Here is a clip from BBC Arts of Rachel Whiteread's 1997 Monument, Nameless Library.
Most often when we think of sculpture, we think of three-dimensional objects created from materials such as stone, wood or clay. Perhaps before taking this course what immediately came to mind when you thought of sculpture were classical Greek or Roman statues of heroes and leaders carved from pristine slabs of white marble. But as you have seen throughout this course, artists create sculpture using a variety of materials both found and fabricated in the production of their art. Some are recognizable and figurative, while others are abstract and non-objective.
Duchamp revolutionized the world of art by using objects from the real world, followed by Piero Manzoni who asked us to consider the artists themselves as sculpture. Minimal artists such as Tony Smith and Donald Judd relied on mechanical processes in the reduction of sculptural elements to pure form, while conceptual artists of the 1970s and 1980s such as Michael Asher and Sol LeWitt asked us to consider objects that weren't even there. But if you were beginning to believe that nothing couldn't be reduced any further in art, think again.
Have you ever wondered what the space under your bed is shaped like? What about the chair you are sitting in, or the area under your desk? Chances are that most of you haven't, so take a moment to think about it. Perhaps your first thought may be of a simple shape, such as a rectangle under your bed, or a square under your seat.
The area you are considering is most commonly referred to as negative space. For those of you who have ever taken a drawing class, this concept might be somewhat more accessible because you probably learned how to document a subject by studying both the positive space (that occupied by an object) and the negative space (that which surrounded it). The point is that everyday we interact with manmade objects that take up space, but rarely do we consider the space surrounding them. To most of us this space has no value or meaning; it's just air.
However, British, neo-conceptual artist Rachel Whiteread, who was born in 1963, has devoted her career to these forgotten spaces. Using materials such as plaster, plastic, and rubber she creates sculpture based upon the absence of objects, or more specifically the space surrounding or under them.
The first piece she exhibited in 1988, titled "Closet" was a large wardrobe (freestanding closet) that she filled with plaster. Once the plaster solidified the wooden pieces of the original closet were removed leaving only the hardened chalky white substance. For 1990's "Ghost," Whiteread used plaster to fill an entire room. Upon first glance the sculpture appears like a huge white block of stone, however upon further inspection one begins to notice details such as a the indentation of baseboards, a door frame, hinges and light switches that protrude in opposition to their original state. The title accurately reflects the eeriness of the giant solid form, which appears like a mausoleum representing and containing something that no longer exists. In essence Whiteread must destroy objects in order to create, or "free" the space surrounding them.
In the early 1990s, Whiteread continued to work with interior domestic spaces such as bedrooms and bathrooms and the objects existing within them such as tubs, sinks, and mattresses. The space surrounding each of these objects was filled with plaster or dingy amber colored rubber and essentially became the mold for the final product. In addition to the familiar shapes, subtle details such as rust and raised printing remain as evidence of the original object's presence.
In 1993, Whiteread cast an entire Victorian style townhouse in a poor section of London. The house was the last remaining in a neighborhood that was being gentrified, a euphemistic term for tearing down old buildings to build expensive new ones. Although the work was eventually demolished, just like the houses that surrounded it, in its existence it appeared as a monument to the changing domestic landscape of urban neighborhoods. As a representation of what had been lost, "House" raised many politically charged issues such as homelessness, poverty and the disintegration of traditional family life. "House" itself was a tomb of remembrance for all the families who had once occupied the neighborhood.
While many of Whiteread's plaster works are somber both aesthetically and conceptually, she has also created sculptures that are vibrantly colored and visually breathtaking. For "Untitled One Hundred Spaces"(1995), she cast 100 objects resembling the spaces under various types of chairs and tables. The 100 spaces became molds that were then filled with colorful resin (a type of translucent plastic) to produce deliciously opulent forms, which glisten like huge blocks of candy. As many of Whiteread's sculptures are grim reminders of what is no longer, she also has the capacity to express that what remains is often beautiful.
In the late 1990s, she was commissioned to create a Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz, in Vienna, Austria. Her proposal for the monument is to cast the interior of a library. Rather than arrange the books with their pages inward, she has decided to turn them spine side in, with their pages visible. The reversal of the book's position reinforces her concept that libraries are monuments to history and knowledge and much like people, each individual page is necessary and of great importance. Not surprisingly, because of the recent right-wing political situation in Austria, there has been a great deal of controversy over the execution of this public construction. The good news is that the controversy recently ended, and the memorial was inaugurated on October 25, 2000.
Rachel Whiteread's work has been exhibited throughout the world in museums, galleries and public spaces. In 1991, she was the recipient of England's highest honor in the arts, The Turner Prize. Ironically, the same year she was "honored" by the conservative British press as England's worst artist. Needless to say, both honors did wonders for her career. She currently lives and works in London and New York City.
Page author: A.E.