The retrospective of British artist Rachel Whiteread is located in a vast space on the first floor of the Tate Britain. Both acclaimed and criticized, her work is finally celebrated in an exhibition which retraces her career rather abruptly. Not entirely familiar with the concept and renderings, I found it demanding to fully appreciate the pieces grouped all together in one room, which for the same reason, connoisseurs seem to exalt and adulate.
Whiteread’s pieces are spectacular but not confined to four walls. They would have revealed much more of the artist’s implication at the time these pieces were created if they had been accompanied by photographs depicting the artworks in situ.
Early on in her career, the artist worked with the technique of casting which is traditionally used to replicate an object. Whiteread took it to another level by imagining that not only the exterior could be reproduced but also its entire surface. What she presented therefore was no longer hollow but rather contained the space inside.
If I cease to reflect at this point, and just gaze at what is before me, leaving the room, I wonder if that was actually it. It is an interesting process but was it really necessary to cast a house, a staircase, a mattress, a bookshelf, a cabin, and other everyday objects as much as she did?
In theory no, but in practice, the art created by Whiteread belongs somewhere beyond a museum gallery as it enters symbolic social and political spheres.
The interview between curator Ann Gallagher, the artist’s collaborator James Lingwood and Whiteread herself unveils the boldness of the art by putting the casting process aside.
A photograph of House dating from 1993 shows a casted version of an East London house doomed to demolition. This story reveals the intense process, risks and social implications taken by Whiteread, further confirming that she herself worked on her project; objecting to comments I overheard and read stating otherwise.
It is the organised manner of the pieces standing in the polished gallery that influences this type of thinking. Looking at House on site, in a deserted field, with the entire back story in mind and assuming the turmoil this novelty might have engendered in the media and surroundings, produces a better narrative than the one I am experiencing at the retrospective.
Holocaust Memorial in Vienna 2000, Unilever series at Tate modern 2006, Shy Sculptures in Norway in 2000 and Grosvenor Island in New York 2016; are all present. I wish there could have been more visuals to imagine the art works exactly how they were first introduced to the public.
Colossal and gripping, it appears that the pieces become meaningful when placed in a more controversial environment, where they would not be expected to be found.
Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain (12 September – 21 January 2017)