“Please don’t call it a retrospective,” Rachel Whiteread has said of the exhibition tracking her 30-year art career, which has opened at Tate Britain. “I can only think about it if I call it a ‘survey’.” This geographical and architectural term avoids the death-knell of “retrospective” and feels suitable for a body of work that maps the artist’s domestic landscape.
The exhibition, in the cavernous Duveen galleries, draws a thread from her first solo exhibition in 1988 to her thin papier-mâché casts from this year. Whiteread specialises in using plaster or resin to capture a missing object or the spaces in between things; she describes herself as “mummifying the air in a room.”
There are resin casts of doors and windows; imprints of a roof complete with beams; a chunky plaster block marking the space underneath a sink. Most disturbing is the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, documented here in photographs, a concrete bomb-shelter-like building remembering the murder of 65,000 Austrian Jews. It was cast inside-out, with no door handles, creating a sense of claustrophobia and impenetrable horror. This is a memorial as embalmed trauma. Alongside Whiteread’s casts and photographs of casts are drawings and various found objects – spoons, cans, chunks of plaster, shoes and plates. You can tell she is drawn to the hinterland between function and abstraction.
Whiteread is still best known for the concrete cast she made in 1993 of an entire building, a 19th-century terraced house, for which she won the Turner prize – the first female artist to do so. Like some of the other Young British Artists (YBAs) who rose to fame in the 1990s, Whiteread has been criticised for being a one-trick pony. That’s unfair. This exhibition shows that although she may not be a wildly versatile artist, her variations on a single theme add up to an intelligent and subtly provocative body of work.
This is a cast of the entire interior of the last terraced house remaining after a large-scale demolition in Bow, a suburb of east London. In the extraordinarily ambitious public commission from Artangel, 193 Grove Road was pumped full of liquid concrete and its exterior walls peeled away, leaving an imprint of its architectural lines. A monument to a rapidly changing area, “House” at once solidifies a century of domestic life, and subverts its structure away from functionality and into pure form. The work acted as a lightning rod for public debate around both gentrification and the quality of the YBAs; along with the Turner prize, the work also won Whiteread the K Foundation art award for Worst British Artist. The unimpressed local council demolished “House” the next year. While the demolition must now surely be regretted, it adds an extra poignancy to the work; when we look at the remaining photographs, we see a house twice-removed, a community shrunk to a trace.
Untitled (Clear Torso) (1993)
Whiteread’s first “torso”’, a cast of a hot water bottle, was included in her first solo show in 1988. She kept revisiting the idea over the next decade, producing “torsos” of white plaster, brown rubber, grey concrete and clear resin. In contrast to her giant, blocky casts, these small-scale sculptures are reminders of the sensations of fullness and warmth. They take on a soft, human shape; Whiteread calls them “headless, limbless babies”.
Untitled (Amber Bed) (1991)
A series of casts of slept-upon mattresses, made between her first solo show in 1988 and the early 1990s, appear to be the most personal and emotionally charged parts of the exhibition. The bed is where the most intimate moments of our lives unfold, and Whiteread has let the emotional resonance of sex, dreams and nightmares soak into her sculptures. This mattress slumps abjectly against the wall, the blood-red resin scratched and worn. Its charcoal-black cousin lies flat on the floor, its buttons like sad eyes.
Due Porte (2016)
Whiteread’s sculptures often simply present the ordinary in a slightly new form. “Circa 1665 (I)” casts a centuries-old door in translucent pink resin, the imprint of the ancient wood causing it to glisten like ice. “Due Porte” (above) was cast from the double door of a Roman palazzo. Whiteread’s door refuses its traditional function; it doesn't lead anywhere, hide anything, or provide any protective heft. It hints at a more open way of living.
After completing a series of large-scale projects, Whiteread moved away from architecture and made a series of smaller sculptures capturing the most fleeting ephemera of our everyday life. As well as casting cardboard boxes and polystyrene packaging, she made this series of toilet paper tubes from resin, plaster, pigment, wood and metal. Although the delicate lines from the cardboard folds are evident on their surface, these mundane objects are larger than life, filled out rather than hollow. Their bright, warm palate glows.
Rachel Whiteread Tate Britain (12 September 2017 – 21 January 2018). The exhibition will travel to Washington, Vienna and St Louis