You could almost miss it – a small house-like structure, whitish-grey under a pale January sun, like a shy guest in Tate Britain’s front yard. Rachel Whiteread’s Chicken Shed (2017) is one of the many outdoor structures which the British sculptor has chosen to cast from the inside out – recording its absence rather than its presence, making it a ghost of its former self. She calls these works from this recent series “shy sculptures” – usually located in remote landscapes that are far less accessible than a museum in Pimlico – an endearing term that gives them a personality and life while also establishing their relationship witin a space. There is a paradox in showing a “shy” sculpture in the gardens of Tate Britain, as an opening note to a major retrospective of Rachel Whiteread’s works. Yet, in many ways that is precisely the point – showing the way in which a shy idea, a shy presence (or absence) can create a quiet murmur in our head, calmly question and make us reassess our relationship to objects, their presence and the way they relate to our own memories.
Curated by Ann Gallagher, Linsey Young, Helen Delaney and Hattie Spires, the retrospective exhibition is a testimony to the power of a single idea to be broken down and turned up on its head…or in this case, inside out. Starting with early domestic experiments in the late 80s, the artist’s fascination with the nature of the plaster cast is established from the very beginning is established ; so is her obsession with casting not the presence of an object but filling in its negative spaces. Her takeover of domestic objects and those she finds in junk shops or on the streets soon expands to take over a variety of materials such as resin and rubber. The power of such a simple but perfected experimentation is shown with series such as the Torsos series. Aluminium, wax, concrete or rubber poured into a “torso-like” structure are laid bare in their cast final form. It feels very weird to say that you spent twenty minutes in front of the casts of the insides of water bottles or enemas (yes, enemas) but…somehow it works. There is something immediately attracting and satisfying about the way these structures play off each other with their change in colour and texture while retaining the same basic shape, one that Whiteread has described as resembling “headless, limbless babies”. In any other body of work (pun intended), that would be ideal nightmare fuel, yet Whiteread makes it work and throughout the display manages to create this visual tension between the material used, the industrial processes of filling and destroying and the organic elements it reminds us of. An obsession with the material to convey the body but also its immateriality, its absence, its ghost.
Whiteread’s works on paper provide a rare insight in the way in which these sculptures take shape, showing her dissection of the structures whose presence we take for granted : houses, staircases. As a response to these small sketches, two monumental results : Untitled (Room 101) (2003) and Untitled (Stairs) (2001), both white, hollowed out fragments of two fragments of literature and history. The first is the cast of a room of BBC’s Broadcasting House in which Orwell was said to have found inspiration for the Room 101 in 1984. The second is a cast of the stairs of an East London warehouse repurposed into an old synagogue in which she moved her studio. One immortalises the legacy of a room on modern literature, the other the life of a building reflecting the life of London itself, made of repurposing and transformation. The monumental is contrasted with the minimal – in the case of a small selection of composition presented on neat shelves, small still life composition cast from mundane objects like loo rolls. Here shape counts as much as colour coordination, a rare splash of colours together in a room of plaster whites and green and pinkish resins. In a display that at first sight looks so polished and neat, ghosts and remnants of memories abound and surround the objects. The cast boxes in a corner may seem like another formal experiment ; yet they indicate a childhood spent moving around, box to box. The power of everyday objects to convey memory and make us reflect upon the spaces we live in – and how we live within them – is never drowned out by the monumental sculptures around. Among these is an arresting fragment of the process behind the public commission of the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna (2000) – a cast of books in a library, a library that cannot be opened or perused, walled into silence and commemoration.
While the plan indicates a loose chronological narrative which can be experienced counter-clockwise, the immense room breaks down any notion of chronology and fragmentation in its very format. Its layout without walls or partitions means visitors are left to wander around, either free to follow a loose sense of chronological order around the room, abandon it halfway through or ignore it entirely, creating erratic patterns that lose the obsession with a timeline or “progression.” The curators and designers of the exhibition may have anticipated the way in which Whiteread’s works creates latent ripple effects that often produce their first effect after you have wandered away ; you feel compelled to return, look closer, look again. You also probably want to bite into some of the resin. I’m sorry, but we were probably all thinking it, especially with sculptures as mouth-watering and beautifully executed as Hive (2007-8) below. One of the highlights of the exhibition was actually to see it work on so many levels, with many children within the space taking full advantage of this experience of sculpture conveying so many different sensory impressions and recollections. Touching with the eyes is a passé expression, but it works here, for a series of works which feels so sensuous and tactile at times. For a popular and crowded exhibition which did actively welcome such a free pattern of wandering around, it never felt claustrophobic – proof that the response to the increasing popularity of museums is not to limit entry or hike up fees, as some have unconvincingly argued lately, but to adapt your exhibition design accordingly. As people took the time to sit on the vast bench at the centre of the room, rest and talk amongst themselves within the vast negative spaces between works engaging with that very idea, and as the space became visibly more accessible to people with pushchairs or wheelchairs, the experience felt a lot more restful than it usually does, without the sensation of being shepherded through a succession of corridor-like rooms on to the next decade, and the next, and the next.
Furthermore, this could not be more fitting for a body of work which many have often qualified as repetitive, but which, in the artist’s books, is intentionally embracing this by responding to an issue whose variations and possibilities are endless. The white room does literally respond to the idea of an impersonal white cube, but in this case it beautifully fits the very spirit around which Whiteread’s work finds its sources of inspiration : an immaculate shell encompassing upside-down casts, fascinating and unearthly in their pristine nature. Yet in some ways this could be seen as an issue : too white, too clean and too polished in contrast with the artist’s process and her sources of inspiration rooted in a very real, dirty, organic world. The elements of this inspiration and process can be found outside the ticketed entry to the exhibition space, in an interesting corridor display that displays a collection of eccentric found objects. It feels odds to have such a strict seperation of these in contrast with the finished work inside and it would have been interesting to compromise with a few more sculptures on display in this freely accessible corridor with, in exchange, a few more found objects inside. However, the format of an exhibition spreading beyond its ticketed room is interesting and shows a willingness to acknowledge not only different ways of experiencing an exhibition within a museum space, but also a conscious effort to have new, free alternatives for visitors outside of shifting collection display for people who understandly find the price of exhibition admission too steep.
This is the same corridor which displays a series of her public commissions – also questioning whether or not the cast bookshelves within the main room could have been shown here in some shape or form. While her works such as Monument for Trafalgar Square (2001) or the Holocaust Memorial are documented through photographs, perhaps one of her more famous projects, House (1993) benefits from its own film to replace the work itself destroyed back in 1994, a step by step exploration documented by the artist herself of the casting of an entire Victorian-style house within an East London park. It is fascinating in its uncovering of the « messiness » of her process in contrast with the pure, finished results. The vacant home she takes over for the project also shows something of the violence in stripping down and hollowing out not only a historically relevant piece of housing but perhaps one that could have still been lived in. An arresting moment in the documentary shows Whiteread filming a set of clothing drying on a hanging line near the boarded up house just before it is to be emptied and expressing concern because the house is “meant to be unoccupied.” The owner of the clothing is not found nor is the incident mentioned again ; a ghost and a visible absence within a documentary about making a house a shell of its former, lived-in self. The finished result is arresting, disturbing : seeing the process of upturning an object full of context has almost more impact after marvelling at the neatness of the translucent shells within the room.
Documentary of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) (Online version via Artangel)
Wandering outside of the corridor, the Duveen Gallery is invaded by two displays facing off on one another. There is Whiteread’s installation Untitled (100 spaces), translucent, gelatin-like resin casts of the underside of chairs, glistening as they are walked around (okay, my first serious art critic thought was actually “Gummy bears”, and I stand by that). Facing it, another fascinating sidenote to the exhibition : a selection of sculptures from the Tate collection selected by Whiteread in collaboration with curators. These are fascinating in their lack of an obvious narrative linking back directly to Whiteread’s work, instead allowing for a look at sculpture’s play with monumentality, texture and perception, playing with what we think we expect from sculpture and what it makes us discover instead through experimentation and risk-taking. This is a great idea, one that allows to link back a temporary exhibition to a wide-ranging experience of both the collection, British sculpture and contemporary sculpture as a whole. Modern British sculpture such as Barbara Hepworth rubs shoulders with Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren, a casual fragment of sculptural art history seen through the eyes of one of its contemporary pioneers.
The exhibition is strong through its fluidity, perfectly reflecting the way in which Whiteread’s work has articulated itself through a single, shy but persistent notion : inner lives, presences and absences. She shows a vision of the world in which we should question why we preserve things, how and why – and does so in a way which always feels deeply intimate yet casual, like a quiet but engaging conversation. Shyness sounds underrated. Rachel Whiteread’s expression of the quiet but magnetic power of objects over the past few decades shows that it is anything but.