EXHIBITION: Casting shadows  

Graham Hooper looks at the work of award-winning sculptor Rachel Whiteread, whose work is on show at Tate Britain from 12 Sept – 21 Jan

Annoying as it must be for them the fascination surrounding twins never appears to diminish. On the few occasions I meet identical siblings I have to work hard to resist asking, for all their similarities, what are their differences? Rachel Whiteread is the one sister of the family’s three not to be identical. The odd one out in the set, perhaps making any similarities between her and her sisters even more prominent. Twins, identical twins, can confound us in the flesh because they appear to be cast from the same mold. Casting from molds has been the stock-in-trade of this Sculptor for over thirty years and she finally gets a survey show of her own, at Tate Britain (12 September to 21 January).

One sculpture that won’t be in the show – conspicuous by its absence – is House, the piece that brought her both fame and controversy. It won her the Turner prize (the first time for a female artist) but sparked some local resentment and was finally demolished by the council. As a concrete cast of a condemned Victorian terrace in London it was a step up for the artist in terms of scale and material. Up until then her works had been much smaller (hot water bottles through to wardrobes, for instance) though still exploring similar themes of memory, time, space and process using molds of household objects. House had a precursor in Ghost, from 1990, the solidification of a single room much the kind she would have grown up in as child with her sisters. Whiteread has said of her work that it is the “mummified air in a space”. Mummies – at one and the same time ancient, burial sarcophagi and the maternal head of the family unit expressed in school-child terms. Double meaning is mirrored throughout the sculptor’s showing; space, as in volume, though these works are silent, cast as in stage crew, acting as an ensemble.

Mummification echoes her formative experience as a coffin-repairer at Highgate Cemetery; a rather morbid job for most people surely, but putting the lids back on graves damaged over time is also as inherently restorative. A cast of the space beneath and below her dead father’s bed was always one of the highlights on any visit to my local art gallery. Looking like an inflated, upended ice-cream wafer, a sort of a shadow made very physical. Beds are so intimate and personal, and have long been an evocative and tempting subject matter for artists. Tracey Emin’s still lies in the public consciousness, but Whiteread’s is very different, never quite settling as either cosy or creepy. Rather than a monument, should you want one, of teenage angst, this is a memorial to family structures. It commemorates the past in a suitable fashion, much like Whiteread’s Inverted Plinth (“Untitled Monument”, 2001) for Trafalgar Square recognised its setting and heritage. Bringing to mind an ice coffin, the resin resembled the water that Trafalgar Square is famous for, as much as the sea battle it honours.

Water too was the theme for her installation on the New York skyline when she cast, again in watery resin, one of the iconic water towers in 1998. There again she uses the materials for their physical properties as much as their conceptual connections. Whilst concrete is the stuff of modern buildings – industrial and omnipresent – plaster suggested a healed wound as much as dental work. The effects are pleasant and surprising; the way the resin catches the light, at dawn and dusk, the way it feels both full and empty.

Furniture is key to much of Whiteread’s sculpture, and chairs provided the source of inspiration for her contribution to the Royal Academy’s now notorious Sensations show twenty years ago this year. “Untitled” (One Hundred Spaces) featured the casts of the spaces underneath chairs, arranged in a grid, exam-style. Connotations were varied and strong; ice-cubes and bars of soap through to futuristic gravestones and even jelly televisions. That work placed her alongside her contemporaries – who came to be labelled the YBA’s (Young British Artists) – with the likes of Damien Hirst. His dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde had much in common with her space-made-solid sculptures, as metaphorical meditations. But Whiteread’s work is less shocking, less brash but still sensational. So it can be slower and much more gentle. The result is a profound philosophical resonance actually. A strong example of this is the piece commissioned by the Austrian Government, Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (in 2000, also known as Nameless Library) located in Vienna. The molded concrete bookshelves – storerooms of knowledge and information – provide powerful opportunities for personal reflection.

At around the same time as she was working on the Jewish memorial, Whiteread constructed a number of similar if less ambitious ‘reversed libraries’. The installation at the Hirshhorn Museum combines many of the elements already active in her sculptures but takes the idea of a spine – as in book and body – and makes the plaster into a giant set of bones. Every shelf in this inside-out depository represents an author and many readers. Each is a tooth, geometric stalactite or a piano key. The overall effect is something like a mysterious 3-dimensional bar graph. Rachel Whiteread’s work should translate very well into the gallery spaces of Tate Britain. The walls are a soft limestone, and mix hard edges with curved lines. The interiors are functional but decorative, with history embedded into every nook and cranny.

Much of her most recent iterations featuring outbuildings (boathouses and sheds) will create a room-within-a-room strangeness. The contrast of functionality between these spaces will be heightened; a concrete garden shed which is all solid exterior placed inside another, larger space that is all interior. You will walk into a room to find you’re now walking around another, one that is closed off and inaccessible. Her objects, arranged either thematically (bottles, containers, vessels, boxes and packages) or chronologically will provide insights into her development as an artist. Dealing with ever more complex industrial processes over time this is a good chance to better connect the otherwise seemingly divergent sculptures together – what might a hot water bottle and a beehive have in common?

All these things have been constructed, albeit not carved away by hand or shaped in clay. Whiteread is using ‘found forms’ and an age-old technique to create forms in ways that would allow for industrial multiplication but with the human touch and awareness of each object’s individuality. Each object’s past appears embedded into its inverted copy. Whilst we might not necessarily see any sign of the sculptor’s hands the detail available is astonishing. Dental plaster renders every surface detail, every scratch, dent, tear or splinter. Then resin and even wax behave very differently, and in unpredictable ways, to plaster. Look up close and really study these things, because on first impression they can appear as rather minimalistic and abstract. There is also a fascinating interplay between abstraction and figuration. They’re both really direct copies, reversed, so coming straight from the real world actually. Look out too for the placement of the work – stacked, aligned, cornered or hung. The decisions will be purposeful and meaningful, adding to the narrative or overall visual effect.

Whiteread’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall commission Embankment (2005-6), transformed the space into a maze of varied towers, all white, and conjuring up the impression of a vast warehouse or storage facility though the potential contents of which was never suggested. It saw the artist work with lots of similar units rather than creating one, singular entity. Much like Place (Village) (2005-6), permanently on display in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood, which made use of her collection of doll’s houses gathered from a young age. Experienced in the darkness with all the little lights on, it is no specific place but every British town. Unlike a model village there are no people, no movement, no geographic features. It is not an exercise in miniaturised modelling for its own sake.

Rachel Whiteread is an artist who is pushing the boundaries of sculpture. She had begun to use snow as a material to work with back in 2004 for a collaborative piece with Scandinavian architects. The nature of ephemeral, site-specific installations means they can only ever exist thereafter as documents in film, photographs or drawings. These can be fascinating and beautiful in themselves however, and offer a view of the extensive preparatory work necessary to conceive and then realise these creative proposals.

Retrospectives look back, though her art continues to develop. Colour is becoming more prominent, as is the investigation into windows and doors, the openings into spaces rather than the spaces themselves interestingly. French windows, neither quite a window nor a door, cast in resin too and so mimicking glass, look like pictures without frames or images. So this is an exciting and important opportunity to peer into and through the work of one of Britain’s most exciting living sculptors with a new clarity and openness that will welcome and invite.