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Object lessons: Rachel Whiteread and the legacy of the Young British Artists

In this Tate Britain exhibition, the mood that her pieces transmit is one of contemplative silence.

One of the objects in Tate Britain’s retrospective of the work of Rachel Whiteread is a cast in clear resin of a doll’s house. It is called Ghost, Ghost II and is an austerely beautiful thing, stately and translucent, as though made from Fox’s Glacier Mints. It is also a nod towards the ghost that haunts the whole exhibition: the cast of 193 Grove Road in the East End of London, the last house of a Victorian terrace that in 1993 was being demolished to make way for an urban park.

Whiteread filled the empty building with concrete and then removed the walls, floors and roof to reveal a version of the house in negative. What had been air was now solid and what had been a piece of unexceptional Victorianism was now a piece of innovative modernism – a cockney dolmen.

House lasted for only 80 days before it, too, was demolished and during that time it divided opinion. Sidney Gale, the last inhabitant of the original building, was quoted (or misquoted) as saying, “If that is art, then I’m Leonardo da Vinci,” and numerous others took aim at it. Its supporters, however, saw the work as a poignant memorialising of everyday lives and a now lost working-class culture. When someone spray-painted “Wot for?” on it, they were answered with a graffitied “Why not!” Despite a motion in the Commons, House came down.

Much of Whiteread’s subsequent career – and almost all of her work at Tate Britain – plays on the themes contained in House. If nature abhors a vacuum, her self-appointed task has been to fill it by making casts of little-regarded items, from toilet rolls to shelves of books, turning them into sculptural objects that reveal something of the poetry of the quotidian. Indeed, the numerous pieces in the exhibition can be viewed as individual components of one huge work, which might be titled The Stuff of Life.

Whiteread came to prominence as part of the Hirst-Emin-Chapman-brothers generation. Charles Saatchi included her cast of a room in his 1992 “Young British Artists” show, and she appeared in the 1997 “Sensation” exhibition that noisily launched the YBAs as a group. She was never, however, a fully fledged member, not least because she was not part of the ex-Goldsmiths cluster that was at its heart, although her subject matter more closely resembles the work of Michael Craig-Martin, the George Martin figure in the YBA story, than does that of any of his students – Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Mat Collishaw and Sam Taylor-Wood (now Taylor-Johnson) among them.

The 20 years since “Sensation” have not been kind to the reputations of most of the now middle-aged YBAs: since his cow and shark vitrines, Hirst has become a gallerist and purveyor of gimcrack grandiosity; Tracey Emin remains stuck in her rut of mawkish solipsism; Taylor-Johnson is better known as the director of the film of Fifty Shades of Grey (which won her a nomination for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director) than for her photography; Jake and Dinos Chapman, who once promised much, seem to have lost their identity and edge, and so on. With each passing year, the YBAs look more facile and their moment in the sun less of a significant turbo­boost for British art and more of a blip. Even their occasional provocations – such as when Jake Chapman declared that taking children to art galleries is “a total waste of time” because “children are not human yet” – now raise a wry smile rather than the tabloid indignation of old.

Whiteread’s reputation, though, has held up, in part perhaps because her work is founded on traits that are decidedly un-YBA. The mood that her pieces transmit is one of contemplative silence and her themes – memory and shared experiences – have a universality that says “Look at us” rather than “Look at me”.

Looking is nevertheless the first thing that her work demands. Its inside-outness takes some getting used to; in her hands, the banal becomes strange. The first work in the show is Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) from 1995 and comprises the casts of the space beneath 100 chairs captured in fruit-jelly shades of resin. Before the brain registers the imprint of chair legs, stretchers and the underside of seats, the objects appear random, laid out in ranks like avant-garde chess pieces. Once the mental link has been made, however, the viewer’s perception readjusts; we start to see these shapes first as coalescences of air and then as having a human aspect, too: these were places where 100 pairs of legs once kicked and innumerable shoes were discarded.

All of her pieces are quietly biographical since they bear the imprint of anonymous lives. The exhibition contains a series of casts of mattresses that slump against the walls, their surfaces scored with the weave of the ticking. There are half a dozen doors (from grand double ones and the standard panelled variety to the rough timber doors of sheds), and in some the heads of the screws that once held locks in place stand proud in the plaster or tinted resin rather than being recessed. The smoothly sculptural shape of baths is revealed in reverse. These works do more than simply show the essential character of objects. Rather, they all prompt the same question: Who slept on these mattresses? Who walked through these doors? Who soaked in this bath?

This link to other lives is even more tangible when some pieces retain marks of the original objects – a smear of soot from the back of a fireplace, or a dab of rust that has transferred from the underside of an enamel bath to be preserved in the plaster. Such unintentional traces subtly indicate the transition from subject to object.

Other items become something different in the process of casting, a transition from sculptural form to sculpture. For example, in the 1990s Whiteread made a group of pieces called Torso by filling hot-water bottles with wax, rubber or dental plaster and then cutting away the rubber casing. The resulting shapes, in colours from dusty pink to silver, have a vaguely humanoid appearance, and Whiteread has likened them, accurately and disquietingly, to “headless, limbless” babies.

The two biggest works are Untitled (Room 101) and Untitled (Stairs) – Whiteread has the annoying quirk of claiming something is “Untitled” and then giving it a title. The first is a full-size cast of the room at the BBC’s old Broadcasting House that was George Orwell’s model for “Room 101” in Nineteen Eighty-Four, while the second is an Escher-like version of the interlocking staircases at the artist’s home, a former synagogue. These are massive works, made in sections and put together to form the facsimiles.

Because the process has preserved the textures of the originals, from worn treads to peeling wallpaper, the works demand to be looked at close up as well as from a distance. Chance has given them surface patterning that sculptors have to carve with rasp and chisel.

What the exhibition does not show is any great development in Whiteread’s art. She is a somewhat limited artist whose method and themes have remained largely consistent over the past 30 years. But in refining her technique, she also refines the expressive possibilities of her work, as with her casts of the boxes that contained various items that belonged to her mother when she died – a quiet work of preservation on more than one level.

Casts, of course, also have a long art-historical provenance, both as reproductions of classical sculptures and as teaching aids for artists, and Whiteread’s work references this history as well as the minimalism of Carl Andre and Donald Judd – although her pieces are more tactile than theirs (and she has clearly looked at Giorgio Morandi). Yet she is, in essence, a still-life artist whose work commemorates Everyman, the pattern of whose daily life she freezes in time.

The exhibition runs until 21 January 2018

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left