On leaving the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Tate Britain, a woman turned to her partner and said, “That’s what they tell you at art school, isn’t it, to look at the spaces in between?”
As you walk around the large gallery space, the walls have been removed to create one large room so you are literally in the space in between, there is a feeling of light and space. It’s a place where you can be inspired: people point at and discuss the works, students sit on the floor and sketch to a soundtrack of the ‘beeeep’ of the warning alarm as people lean in to take a closer look.
And you do want to lean in. The works are tangible. You want to touch the resin blocks and see if they are solid. Are they glass? Or jelly? Touch them. Smell them. Do they smell like wax? These objects allude to memories of what they have been. Ghost-like, they are what’s left behind when things of less permanent substance have passed on.
From the East London House which was cast in concrete before it was demolished, to the spaces beneath beds, tables, and chairs, the inside of toilet rolls and packing boxes, Whiteread takes spaces that are overlooked, forgotten, transient, and brings them to light, you’re compelled to look anew and meditate on what has been left behind.
These casts of the insides of things, the negative spaces, the undersides, have enormous emotional resonance.
Inanimate objects speak to us about the transience of human life and the objects we surround ourselves with and take for granted. Memories, made solid.
Your brain tries to make sense of what’s in front of you – attempting to give this solid representation of emptiness a purpose – it takes a while to realise it’s not the object you are seeing, it’s the negative space. The object has been used as the cast, the mound. As another viewer walking around the show says, these pieces can be “difficult to read”.
Torsos, the inside of hot water bottles and enema bags are beautiful, exhibited here in different materials, they resemble a body, an internal organ. A heart, or a stomach, as well as a torso.
Shallow Breath, 2009, has been said to be the space underneath Whiteread’s father’s death bed, although she has denied this. It looks like an old mattress. Your brain does a double take to understand that this is the negative space – the space underneath the bed, not the solid space of mattress. The resonance of these objects to speak to us about big subjects, death, mortality, on a large scale, are why Whiteread was chosen to create the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, for Jewish holocaust victims of the Nazis. Her steel and concrete inside-out library speaks to the incomprehensibly of vast numbers of lives cut short during the Nazi regime. The concrete library doors which should suggest the possibility of coming and going are sealed shut. No escape. We can’t see the book titles and will never read the stories within the shelves of this library.
This show acts as a survey of Whiteread’s work, from her early pieces in 1988 to work commissioned for this exhibition. It could be argued that she’s the best received of her contemporaries, the tabloid furore that accompanies her works perhaps places her firmly in the company of her YBA colleagues, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas.
Outside the paid ticketed show there is a section that’s open to the general public. This includes archival photographs, marquees and details of her public commissions, and Whiteread’s video diary of ‘the making of’ House. There is also a selection of sketchbooks and objects from Whiteread’s studio which give an insight into her artistic processes, and includes other cast objects, the inside of rubber gloves, a tin can, cutlery, wellington boots, you can explore the strands in her work and gain an insight into the mind of the artist.
Whitereads’ work shows us permanence in an uncertain world and is a timely reminder of the power and beauty in the forgotten and overlooked.