A solo exhibition of Rachel Whiteread brings five new works to North America, offering a long-awaited examination of this artist’s work. Realized over the course of the past year, the sculptures continue her exploration of spaces and objects by filling or surrounding them with plaster, rubber and resin casts.
Since 1988, the artist has compiled an inventory of domestic life artifacts — tables, wardrobes, bathtubs, beds, mattresses, floors, living rooms — which literally expose the soft interior and non-spaces normally sheltered behind the presence of objects. Beginning with Ghost (1990), a cast taken from the interior of a small room in Highgate, London, the scale of Whiteread’s works took on different proportions and culminated in the ambitious and highly controversial House (1993), where she cast in concrete the interior of an entire three-story house in London’s East End, a piece for which she was awarded the Turner Prize later that same year.
The five works on view here unite qualities of the earlier casts of domestic objects with the intensity and strength of those larger-scale works. Each object plays with warm and cool colors, smooth and raw surfaces, transparency and opacity, mass and immateriality, solidity and porosity, robustness and transience. Among the works presented are floors and wall plinths in various combinations of synthetic materials, bathtubs cast in rubber and polystyrene, and of particular interest, negative casts of shelves and tables in plaster. All have the quality of becoming present by their sheer sense of tactility and sensuousness.
As in Whiteread’s previous works, the substances that traditionally serve for the production of molds become the actual material of the sculpture. She dispenses as a rule with the production of forms for casting, and pours plaster, wax or synthetic material directly into the cavities of her models. Thus, the lost mold is associated with the artifact and the negative form is understood as the object itself. The sculptures are neither positive nor negative since they are simultaneously interior and exterior, mold and molded, container and contained. Withholding the transformation offered by the mold — of negative space into positive form — we are invited to construct presence out of absence, solidity out of the void.
Substituting the phenomenology of absence for that of presence, the resonant voids activate the implied body inscribed within the presence of domestic architecture. “I use furniture as a metaphor for human beings” mentions Whiteread in a recent Art & Auction article (May 1996). The invisibility of the space in which we find ourselves is cast in its entirety so that we can touch and feel it. The void involves us to participate in ways that the solid cannot. Consequently, because our understanding of these works is permeated by memory, a symbolic reading of the works becomes possible.
In the tradition of Whiteread’s 1990 series of casts taken from the underside of cast-iron Victorian bathtubs comes Untitled (Yellow Bath) 1996, suggesting the body in repose or death. Monumentalizing the absented body in its rituals of ablution or death, these negative spaces have been variously described as sarcophagi or graves. Whiteread elevates the tubs, imbedding them in monumental blocks, in such a way that the objects seem distanced from their original function and practicability.
This work confronts us with an inverted world in which things are not that which they pretend to be: a bathtub is the impression of the interior of a bathtub, a table is represented by the spatial volume beneath the piece of furniture, and a house becomes the ruin of itself. Specific objects, as in Untitled (Plaster Table) (1995-96), acquire an architectonic, almost constructivist quality which increases the distance between the sculpture and the original. In Untitled (Resin Corridor) (1995), which displays undulating, greenish blue plank-like casts of the space underneath the floorboards, and Untitled (Rubber Double Plinth) (1996), the three-dimensionality of the work seems to contradict the architecture portrayed. The skirting boards, for example, appear to be more real and functional as negative rubber casts than may be suggested by their actual construction as plinths.
Whiteread’s choice of subjects — tables, bathtubs, living spaces, and mortuary slabs — demonstrates an ongoing physical interrogation of the body’s rituals of life and death. While continuing this process, one piece in this exhibition testifies to an important new direction in her work. Untitled (Eight Shelves) (1995-96), rather than recording the physical histories of the body, records a cultural history in the form of plaster casts of bookshelves, which register the faint trace of each page in every book. This work may be understood as a distillation of the concepts present in her recently commissioned Holocaust memorial in Vienna. The proposal consists of a monumental cast of a library room, measuring approximately 4 x 7 x 10 meters and made of concrete. The work will be located in Judenplatz, at the heart of the old Jewish quarter of Vienna where recent excavations have revealed the foundations of an early medieval Synagogue. While acting as a testament to the history lost with the murder of 65,000 Austrian Jews, the monument is also a reminder of that history which must continue to be taught and learned.
Whiteread’s work does not provide a direct image of reality but an imprint, behind which and in which abstraction is concealed. Through the casting technique, everyday artifacts and situations acquire, in combination with unconventional materials, a fascinating and often disturbing quality. The cautious association of artifact and material allows the artist to alienate familiar objects into constructed abstractions of reality. The traces left behind on the objects of daily life not only depict the memory of individual lives, but also provide a deeper understanding of collective experience.
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