RACHEL WHITEREAD CAME to prominence—was catapulted to prominence, actually—with her 1993 work House, a concrete cast of the inside of an entire house in the East End of London. For the three months of its existence, the giant, site-specific sculpture created a public furor, attracting praise (it won the thirty-year-old the Turner Prize) and vitriol in equal measure, until the work was eventually demolished by the local council. A grid of photographs and a rather dated-looking “making of” documentary are its sole representations in her Tate Britain retrospective. And yet, the work casts a long shadow over her subsequent career. In the UK, it’s far and away her most famous piece—indeed, it’s a key historical work for shaping the discourse around contemporary art in this country—and it served to make the public instantly familiar with her signature technique of creating sculptures by casting the interiors of spaces. Since then, a frequent criticism of Whiteread’s work is that she essentially repeats the same concept over and over, applying it to any number of objects and places.
There’s certainly an aspect of monomania to Whiteread’s career, from the early works, featured in the retrospective, where she cast in plaster the space beneath a desk or the impression of a sink—Mantle (1988) and Untitled (Square Sink), 1990, respectively—to her huge papier-mâché sheets, made this year, imprinted with the internal architecture of wooden shed walls. But so what? Plenty of artists have dedicated their careers to exploring the diverse facets of one core idea—just think of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, for instance. (It’s an intriguing exercise, in fact, to consider Whiteread’s work as a sort of counterpart or complement to theirs, so that where they were concerned with wrapping up and obscuring the outsides of things, her interest is in exposing and visualizing the insides.)
In any case, there’s something extremely beguiling about the straightforwardness, the apparent simplicity, of Whiteread’s approach, and the strange beauty and variety that results. Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995, consisting of resin casts of the spaces beneath one hundred different chairs, looks particularly impressive in the dusky, burnished light of Tate Britain’s public atrium, the colored, translucent blocks appearing almost jewellike in their resplendency, while the regular, serried arrangement emphasizes the uniqueness of every form, each individual configuration of shape and volume. Or take a work like Untitled (Air Bed II), 1992, leaning upright against a wall in the main gallery space: who knew that the interior construction of an air bed comprised one long, coiling pocket resembling nothing so much—and here the pinkish-brown rubber Whiteread has used helps—as human intestines?
The material Whiteread chooses for each cast is a crucial part of the effect. Sometimes, she seems to aim for appositeness, which can come off as rather too prosaic, as in her casts of sash windows made from glass, or her beehive, Untitled (Hive) II, 2007–08, in honey-colored resin. The best pieces instead achieve a sort of transformation or tease out new resonances, like her “Torso” series from the late 1980s and 1990s, taken from the insides of hot water bottles.
Displayed together in a vitrine, the “Torsos” are presented like a sort of sampler of different materials: strawberry-pink dental plaster gives the effect of some oversize, chalky sweet; clear polyurethane resin suggests an undulating jellyfish; while the inaugural plaster cast undeniably brings to mind some limbless, decapitated human form.
While the body is a central theme for Whiteread, it is not always so overtly addressed. Typically, her work is described in commemorative terms, as a sort of memorial or preservation. What’s preserved, of course, is a particular, intangible region, the space beneath or within a specific cupboard, or desk, or bathtub, say, the action of casting indexically recording its own moment. Yet it’s striking how many of the resulting sculptures, these negative zones turned positive, end up resembling coffins, pedestals, or funeral pyres—objects that imply a bodily element, or that speak of its loss or departure. Other pieces may appear more innocuous, in that their source-object is more readily identifiable—casts of doors and staircases, for instance—but similarly tend to be defined by human proportions, or derive from items designed to be physically handled, like the multicolored casts taken from soft drink cans, toilet paper rolls, and other everyday things. In virtually every case, then, Whiteread’s starting points are what might be said to be the creations, or the corollaries, of our embodied selves—the usually hidden or invisible spaces that we occupy, pass through, or unthinkingly incorporate within the biomechanics of our daily lives. Her project is simply, and captivatingly, to render this immaterial realm visible, to bring this shadowy otherworld into the open.
No wonder metaphors of haunting, and notions of the uncanny, are so often invoked in discussions of her work. Her earliest room cast, from 1990, is in fact called Ghost, and is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It’s slightly disappointing not to have such a key piece on display at Tate Britain. Instead, the centerpiece here is a later work, Untitled (Room 101), 2003, a cell-like structure in bone-white plaster cast from a room in the BBC’s Broadcasting House that was presumed to be the model for the famed torture chamber, Room 101, in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell once worked at the BBC). The cast is thus a kind of monument to humanity’s capacity for evil. Every anonymous bump and dent in the room’s interior surfaces, every cracked seam of drywall, every patch-up job of brickwork, has all been perfectly retained—as a reverse impression, of course. The sense is of psychic wear and tear made manifest, of the accumulated weight of anxiety and institutionalized misery locked up within this structure.
Equally powerful is another large-scale, room-based work, Untitled (Book Corridors), 1997, part of a series of bookshelf-themed efforts that stem from Whiteread’s public commission for her Holocaust Memorial (1995) in Vienna—not that the Holocaust has any direct bearing on the installation here. Rather, the work operates on a purely sensory, experiential level. Several long, freestanding plaster sculptures are casts of walkways between rows of library shelving, their minutely stepped edges reflecting the fluctuating depths of the shelved books, while the wide, airy gaps between each sculpture are where the actual bookcases would originally have been. It’s the exhibition’s starkest example of a location turned inside out, of the discombobulating, spectral effect of the usual relationship between the material and immaterial world being inverted.
In that sense, the curating of the show, by Ann Gallagher and Linsey Young, deserves a special mention. Internal walls that usually mark off individual galleries at Tate Britain have been removed, so that Whiteread’s works are viewable at once within a single, huge open space. Indeed, the feeling of space and openness becomes palpable, dramatic. Whiteread’s sculptures are the fixed points, the most solid, durable things, absences given concrete form, while everything else, the original objects and environments she took casts from, has been disappeared. And it feels as if we, too, as viewers moving through the space, are part of that. We occupy that same transient, immaterial zone. We, too, are ghosts.