Rachel Whiteread is one of those artists whose work you take one look at and just say, “Woah”.
Some artists have a technique that grows on you, that requires time and explanation to understand and appreciate, but not Rachel Whiteread. Her work takes you there the second you lay eyes on it (Or maybe that’s just me? I really enjoy her work).
Whiteread works with negative space. She explores the absence of an object and gives that absence a physical presence. We can see this in one of her most well-known and controversial works, House, which is fairly self explanatory as the concrete cast of the interior of a Victorian home. House is one of those pieces where you love it or you hate it as we see reflected in the widely varied responses to her work. While this piece earned her the 1993 Turner Prize (Arguably Britain’s most prestigious award for young artists, launching many careers) it also brought the K Foundation art award, a prize supposedly given to Britain’s worst artist (The K Foundation award is fascinating. Only given in 1993, it latched on to the Turner Prize’s artists and exhibitions, held shows made of money, burnt money, and was generally outrageous. Read about them here if you get the chance! It’s interesting that this type of performance doesn’t seem absurd today but was met with much clutching of pearls in the 90s. Then again, today we have Lady Gaga and Kesha. We have the tea party. We are not shocked by anything.) House was demolished in 1994.
Kind of interesting that House, a work about absence, was demolished. Does that make the piece weaker (as it no longer exists) or stronger (as it’s absent in physical presence which goes hand in hand with the concept)?
Whiteread is also well known for her controversial holocaust memorial, known as Holocaust Monument or Nameless Library:
Her work is well suited for a Holocaust monument. As her works emphasize the idea of absence and death it’s well suited to the purpose and tone of the memorial. In addition, the cast of the library’s walls is composed of rows of books with the texture of the pages captured wonderfully, which many believe is a reference to both the Nazi book burnings and to Jews as a “people of the book”. Unfortunately the piece took five years to complete due to bureaucratic drama. It’s interesting to note that Whiteread’s process leaves pieces of the absent object in her casts; pieces of paper from the books, chipped paint, wallpaper, and tiny scraps of who knows what, they all leave their mark. It’s one of the things that makes her work relatable. We’re not viewing something that’s necessarily too clean and sterile, we’re allowed to see some of the memories, and the process behind the work.
Whiteread doesn’t simply do buildings, although she does tend to lean towards architectural pieces, she’s additionally created smaller, more personal works including bookshelves, doors, sinks, and other household appliances. Take a look:
In addition to working with concrete and plaster she’s also made a number of interesting pieces using resin. These pieces are interesting in that they experience more shifts in appearance depending on the state of the lighting. Apparently they’re especially beautiful outside where their appearance transforms with the sky:
I was actually lucky enough to see Whiteread’s work in person! My family visited relatives in London in 2005 (2006?) and we were able to visit Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall to catch Whiteread’s Embankment piece. Being an immature fourteen year old accompanied by equally immature siblings, we seized the opportunity to play hide and go seek. It was a pretty great exhibit, very engaging and fun to explore.
Apparently it was inspired in part by the passing of her mother and the period of packing her possessions into boxes and moving them out. The narrative gives the piece a darker feeling, and reading further reviews critics seem to overwhelmingly agree that it felt industrial, sterile, and almost intimidating in its size and organization. I didn’t feel those things when I viewed the work, but of course, I’m associating it with a fun game of hide and go seek! It’s difficult to separate those emotions and I don’t think that I necessarily want to.
What about you? How do you feel about Whiteread’s work? Do you appreciate the directness or would you prefer something gentle, something more subtle? I’d love to hear your opinions!