Tuesday, 15 July 2008



Whiteread’s signature is casts of architectural features, furniture and fixtures, various common containers from cardboard boxes or packaging to hot-water bottles and baths, in modest materials including plaster, resin, concrete and rubber. The work is instantly recognisable yet strangely detached, anonymous. Casts invert solids into space or voids; detach volumes from context or practical function, assume a symbolic role as container or imprint of fluid yet final practices. They fill and fulfil, measure repleteness or occupation against sealed and standard space. Whiteread’s work often evokes a sense of loss, of being sealed off, somehow excluded. Her most famous work is the monument to Holocaust victims in Judenplatz, Vienna, adding to the sense of interment.

Her work emerged in the early 90s and while the artist acknowledges the influence of Bruce Nauman’s A Cast of the Space under My Chair (1965–68) the interest in turn reflects two strands to British sculpture at the time. The first is the use of domestic furniture as material, not strictly as a ready-made, but rather extension to the Minimalist’s strict modules, to be assembled in some serial or convenient manner (see also Post 36) or combined with other materials, as in the work of Bill Woodrow. Whiteread’s early work paces these concerns; later efforts similarly appeal to modular assembly.

The second is the striking use of architecture as means to reconsider aspects of volume, proportion, light, function, etc. A close precedent is the work of Richard Wilson, with installations such as 20:50 (1987-96) in which a gallery (originally Matt’s Gallery, London) is filled waist high with used engine oil within a steel-plated lining that carefully traces the contours of the room. In such work, Wilson contrasted an interior with unwelcome fluid, invokes a sealed volume with an enclosed or confined one.

Whiteread’s castings of architecture, such as House (1993) and Apartment (2001) similarly highlight a sealed quality to walls and rooms, similarly record a fluid content. However her concern is not really with event or installation, but something more permanent. In theory, she could sample voids by filling them with any number of solid elements of potent association, in manner ranging from Arman to David Mach, and fix them there, but casting announces a fluid presence and its pouring, spraying and coating shape the meaning in certain ways.

Casting is associated with duplication as well as recording, with reinforcing and repair on persons. While many critics seize upon the latter in granting her works a bodily extension, a sense of personal space preserved or defended, there is a more directly sculptural sense in which casting enables duplication or reproduction; points to industry and conformity. The two senses are not mutually exclusive of course, but they do give the work more nuance than is generally allowed in commentary on her work. Casts invert solid and void, encase or simplify volumes, accent containment in smaller works, sheer capacity in larger ones. But the expression or metaphor is equally of a severely compartmentalised engagement as well as an undifferentiated filling, a literal pouring into place or holder. On the one hand, we apprehend familiar objects on terms of novel volume, on the other they are pointedly isolated, all the more remote for maintaining scale and surface detail.

The ambivalence is especially acute where the choice of object involves some prestige or authority. In works based upon display plinths and bookshelves, casting the surrounding space takes on a more provocative or ‘negative space’. Plinths anticipate or respect sculpture for example, but inspire only their inverse in shape, display merely a substitution of materials, the urge to supply only an equivalent volume. With bookshelves, it is the treatment of collections as simply a single volume that seems both amusing (a pun on her surname) and uneasy. There is no distinction by author or subject – at most schematic colour. Rather, they are a measure of décor, a token repository, again possessed on strict yet empty terms.

In the Holocaust memorial this allegiance extends to ‘The People of The Book.’ Yet her choice of the local name tellingly broadens the identity. It is hard to think of a major faith that does not place a premium on scriptures. It would be misleading to think librarians and bibliophiles were chief among the victims. Whiteread is devoted to the cause in the same way that her work adheres to surroundings, opportunities to reside and possess at a gut level. All are occasions to pour herself into situation, to parcel the experience simply in terms of bulk; in the case of libraries, by volume of volumes.

CAP thanks Bill Woodrow for prompt advice in researching this post.

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