Imagine the uproar if Rachel Whiteread, the artist at the centre of Tate Modern’s major new exhibition, chose the inner offerings of a sex doll instead of the interior of a hot water bottle as the subject matter of her new art.
Whatever the comparative comfort found in the two objects, Whiteread isn’t likely to execute such a piece any time soon. But every time Rachel Whiteread features in an exhibition somewhere, there’s on hand a commentariat of mostly anonymous detractors ready with their bucketfuls of negativity. In some cases, remarkably, it is the same commentariat in varying shades of comprehension who in 2016 delivered Britain into the slippery innards of an unknown and unknowable fate in or out of Europe.
Despite the mixed reception being given by some in a pre-Brexit haze to the survey exhibition at Tate Britain, Rachel Whiteread’s contemplations in concrete and other materials establish her as a singular artist who can be credited not only as the creator of a provocative, thought-worthy narrative but also as a practitioner of weight (no pun there) and technical prowess. An artist who defies current definitions of art, contemporary art, concept, execution and artistic merit.
It’s not chicanery to invite the viewer to look at the cast of a hot water bottle with the vessel, usually made of rubber, removed. And rarely is a well-used hot water bottle not the instigator of some conjecture or debate about what lies within. It’s in our nature to think, however fleetingly, of those minor invisible mysteries within the container. But it’s not in our nature to invest a great deal of thought into exploring or investigating those known unknowns. Or, for that matter, succumb to creative impulses—irrespective of one’s ability or art-making skills—and try and image those interiors.
Some of the most personal experiences, such as forming and growing in the mother’s womb or being penetrated by another body, remain largely unimaged outside the realms of science or pornography. Mystic thought, particularly sufism, buddhism and other religious or spiritual encounters of body or mind, tell us about empty spaces but seldom about the everyday, mundane voids that surround us and are routinely bypassed. Almost routinely, we give more importance to what we see as palpable or tangible and see emptiness as neither palpable nor tangible. The work of Rachel Whiteread however reminds us that the truth is somewhere in between and indeed amidst us.
Three decades have passed since Rachel Whiteread had her first exhibition, but it was House, 1993, the cast of an entire Victorian terraced house interior before it was demolished, that brought her fame and notoriety, the latter because of official and public perception that House just couldn’t be art. This was before Twitter and Facebook overtook the judgmental monopoly of both broadsheet and tabloid press. Despite those years of growth and accomplishment there remains, certainly in Britain, a resistance to living arts and a skewed reading of tradition and a wilful misreading of nostalgia.
The exhibition therefore is a welcome corrective to those who still have difficulty when society or the ‘world of art’ / ‘art scene’ are visited by innovation and unexpected departures. Although Whiteread is preceded by other artists who experimented with reinterpretations of space, including American Bruce Nauman, hers is a consistent pursuit that continues to refresh and surprise. This show is as good a testament to this creative continuity as it’s possible to find. © Sajid Rizvi.
The exhibition includes Untitled (Book Corridors), 1997-8 and Untitled (Room 101), 2003 – a cast of the room at the BBC’s Broadcasting House thought to be the model for Room 101 in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Among a range of smaller sculptures in different materials and colours, of note are architectural features such as floors, doors and windows to domestic objects such as tables, boxes and a selection of Torsos, Whiteread’s casts of hot water bottles.
Another highlight of the exhibition is Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995 – an installation of 100 resin casts of the underside of chairs – shown in Tate Britain’s Duveen galleries. Special sections are also devoted to archive material and to the artist’s drawings. Working with pencil, varnish, correction fluid, watercolour and collage, these works on paper constitute a distinct area of Whiteread’s practice and are an intimate part of her artistic process in producing her sculptural work.
Born in London in 1963, Whiteread studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic and sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. She was the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993 and went on to represent Britain at the 1997 Venice Biennale. The exhibition includes documentation of House and all of the other public projects which have punctuated Whiteread’s career, such as Watertower, 1998, in New York, the Holocaust Memorial, 2000, in central Vienna’s Judenplatz, also known as the Nameless Library; Monument, 2001, for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in London and Cabin, 2016, on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor.
Whiteread has been awarded numerous prestigious commissions, and solo exhibitions of her work have been shown internationally in museums and galleries such as MADRE in Naples, Kunsthaus Bregenz, the Museums of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Serpentine Gallery in London. Whiteread lives and works in London and her work is represented in major private and public collections worldwide.
Rachel Whiteread is curated at Tate Britain by Ann Gallagher, director of collection, British Art and Linsey Young, curator of contemporary British art, with Helen Delaney, assistant curator and Hattie Spires, assistant curator of Modern British art. The exhibition is co-organised with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, curated by Molly Donovan, where it will be shown in autumn 2018, and will also tour to the 21er Haus Vienna and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Rachel Whiteread. 12 September 2017 – 21 January 2018. Sponsored by RSM and supported by The FLAG Art Foundation and Amanda and Glenn Fuhrman, with additional support from the Rachel Whiteread Exhibition Supporters Circle, Tate Americas Foundation, Tate International Council, Tate Patrons and Tate Members . Ticketed, tate.org.uk