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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

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.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Yellow Torso), 1991, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

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.

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Rachel Whiteread, Stairs, 1995, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread 

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.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stairs), 2001, Tate (c) Rachel Whiteread, Photo (c) Tate (John Humphrys)

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.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Hive), 2007-8, private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

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.

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Rachel Whiteread, Chicken Shed (2017), the artist and Galleria Lorcan O’ Neill (c) Rachel Whiteread, photo (c) Tate 

 

Rachel Whiteread, Tate Britain, 12th September-21st January

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern

Images of war and conflict invade us more than ever before. The constant presence of them in photographs and videos, on television, in press, on the internet, is both an eye-opener to the horrors of wars far away from us yet strangely desensitizing when we become “accustomed” to them. 2014 has been rife with these images while museums have been concerned with a similar topic: the centenary of the beginning of World War I, which has launched a certain number of commemorative exhibitions documenting these first raw depictions of war in photography and painting.

In this context, I was not certain how to approach Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern before my visit: would this be a commemorative exhibition or an exploration of the way in which war photography has evolved in time? Would this be a display centred around photoreporters or artist’s interpretation of conflict? Time Conflict Photography was effectively made to coincide with the centenary, yet has chosen to focus on a wider scope of conflict spanning many time periods. Yet in a uniquely creative twist, these records of conflicts are not shown in their chronological order but in the order of time that followed the photographing of each conflict: moments later, days, weeks, months, several years later. As the curator of the exhibition Simon Baker elaborates, “We wanted to think about the way photographers have photographed moments of conflict after they have happened, thinking about their long-term effects.” Thus, even though a photograph of the atomic ‘mushroom’ over Hiroshima is shown in “moments later” by Toshio Fukata, further photographs of the ravaged city and its inhabitants will only appear several rooms later in “months later” or “years later”. It mirrors however Luc Delahaye’s much more recent photograph US Bombing on Taliban Positions in 2001, its peaceful depiction of a field with the dissipating cloud in the distance only making it more horrifying and ominous in its understatement.

Landscapes and buildings are the main protagonists of this series of photographs, whether this is moments or months and years later. The only survivors that will be able to last through time and serve as commemorative parts of the landscape in itself? Or the fact that the immediate human experience is too difficult to capture in film both physically and emotionally? Regardless, this only makes the appearence of portraits all the more poignant, like Shell-shocked Marine, Vietnam, Hue, taken in 1968 by Dan McCullin, a reporter, only moments after this soldier returned from the battlefield, showing the raw tramatic toll of war in a way that would be almost impossible now, due to the increasing alienation and sanitization of relations between war correspondants and the army.

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Don McCullin Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin

Strangely therefore, in this exhibition, death and suffering is alluded to but very rarely shown – the only elements that we are allowed to see are those that have survived the initial blow to be recorded. Yet this is purposefully the point of the exhibition: memory, its persistence and the fact that despite the disappearance of bodies, either immediately or in time, they are still inscribed within landscapes and objects. Sophie Ristelhuber’s immense desertic series of landscapes, Fait riddled with memories and objects of the Gulf War, lull us into aesthetic and almost abstract compositions to show us how nature has “absorbed” conflict but never forgotten it, in a way alike to our own process of memory and remembrance. In the ‘days, weeks, months later’ section, Simon Norfolk embarks on a similar process: using the romanticized idea of the “ruin”, he uses it to document the destruction of sites in Kabul in 2003, such as in this photograph below, taken in the Karte Char district of Kabul, in the aftermath of the conflict between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then Rabbani and Hazaras.

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Simon Norfolk Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. This area saw fighting between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then between Rabbani and the Hazaras 2003 © Simon Norfolk

In a different perspective, the photographs are often nondescript without further context on their history and meaning. Thus, Diana Matar’s series of seemingly uneventful and unharmed buildings means nothing without her captions integrated to the mosaic of works on display – in which she describes how these were revealed as torture dungeons following Ghaddafi, in 2012. In the same perspective, Chloé Dewe-Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn, in “years later”, shows peaceful landscapes in the north of France that retain no more memories of their past use – as spaces where deserters were shot. All that remains of them and their memory are these landscapes and their titles composed of their names.

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Chloe Dewe Mathews Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013 Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Other photographs take us back to an experience of bodies and objects that undermines the full horror of a war that can take its toll through the dead, but also through its survivors – such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki subject to radiation. How to represent what cannot be represented without an overwhelming feeling of horror? Kenji Ishiguro, with Hiroshima Now, shows the full frontal reality and brutality of war on surviving bodies, while Shomei Tomatsu participates in the record of objects and their ongoing, horrific reality in Hiroshima-Nagasaki document published in 1961. Hiromi Tsuchida’s photography of surviving objects coupled with quotes from the relatives and friends of the lost owners is probably the set of photographs that is hardest to watch, in its brutal and unforgiving honesty.

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Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Until now the scenography has been very sober, understated, white walls and sufficient space between the works as though to reinforce this passage of time. Sometimes an entire wall is dedicated only to one work, and allows us ample time to walk next to it, contemplate, before going on to the next set of photographs. This creates a slow, meditative pace that is quite soothing: despite the large amount of people, there was never a sense of feeling crammed into a space or crowding around to see a work. It felt appropriately timeless while showing us works recording a very precise time and place.

This setting abruptly changes as we enter a room labeled as the Archive of Modern Conflict, by the eponymous group that curated it. This somewhat elusive group houses an archive of photographs and artifacts related to wartime that publishes books based around this content, or curate exhibitions. Here, a central space was devoted to them, as “guest-curators”, interrupting the ongoing display. Contrasted with the main exhibition, this was a wartime cabinet of curiosities, with photographs collaged onto the wall like archival wallpaper, paraphernalia and trinkets in antiquated glass cabinets. This interruption was a surprise, and although it was interesting and fascinating in its own right, obviously jarring in the context of the exhibition’s usual sobriety and neatness. If I had been aware of this room beforehand, I would probably have visited it after the main exhibition, in order to view in a different mindset. Then again, it was a welcome change to the pristine nature of the main display.

Conflict Time Photography created an intense yet subtle exploration of memory, time and war without veering into pathos or preaching. It is not to be visited lighly, in a casual or hurried mindset. It is harrowing, poignant and often unbearable in a way that we have often learnt to forget in order to protect ourselves from the violence. This is as much an exhibition about conflict than the way we deal with conflict, grief and remembrance, in all its ambiguous and complex undertones.