Rachel Whiteread is described as “one of the leading artists of her generation” which is something special considering she is part of the same generation of artists which includes Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin, Tacita Dean, the Chapman Brothers, Gary Hume and more. She was and still is part of the ‘Young British Artists’, no longer young but still relevant and admired by many.
I became aware of the Young British Artists (YBAs) whilst studying art and design at college and during fine art classes; one of my tutors introduced me to them through their Sensation exhibition in 1997 at the RA in London for which he had the original catalogue book and would share it regularly.
The YBAs is the name given to a group of artists who exhibited together in London in the late 1980’s of whom many where graduates of the Goldsmiths (University of London) fine art course; an important element, as this course had, at the time, been exploring new forms of creativity. Shunning the old and traditional separation of media into painting, sculpture, printmaking; championed by new and influential teachers, most notably Michael Craig-Martin.
(Since 1990, former Goldsmiths students have been nominated for the Turner Prize more than 30 times, and have won the prize on seven occasions.)
There is no particular look or aesthetic to YBA art although there are both formal and thematic trends across their work as individual artists such as the use of found objects and shocking imagery. The era is described as having “a complete openness towards the materials and processes with which art can be made, and the form that it can take.”
What drew me into the movement — the group, the individual artists and the overall style of art—was this shock value and specifically how they used it to express their strong ideas, messages, thoughts and feelings; as a young and curious art student I soaked it all up.
There are many artworks by the YBAs that are internationally known and celebrated but as much as they are loved, they are as equally hated; for some their style or even the idea of conceptual art is too extreme and/or too far removed from what society deems as ‘art’. The Stuckist movement was set up to promote the idea of traditional figurative painting and was a counter-movement to the YBAs and conceptual art in general as they saw it as ‘ego-art’. Famously at the Sensation exhibition in 1997, Marcus Harvey’s painting of the Moors Murderer Myra [Hindley] was damaged multiple times with protests happening against the show and in particular this painting. Myra and many other artworks and artists are not appropriate to share here.
But not, I believe, that of the artist in question here: Rachel Whiteread, whose exhibition I was fortunate enough to see at Tate Britain in London recently; a retrospective of 25 years of work. Her sculptural work is defined by negative space through casting processes; her unique style explores the interior space of tables, chairs, objects, architectural details and full rooms. She uses a casting process with concrete and/or resin to capture the non-physical space and make it physical, she states that casts carry “the residue of years and years of use”. Whiteread’s work doesn’t necessarily have the shock factor that other YBA art has but through her use of media and material she explores something contextually that resonates with the rest of the group as well as the impressive scale and detail in which her work has.
The exhibition at Tate Britain tracks Whiteread’s career and brings together a number of her known works as well as never been previously exhibited pieces. Key to her development as an artist are the public projects which cemented her as an artist. The exhibition is introduced through a documentary of her most known piece: the since destroyed House for which she won the 1993 Turner Prize. A concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian House and a development of her earlier piece Ghost. Both pieces were resonant monuments to the individuals who occupied the spaces and to their collective memories of home through their melancholic and incongruous beauty.
The exhibition space itself was dominated by two huge pieces, Untitled (Stairs) and Untitled (Room 101) with numerous other pieces dotted around the vast open space however it is Untitled (Room 101) which grabs your attention instantly and draws you towards it. The exhibition booklet describes it as a cast of a room in Broadcasting House (BBC HQ) where novelist George Orwell worked during the Second World War. This ‘Room 101’ is believed to have been the inspiration for the namesake in Orwell’s iconic novel 1984; in the book it is a room or a chamber of horror where every person’s greatest fear exists and for everyone their greatest fear is different.
One of the book’s characters describes this as “the worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”
Although this is a fictional room in the novel, the concrete cast iteration by Whiteread is the physical representation of Orwell’s literary words. The space inside what was the room is now represented as a solid form, similar to Ghost and House. Every element of the room’s surface is visible; from small cracks in the walls, gaps in-between skirting boards and floors and detailed textures of the room’s previous materials and life.
Untitled (Stairs) is an awkwardly beautiful structure of the negative space in which staircases create. Whiteread has focused a number of her works on her own domestic environment in an attempt to make a physical preserved memory of places before they are altered. Untitled (Stairs) is a cast of a staircase in a former synagogue/former textile warehouse in Bethnal Green, East London. Whiteread acquired the space and before altering it to her own needs, cast this staircase and others in the building. Staircases experience the most intense use of most furniture and structure in a building; they bear witness to the comings and goings of day-to-day life, they take the most abuse which is visible in the amount of worn patches, chips, scratches and marks you can see in an old staircase.
This is what drew Whiteread to cast them, these captured physical marks represent the former residents of the buildings and particularly the place where it is in London; it represents the immigration upon which London was built. Untitled (Stairs) in the exhibition space is awkward because it is obviously unconventional; unlike a room where you can imagine the volume of its space, a staircase’s space is harder to visualise; something that Whiteread played into during the casting and the overall piece:
“It’s something that I’ve been trying to do for about eight years. What intrigued me about the staircase is that I felt it could be turned on its side … when I was first thinking about making [it] I didn’t necessarily want to illustrate it as a staircase … I wanted to try to do something a bit less literal. I made models of the staircase, which helped me realize that I could actually turn things around … I wanted to try and flip the architecture a little bit. I wanted to change the way one might think about how you walk around or through something … when we first put the staircase work up in the studio … I was struck by the sense of physical disorientation it gave me.”
The process has changed the normal image of stairs into an abstracted shape, an unusual geometric composition which looks like it should be right but it isn’t: a mental conundrum, when looking at it you are “trying to envisage the original structure from which the new object has been derived.”
Amongst these two standout pieces are a selection of smaller, more ornamental pieces such as her series of Torsos which have an experimental/testing feeling to them. Many of them in varying sizes, shapes, colours and materials; all have the same bulbous shape and creased lines. Their small shape and almost human quality has led Whiteread herself to describe them as “headless, limbless babies”, strengthened by their title as ‘Torsos’.
Most of the sculptural works on show here are made from concrete, plaster or various other opaque substances but this is not an exclusive to the artist; Whiteread also explores the use of clear and coloured resin for example in her series of windows and doors. These pieces are beautifully architectural, by re-creating and re-imagining these objects from a transparent material it emphasises their details which would normally go unnoticed. The doors and windows range from old and worn out Victorian styles to clean and almost imperfect modern styles; by showing the unnoticed she shows the relationship with the structures that surround us.
Also made from clear resin is the largest piece or series of pieces in the exhibition: Untitled (100 Spaces) – 100 casts of the undersides of chairs in 20 rows of 5 in varying shades and sizes. This sculpture follows the precedent of Bruce Nauman, who in 1965 cast the space under a chair. Himself following a concept from Willem de Kooning’s to “render a chair by depicting the space between its rungs.”
Here, the 100 representations of negative space are expanded in meaning. The artwork is a rainbow of similar forms, a grid of transparent and translucent cubes:
“the sculpture oscillates between abstraction and reference. It shifts from being an accumulation of mute cubic forms to a shimmering index of everyday life.”
Whiteread’s work is—as is much of the work of the Young British Artists (or any great conceptual and/or contemporary artist for that matter)— a perfect example of why art should be seen in person and in the right context; be it in a site-specific location or a gallery space. Seeing her work on a screen or in a book does not do it any justice and it’s impossible to really appreciate it. Specifically it is the detail and scale of both her large and small sculptures which are impressive; the large pieces are imposing structures and the small pieces show immensely delicate detail through the media used.
While her sculptures might appear straightforward at first glance, Whiteread’s sculptures always have deeper stories and messages. The inherent fact that they are the captured physical representation of an open and empty space and in true YBA style, use familiar materials in unexpected ways. By looking closer at a Whiteread sculpture you’ll find things that you mightn’t have thought were there; especially how human stories are hidden and literally buried into her work.
“I wanted to preserve the everyday and give authority to the forgotten things, stopping it in time and casting it in something solid.”