavity; from between the outside of a bathtub and presumably the location in which it sat. This intimate space has been transmuted into a funereal or clinical object. Set in a rectangular ‘box’ that looks like a Sarcophagus. The artist has spoken often about people’s attitudes to death in relation to her work. “Memories that are left behind”. One certainly has these things in mind when experiencing the work and it left me feeling slightly vulnerable; akin to being naked in a hospital. ‘Ether’ also demonstrates another aspect of her art. How well crafted each piece is.

It is clear from interviews that the artist is fascinated with Lutyens’ Cenotaph as an object and the way it functions. Also how these kinds of Memorials relate to the societies that made them. This sensitivity to places and locations has enabled her to successfully take on emotive historical subjects and themes. Most famously, her ‘Holocaust Memorial’ in Judenplatz, Vienna. This extraordinary work was completed in difficult circumstances at a time when Austria was struggling to come to terms with its complicity in Nazi affairs.

Although opinions and impressions will invariably differ about what the work represents and how it functions, here are mine for what they are worth. An inverted cast of a whole library, with its doors eternally closed, manages to somehow express the void at the heart of the Holocaust. That which can never be fully expressed or quantified. As a memorial, it acknowledges the existence of those stripped of their identity and possessions in an attempt to erase their very existence in the past or future. The shadow of books closed forever taking us beyond words.

Judenplatz, the location of this ‘Closed Library’, had been significant to the Jews of Vienna since medieval times. Yet the work itself stands as a Memorial to all those who perished or lost something of their lives because of the Holocaust.

We have a photograph of the Memorial on display, but in the main gallery can be seen casts of books on shelves, of which the ink traces appear on several. For Whiteread, her ‘Holocaust Memorial’ clearly demonstrates that the process of creation is never just an dry academic exercise or ‘art for art’s sake’ formula. Art of whatever size and scale should always speak of deeper things.

'Holocaust Memorial (1995)

‘Holocaust Memorial’ (Judenplatz, Vienna 2000)

In 2003 Whiteread cast the interior of ‘Room 101’ at BBC Broadcasting House, which was the inspiration for Orwell’s infamous nemesis chamber from ‘1984’. Although the sculpture we see on display need not be interpreted purely with this in mind, it does of course add a layer of association with that place of mortal terror made solid. In Orwell’s book ‘Room 101’ is the ultimate destination of transgressors from the rigid principles of a totalitarian society and contains the ‘worst thing in the world’, which of course differs for each individual. ‘Room 101’ stands near the centre of the exhibition and has all the characteristics of the artists work. This of course includes straddling the borders between sculpture and installation; being the enclosure of a physical space as well as an object within it.

I haven’t yet mentioned the implicit satire and political aspect of Whiteread’s art. Her meditations on the nature of personal spaces pose questions about how we measure and divide these up (and in who’s interest). This is obvious in a work like ‘House’, but I thought most successfully achieved in one of her brilliant collages (not on display in this show), depicting a series of cardboard boxes meticulously fixed on graph paper. The boxes are empty, but of the kind we fit our personal possessions into when moving. They are precisely arranged either for presentation or as a quantity; contained in the lower half of the otherwise empty graph paper. The work seems to suggest that everything can be quantified and measured, even the experience of our lives. Reduced down to nothing more than a number or combination. Of course, that’s my reading and the same piece could be interpreted in many other ways. Yet whatever your point of view, Whiteread’s work is never dogmatic. It relies on the viewer making of it what they will.

‘Untitled (Amber Bed) 1991 is a rubber cast of the gap under a bed in between the mattress and the floor. This ‘negative’ space perhaps surprisingly, seems to echo the form of the mattress above and on first viewing might be seen as simply a cast of it. But you can see the holes of the bed’s legs in the substance of the sculpture, as well as a negative of it’s underside texture, transferred onto the surface. The artist selected such subjects because we can all relate to them. In this case, talking about the childlike experience of hiding under the bed.

The drawings often look hard won; beautiful, mysterious and precise. As if stripped backed layers of time, like the hidden paint on old walls. The paint or ink used on the treated papers is often opaque and translucent; but sometimes impasto, almost sitting in relief on the surface of the paper.

Several recent wall pieces on show at the Tate arrived directly from the studio, cast in papier-mâché. Their ambiguity in terms of both subject and substance are intriguing and a new direction for the artist. The papier-mâché actually resembles concrete, but the forms it takes could be said to come from the language of stonework; in particular architectural fragments of antiquity. Or civic facades. These wall sculptures have multiple layers of meaning and association of course. The solid stone of antiquity reduced to pulped paper and water. Vulnerable in some way and malleable, they would probably dissolve on contact with water.

In the anteroom just off the main gallery are many more exhibits. A film projected in this part of the exhibition combines video footage, recorded at various times during the lifetime of ‘House’. You can see people trudging around with a variety of expressions on their faces that offer a picture of mixed responses. (See for yourself at the following link: https://youtu.be/ZVueGlKQTE8).

Within the nearby vitrine can be seen many small objects and notes; things that are significant in one way or another to the artist. I was particularly struck by these. A knife, fork and spoon have been cast and reconstituted. Reimagined. They appear as a clever fusion of cast and mould; suggestive of the process of making or even natural weathering. Like something you might find at Pompeii. Whiteread has spoken about casting a spoon and how in the process “It lost the spooness of the spoon”. Those early small experiments capture the excitement she must have had on discovering the transformative possibilities of casting. Another highlight here for me was the jewel like resin casts of soap/dishes. The presentation of all these wonderful things reminiscent of a medieval cabinet of curiosities.

‘Watertower’ from 1998 peels back the imaginary skin of one of New York’s iconic utilitarian structures. The transparent cast interior is iridescent in the sunlight, playing with our perception of solid and liquid and more besides. Slotting seamlessly into its background setting and yet standing out, should your eye by chance be lucky enough to come upon it.

'Watertower' (1998)

‘Watertower’ (1998)

There are many exhibits to be seen presented outside the main galleries. These include ‘One Hundred Spaces’ from 1995, which is five rows of resin casts made from the underside spaces of old chairs. Whiteread has also selected a display of other artists to coincide with her own exhibition that includes work by Richard Deacon, Anthony Caro and Robert Morris among others. Also, outside Tate Britain in Millbank Garden is one of the artist’s recent ‘Shy’ sculptures called ‘Chicken Shed’. Made especially for this exhibition and never seen by the public before, I thought it less monumental than her previous large casts of buildings I’ve seen.

Rachel Whiteread is one of our finest artists and this current exhibition showcases her work very well. Because there is such a wide range of examples on display, I’ve had to focus on only a few in this review. Yet everything presented here at the Tate gives us the chance to see the familiar objects and spaces of our lives with fresh eyes. Even the small supporting items that Whiteread has chosen to exhibit alongside the major works, give us an insight into her creative process and I think her inquisitive character too. Rachel Whiteread is always surprising and the more you engage with her work, the more you get from it. Even seemingly mundane configurations of form have unusual presences and levels of association. Certain recent works are missing, like examples of the wonderful ‘Place (Village) (2006-2008)’. But in practical terms, they would have required an additional gallery space. (Still if you’ve not seen this installation, it is worth checking out on YouTube. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/ctapbOgYZI8). The overall layout and design of the exhibition is superb, but make sure to get your bearings as several of the exhibits are located at a distance from the main gallery.

In the end ‘Rachel Whiteread’ at Tate Britain leaves you with more questions than answers. Which to my mind is always the sign of a good show. But as a viewer you might just want to take in the beauty and wonder of work by an artist at the top of her game. If so you won’t be disappointed.

(C) Gideon Hall 2017