Glass reviews Rachel Whiteread’s show at Tate Britain

THE first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, Rachel Whiteread’s work explores the overlooked and unexamined, breathing life into neglected space whilst underlining absence. Glass visits a survey spanning three decades of Whiteread’s practice at Tate Britain.

Rachel WhitereadUntitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995, resin, dimensions variable. Pinault Collection © Rachel Whiteread.

Interspersed throughout the site of Tate Britain, Rachel Whiteread’s evocative sculptures rupture time and space. Tactile casts of negative spaces drawn from domestic and public objects or architecture offer portals into lived experiences that are at once specific and universal.

This comprehensive survey spans some 30 years’ of Whiteread’s practice, with the earliest work exhibited being Torso, 1988 and the most recent, Chicken Shed, 2017. Working in plaster, rubber, resin, concrete, metal and – most recently – papier-mâché, Whiteread’s sculptures are cast in mute opaque or seductive jelly-like tones replete with cracks and seams from the moulding process. The immediacy of the casting process and discrete presentation of works (with sculptures often directly rooted to the ground or propped against a wall) illustrate the artist’s economy of means which characterises her practice.

Rachel WhitereadUntitled (Pink Torso), 1995, pink dental plaster, 10 x 17.5 x 27.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian © Rachel Whiteread. Photograph: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Mark Heathcote)

Nine “torso” works dated between 1988 and the mid ‘90s illustrate Whiteread’s studious preoccupation with material and iteration. Casting the hollow of hot water bottles, this series presents the artist’s early experiments with various types of rubber, resin, plaster and concrete. The resulting works, each with slight variation in form and flaccidity, reference headless, legless bodies, with Whiteread inverting an everyday domestic object to invoke a sense of pathos.

Of the origin of this series, Whiteread has said, “When I was at the Slade, I made pieces with hot-water bottles, filling them with water and sewing them inside pillowcases and things. They’d look like clothes, but also like pregnant women or vulnerable men with their genitals hanging out under their shirts. I always had that interest in filling something up and making it change its essence, but later on I figured out what kind of materials to use.”

Rachel WhitereadDue Porte, 2016, resin, 247 x 124 x 8 cm. Galleria Lorcan O’Neill, Rome © Rachel Whiteread.
Photograph: Courtesy of Galleria Lorcan O’Neill, Rome

Reinstating forgotten or unseen spaces, the exhibition presents many sculptures derived from intestinal architecture: doors, windows and stairs all being places of transition traditionally regarded as “non-spaces” or liminal thresholds. In Whiteread’s hands, air is fossilised into material; forgotten spaces begin to occupy.

Rachel WhitereadRachel Whiteread, House, 1993. © Rachel Whiteread. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

The survey presents models and sketches of various public commissions that Whiteread has undertaken throughout her career. Perhaps most notably, these include her seminal project House, 1993 in east London, Water Tower, 1998 in New York, the Holocaust Memorial, 2000 in Vienna and Monument for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, 2001. Also documented are a recent and expansive series of works she has called her “shy sculptures”: structures cast from huts, sheds and cabins, often situated in discreet locations in landscapes that require a purposeful journey to reach. From this series, Chicken Shed, 2017 is on display in Tate Britain’s gardens.


Rachel WhitereadChicken Shed, 2017, concrete, 216 x 229 x 278 cm. Courtesy the artist, © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate

Of her practice, Whiteread has said: “My work is almost like trying to write a succinct poem. There is this visual aspect to my work but also cerebral or maybe literate aspects – there are other things going on. I hope it works with your senses and gives you a moment of pause and quiet. I hope it gives you a moment of reverie – just standing, dreaming and thinking.”

Turning objects and spaces on their head and experimenting with unexpected materials, Whiteread’s monumental works force her viewers to look again, to stretch the imagination and fill in blanks as though reinstating an object, imagining or remembering a scene. The act of observation, creation and recall thus enriches our psychological interior worlds.

“The reason my work has affected people over the years is because it draws people’s attention to their lives and the things in their lives. There’s a certain amount of humility that goes with that,” adds Whiteread.

by Rowena Chiu

Rachel Whiteread is on display at Tate Britain until January 21, 2018.


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