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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 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

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia