The spaces we live and survive in – Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain (12 September 2017 – 21 January 2018)

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.

 

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Room 101) 2003 © Rachel Whiteread Photo: © Tate

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 Whiteread House, 1993© Rachel Whiteread Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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.

 

Rachel Whiteread Untitled (Pink Torso) 1995 © Rachel Whiteread Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Mark Heathcote)

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.

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