Rachel Whiteread’s sculptural practice is based on casting the inside of private, secret or unseen spaces. Her early works included a cast made from a hot water bottle, reimagined as a torso and the inside of a room, ‘Ghost’. She says that this was influenced by her earlier cast pieces as being the space in which they might exist, a memory of a run down student bedsit. The concept may appear simple but its realisation was very difficult. She had no access to water, only a bike to carry materials and had to screed the floor in order to create a level referencing plane. The work was made as a series of separate panels which were cast, removed and the reassembled on a steel frame. She describes the process as trying to ‘mummify the air’.
The objective of making air physical underpins all her sculptural work which records place and time with a nostalgia which seems initially at odds with the hard, minimalist materials. Her works have the effect of inviting us in to a private space which is remembered but, by necessity, no longer exists. In 2012, she cast ‘Detached’, the inside of a garden shed, for many the ultimate space of private escape.
Possibly her most famous work is ‘House’ 1993, for which she won the Turner prize. This time, she cast the whole of a Victorian terraced house which was then demolished leaving concrete casts of internal floors and just the floor joists. The sculpture formed a memorial to the building and all the events which happened to it and inside it over years. Ironically (and controversially), ‘House’ was then demolished and exists only as a photographic memory.
The ultimate realisation of her ideas on memory is the Judenplatz Holocaust memorial in Vienna. Here she has created a monument which is reminiscent of classical mausolea but, instead of columns and ashlars, she has cast the walls using shelves of books, cast facing the pages, rather than the spines. She has invited us into that private, thin space at the back of the book shelf which I imagine to be full of ideas, or history, seeping from the cut pages of the books.
Her work on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square may also reference a mausoleum. She cast a mirror image of the plinth in clear resin and mounted it upside down on the original plinth. This then became the subject of demonstrations by Stuckists who support figurative art and proclaimed in their second manifesto, ‘Remodernism’, the importance of spirituality in art, an intent ‘to face the truth….it is about taking hold of the rough texture of life.’ I find it hard to see their case for protesting against Whiteread’s work which strikes me as deeply spiritual.
http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/audio-video/video/rachel-whiteread.html Accessed 29 October 2015
http://www.stuckism.com/remod.html Accessed 29 October 2015
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judenplatz_Holocaust_Memorial Accessed 3 November 2015