Rachel Whiteread was born in 1963 and grew up in London. After studying painting at Brighton Polytechnic she enrolled on a sculpture masters at Slade School of Art. Rachel takes casts of familiar objects like hot water bottles and furniture. She uses the traditional casting processes of plaster, resin, rubber and concrete to encourage the viewer to rethink their spatial relationship with everyday forms. In this review of Rachel’s exhibition at the Tate Britain gallery in London, I’m interested in exploring what it is that is so intriguing about Rachel’s exploration of space and what I can learn from her approach to making art.
Tate Britain is the home of British art from 1500 to the present day. Rachel’s exhibition at the Tate highlights the role of an artist in society. Throughout her practice, Rachel has taken previously overlooked subjects and turned them into an intriguing and insightful exchange of thoughts. The large room is full of sculptures of various sizes from throughout Rachel’s career. The raw appearance of the casts creates a distinct visual impact. My first thoughts are of shared histories in similar spaces. Her work made me think about memories of daily struggles and human connections. Her artwork is simple; but at the same time complex. The culminating feeling is one of surprise; of where beauty can be found.
Rachel was first nominated for the Turner Prize in 1991. In 1993, she became the first female to win the Turner Prize. This was the same year as her ambitious public project ‘House’ in Bow in East London. The project was centred around a Victorian, terraced house. Rachel created a concrete cast of the inside of the house before it was demolished, once the inside of the building was cast in concrete, the exterior was removed. The outcome was that Rachel had coagulated the air of the original house. This project lead to Rachel gaining international attention. The cast of the inside of the project in ‘House’ stood for 80 days.
Rachel seeks to make the space that we are familiar with. Post war furniture is immortalised in ‘Closet 1998’, along with her memories. As a child Rachel was locked in her grandmas wardrobe by one of her sisters. In Closet 1998 she succeeds in visually recreating these memories but it is not just the darkness of those memories that are recreated but also the sense of palpable fear that the total blackness invoked.
To understand what Rachel was trying to achieve with her sculptures, she wrote, “I want to mummify the space” about ‘Ghost’ (1990). Domestic space and empty quality of space as subject has previously been overlooked by the visual artist. Rachel however, found a way to focus on this one thing that enables everything else to exist. Her work stands out. Space isn’t normally given the opportunity to do this. Her work asks what is the essence of this space? Without confirming or denying anything she allows the audience to think it through. The result is portal to contemplation.
When I looked at Rachel’s work across the room in the Tate gallery, I wondered if she felt unbalanced and deprived by her relationship to life in general, and if her work comes from need to communicate this. In the age of information overload Rachel’s work is like an antidote and yearning for order and peacefulness. The sculptures are silent and serene. That stillness and harmony allows our minds space to think and mull things over. As Wilhelm Worringer put it in his essay Abstraction and Empathy, in our lives we have an “immense need tranquillity.” To me Rachel’s artworks feels like spaces for existential understanding as we reconsider the material world we live.
I often walk the streets of London and wonder about the space I am looking at and the transient passing of time. I wonder what I should take from my short lived fleeting moments. This is the subject of a group show at Parafin Gallery in London titled the ‘Transient Space’ as artists Mike Ballard, Nathan Coley, Keith Coventry, Tim Head, Melanie Manchat and Abigail Reynolds explore the space in the city.
Parafin Gallery just off Bond Street has been open for three years and shows emerging and established artists. While I was there, I felt that l had the two floors to myself in the slender venue with plenty of time to browse and enjoy the fascinating show.
Trying to make sense of transient space for many would seem futile. I’m sure the general public would ask why would you want to make sense of the space. Isn’t space just space, what possibly could be said about it? However, focusing on similarly unimportant and the overlooked is the role of the artist.
These artists are like particle physicists, interested in the basic elements of space and mass, and how are they created. Instead of trying to understand the world through science and maths they are creating a springboard to express ideas and emotions through art. By doing so, they capture the symphony of the city and together they fill the exhibition space, using their art to prompt a response and to allow the viewer to develop a better understanding of what has previously been overlooked. The French composer Claude Debussy said, “Music is the space between the notes.” This group of artists are focusing on just that, the space between the notes.
Many works caught my attention starting with Nathan’s Coley’s, Firas, Ido, Rere, Ruth and Rima from 2015 made out of aluminium and perspex and approximately 130 x 35 x 35cm each. Nathan Coley studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1985 to 1989, and in 2007 he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Before I knew that Coley has said his sculptures, ‘refer to a state of being, architectures subjected to a physical shift and partially destroyed due to an act of conflict,’ I was enjoying the way the models were presented as simple constructions of architecture made in aluminium and perspex. This extra layer of information and with the handles on the sculptures it gives a protester the opportunity to raise the base of the pieces of sculptures aloft, elevating them, making the architecture into political statements. Nathan Coley believes these places have weight and value and he encourages the viewer to see the world from his perspective. These architectural placards instil belief, belief in the importance of humanised spaces and the visible landscape of architecture. It is a a declaration of sentiment that these places should be cherished and these precious spaces not blown up through conflicts.
Meanwhile, Mike Ballard’s work is interested in the grainy side of the city, his interest clearly comes from his time as a graffiti artist before studying at art Central Saint Martins. Through a fascination of his abstract marks in forgotten places, Mike turns the overlooked into a beautiful language and abstract art form. Not as a painter of original abstractions but by using the city as a readymade, balancing surfaces of concrete, wood and street signs with partly removed stickers and images into a visual noise of the spaces. They capture decisive abstract moments turning them into things of beauty. Mike’s work encourages you to focus on the fabric of the city, so you never see it the same again. After seeing his work, l feel encouraged to further my own understanding of taking a slice of the city in search of the poetry of the city. The show continues until 16th September.
The figure was a challenging subject after the war. For many artists, it appeared an almost impossible theme and one that Alberto Giacometti felt he had to take on in his art. The Swiss sculpture, painter, draughtsman and printmaker savoured the challenge of confronting man’s inhumanity to man with such determination that he spent his life working towards this goal in an endless strive for perfection. The exhibition at Tate Modern takes a fresh look at Giacometti’s modern art, asking questions about the success of Giacometti’s life work. In this review, I am interested in considering the competing advantages of working with a strive for perfection against settling for artwork that is good enough in a discourse that could help me with my work.
Alberto Giacometti 1901 -1966 was born in Val Bregaghn in Switzerland. He was the son of the successful post-impressionist painter, Giovanni Giacometti. Alberto Giacometti was interested in art from an early age, at thirteen he made his first sculpture of his brother Diego, and in 1922 he moved to Paris to continue his education as an artist. Giacometti was awarded the grand prize for sculpture representing France at the Venice Biennale in 1962.
The exhibition space at the Tate Modern starts with his formative years when Giacometti depicts what he sees from life. As the show progresses Giacometti experiments with cubist and surrealist sculptures such as Head-Skull (1934), Torso (1925) and Cubist figure (1926). The sculptures of this period have a real physical interaction; it is interesting to see that Giacometti is trying and struggling to get a grip of his extraordinary personal view of reality. The angular sculptures take on and contemplate the space around the figure. A cheek bone is not directly represented as a cheek bone. Instead, Giacometti creates a poetic essence of the form. This extract of essence allows the sculpture to be an object in itself, completely eye-catching and unmatched, different from anything else.
It is clear that Giacometti quickly realised that depicting only what he saw in life was limiting. The concept of these sculpture came from an alternative source when he saw fully formed ideas in his head. The forms have a power and force about them that relates to forms and shapes from primitive art. They contain a real freedom as if Giacometti was grappling with a concept and trying to put it in his work. It is a remarkably varied body of work. To me the work shows Giacometti at his experimental best. When he went for good enough and when he had not expected the public to see some this work. For me, this was a real highlight of the show.
Later in his career, Giacometti dedicated himself to mainly depicting men walking and standing, as well as busts and nude women. He became known for his sculpture of thin figures with, “just enough clay for the figure to stand up and nothing more.” This approach enabled him to pursue the question further as he considered the essence of man and his following work resonated with existentialist art lovers and collectors.
In his pursuit to capture the essence, Giacometti felt the need to limit access to what inspired him. A walk in the wood was too much for him to take in. A short walk looking at one tree at a time in Paris is all he felt he could cope with. Giacometti said, “Having a quarter of an inch of something, you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you had pretended to be doing the whole thing…by trying to draw a glass [on a table] as you see it seems like a fairly modest undertaking. But because you know that glass even that is almost impossible.” By limiting his inspiration, Giacometti felt that it would give him a better chance of getting to the bottom of his goal and his continuous strive for perfection. By limiting himself to only having a handful of models enabled Giacometti to focus on developing a distinctive visual language that everyone could recognise as his. From this Giacometti felt he could go deeper into how, we, as individuals relate to others. He worked towards capturing the self-consciousness and the universal feeling of being alone in this world.
Each time Giacometti made a sculpture he always had a strong feeling of failure. Giacometti wasn’t looking for a way to lie to himself. He didn’t tell himself that what he was doing was good enough. He was after perfection and anything else fell short. This disparity between his objective and his implementation opened up a breathing space for his next work, often Giacometti then repeated his previous piece. Even though he knew it was impossible to create a perfect response, Giacometti said, “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see.”
This later work grapples with getting hold of the essence of the figure and although this is where he truly becomes a master, the control of inspiration that he uses can lack some of this freedom of exploration. I have always had a high affinity with Giacometti’s work. In this exhibition I wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t focused on perfection. What if Giacometti had continued to make one-off pieces of experimental work through his career, producing work that is good enough rather than perfect? I wonder what else Giacometti could have produced?
There is an energy that comes out of Giacometti’s work that makes his work compelling. It was interesting to watch a video of Giacometti at work in the exhibition. He made heavily worked surfaces through squeezing, pulling, touching and pushing clay. It was surprising watching his unconscious creativity and his obsessive restless movements as he worked on the form. Giacometti was fascinated by the head and eyes in his sculptures; he felt they represented the core of human beings and life. By getting the eyes right the rest of the figure he believed would fall into place.
There is a lot to be said for comparing this to other artist’s practices. Mondrian’s repetitiveness allowed him to pursue his interest in how one shape of colour works in competition with black and white. If Mondrian had only made one painting of a black grid with white, red and blue squares, it would of never have got to the bottom of his interest in visual order. Without this repetitiveness, he would of never of been able to ask profound questions about the visual world and his belief that everything is an illusion. Mondrian thought that using repetition highlighted his belief that an abstract painting is truer to reality than a painting depicting the illusion of what we see.
Picasso, however, was well known for reinventing his art every few years, like his cubist works and blue period. Picasso used new approaches to get to the bottom of his desire to depict his personal view of the world. Matisse also reinvented his approach to making art several times, finishing his career with the biggest risk of all the cut out. I wonder about these different contrasting approaches and wonder what approach would suit me best my practice.
In my eyes, failures are as valuable as successes. Giacometti endlessly pursued, his search to find the universal poetic essence of a figure and the truth of our shared humanity. Giacometti did this by focusing on one tree in the forest at a time or one person in a crowd of millions. Through this approach, he captured alienation and melancholy of life. His engagement with searching for a truth that was always out of his reach lead him down a very restrictive path.
While it is admirable to focus intensely on, “a quarter of an inch of something.” I wonder if Giacometti’s approach of limiting his inspiration and his endless strive for perfection or whether a wider body of experimental approach would suit my approach to art making?
Giacometti created a distinctive visual language with his thin sculptures of man that enabled him to find success in his lifetime. Dreaming something up and executing it and working and stuff comes out are quite different approaches. The lightning bolt of inspiration doesn’t strike on demand. There is a lot to be said for starting to work and seeing what you can produce and where it takes you.
I think what I take forward for my practice from this Giacometti exhibition is that developing some kind of process is essential for removing too much thinking and self-doubt. It is not hard to make art that looks like other art; the trick is making art that doesn’t look like someone else. Giacometti achieved that. Pushing your art to where no one else is working is a lot more of a quest than striving for perfection. Problem creation with self-imposed limitations can easily be devised into a practice. In that practice, it can be a positive decision to limit your inspiration or choices. The only conclusion is in Giacometti’s approach is no matter what you try humankind is beyond human understanding.
Forms in Space…by light (in time), an installation by Cerith Wyn Evans
Tate Britain Commission, 28 March – 20 August 2017
When walking into the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain in London, I was confronted with a juxtaposition of neo-classical architecture with a manifestation of neon lights in the space. I immediately felt the needed to stop and gaze in awe and give myself some time to take it in. Cerith Wyn Evans’s installation of apparently random curves, loops and lines is almost 2 kilometres long and is an exciting, surprising discursive experience that gives the viewer space to contemplate.
Cerith Wyn Evans was born in 1958 and started his career as an experimental filmmaker. He now uses installation, sculpture, photography, film and text within his work. Wyn Evans shows that drawing in space with chandelier sculptures of light influenced by concerns with space, melody, harmony and form is comparable to a piece of music or poetry. The work is inspired by Japanese Noh Theatre, and Duchamp’s [=The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the Large Glass)] of 1912 to 1923.
The installation has a chronological feel that is translating movement into form, where boundaries of perceived time and space overlap. The three-dimensional drawing invites you to deconstruct a journey of dipping arcs and twists through space.
The sculpture appears to move as you move through the space. Distortion and torsion twist in space are like colliding systems and particles. Wyn Evans visited the Hadron Collider several times; I’m sure this must of made an impression.
Cerith Wyn Evan’s work is a materialisation of space and has a reservoir of possible meanings and ideas. The work creates a state of mind which is productive for thoughts to grow. The zooming trajectories collide with thoughts opening the mind of the viewer to complexities of life, creating a proposition to ponder your stream of awareness.