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.

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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 Reviews 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