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Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain – Forgotten Spaces
October 5, 2017
Ever wondered about that space under your dining room table or the surface of your walls? Well Rachel Whiteread has, and she’s made it her mission to turn those familiar spaces you see everyday into an art form. From the kitchen sink to entire rooms, Whiteread began to use traditional casting methods to create sculptures out of the spaces surrounding objects as a young student, and has never looked back. In this strange new world where inside becomes out and nothing is what is seems Whiteread reveals the intimate secrets of ordinary things with a tool belt of plaster, resin and rubber. At Tate Britain’s autumn blockbuster we get a taste of Whiteread’s radical career over thirty years with a selection of key works displayed in a single vast gallery.
Whiteread first crashed onto the British art scene in 1993 when she won the controversial Turner Prize for ‘House’, a spectacular concrete cast of your average Victorian detached house in east London that was demolished after 80 days. Since then Whiteread has been on the receiving end of some worthy public commissions, including the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square and the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna of an entire library with visible traces of books and shelves. You might also recall Whiteread’s towering fortress of white cubes in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall back in 2005, created out of a series of containers inspired by an old cardboard box from her mother’s house. Each of these boxes was scarred with the lines and tears of use; like the ghostly memories of human life.
The Tate Britain’s exhibition is dominated by two sets of stairs rising up to the ceiling of the gallery. Cast from Whiteread’s home in London that was once a textile warehouse and a synagogue before that, ‘Untitled (Stairs)’ from 2001 is riddled with the wear and tear of former residents scrambling up and down. The other defining sculpture of the show is the cast of a room from the old BBC headquarters where George Orwell supposedly worked during the Second World War. Each crack and chip in the walls of ‘Room 101’ (2003) is a surreal reminder that Orwell once occupied this space.
There are also some more unassuming, more intimate objects on display such as polystyrene packaging, toilet rolls, light switches and antique doors with etched keyholes. Early in her career Whiteread even filled hot water bottles with plaster in her ‘Torso’ series to create a sinister shape like the chest cavity.
It’s true that Whiteread’s sculptures might not pack the punch they once did at the height of Turner Prize infamy – the air of calm over the Tate Britain as visitors peer around corners with curiosity makes that clear. But even as our eyes blink and adjust to this new reality we find ourselves in, Whiteread’s works feel poetic and eerily beautiful in their commentary on forgotten spaces of society and the fragility of life.
Words by Claire Philips
Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, until 21 January 2018