Index and Imprint


11 September 2017

Architects and designers ought to take an interest in British sculptor Rachel Whiteread's work. In her casts of the negative spaces ensconced within everyday objects and spaces, she makes visible many of those intangible qualities which many practitioners in the field consider paramount, but difficult to pin down: use and wear; memory and community.

A survey of Whiteread's work from the late 1980s to the present day opens at London's Tate Britain today. It is the most substantial review of her work to date, although it doesn't read like a chronology. This is because Whiteread's work centres around one idea and method – that of casting negative spaces in concrete, plaster, or glistening coloured resin – and it has yielded the bulk of her work. For Whiteread's sculptures to be loosely grouped in a large, unified 1,500sqm space, as they are in the Tate Britain show, therefore seems in keeping with the artist's resistance to be moulded into a so-called stylistic progression.

Those who fetishise reinvention and continually unfolding newness (and plenty in the art world do), might sniff at Whiteread's uncompromising pursuit of one idea – but that would foreclose a deeper engagement with what is in fact a very rich and productive idea. Those who fetishise originality and heroic discovery (and plenty in the art world do), might also sniff at the fact that Whiteread was not the first to make such casts (American artist Bruce Nauman made A cast of the space under my chair in 1965-68, and Ed Keinholz proposed an unrealised concrete cast of a shop in 1967) – but that would be to dismiss Whiteread's particular employment of the idea, and the unique impact and resonance her work has had in the context of the past three decades.

Whiteread was catapulted to fame, as well as unwitting politicisation, when her 1993 project House made headlines in national newspapers and even prompted parliamentary debate. House was a concrete cast of the interior of an entire Victorian terraced house which stood on the site of the original edifice's demolition – 193 Grove Road London's East End – until it, too, was destroyed after 11 weeks. The work was so popular a piece of public sculpture that a petition for it to remain permanently was discussed in the House of Commons. Although a motion for House's retention was passed, the local council confirmed it would demolish the work on the same day that Whiteread was awarded the Turner Prize in November 1993. The council's bulldozer-like approach cast into great relief the tensions that already underpinned various redevelopment projects in east London in the 1990s.

The immediate impact of Whiteread's work does not lie in its political commentary, however. Rather, her sculptures are homages to the ways in which we use, besmirch, and erode the objects and spaces around us. They make visible the marks of greasy fingers or chewing gum tacked to the underside of chairs, as in Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1995), a work consisting of resin casts of the negative spaces below found chairs, displayed in Tate Britain's lofty Duveen Galleries. Similarly, it's the rusty marks and inverse cracks that make the monumental 2003 sculpture Untitled (Room 101) not a pristine minimalist sarcophagus, but an index of life lived in the space (which was the room in BBC's Broadcasting House believed to have been the inspiration for George Orwell's fictional Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Untitled (Room 101) stands as one of the centrepieces of the Tate Britain show alongside two other large-scale works: Untitled (Stairs) (2001) and Untitled (Book Corridors) (1997-8). There is pleasure to be found here in working these works out purely in terms of their spatial logic. The former sculpture sees two inverted stairs rise next to each other, and the latter sees the empty spaces between books and bookshelves manifested and seemingly weighing heavy on the immaterial "books". In both cases, Whiteread has chosen not to cast all the negative space implied by the configurations, leaving the viewer to puzzle over the spatial arrangement of the original spaces. Whiteread's works prompt curiosity about spaces and how they're put together, as well as their uses, abuses and symbolic significance. What artworks could possibly be more compelling for practitioners in the field of design and architecture?