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Rachel Whiteread

House 1993
Rachel Whiteread "House”, 1993 concrete, (destroyed)
House 1993






        Nineteenth-century sculptors referred to the process of bronze casting as life, death, and resurrection as the original live object was destroyed in the casting process and resurrected in bronze.  In a similar but distinctly different manner Rachel Whiteread casts the space inside, around, and adjacent to objects that have been part of people’s lives.  This process and her choice of materials transform the residue of everyday life into ghostlike, uncanny spirit images of everyday objects.

        Rather than using the traditional casting process of making molds of objects and then casting them in a different material, Whiteread uses the objects themselves as molds.  For example her 2002 sculpture "Sequel IV”, is a casting of the enclosing space surrounding the backs of a library shelf done in plaster.  This is a reversal of a bookshelf as the titles are hidden and the books inaccessible.  Instead of inviting browsing, these books are inaccessible shadows, frozen in time, reflecting hidden knowledge.  It is as if we came upon an ancient ruin of a library.

        Whiteread creates objects that are redolent of a mirror world of strange traces of human life, the ghosts of our common existence.  These negative sculptures of domesticity, records of the traces of people’s lives “seem to emphasize the fact that the objects they represent are not themselves there, and critics have often regarded her work to be redolent of death and absence. ”1  This is reference to death and absence is evident in her 1990 “Ether” and her 1996 “Untitled (Orange Bath)” which are castings of the enclosing space surrounding and supporting Victorian bathtubs.  The tubs and their enclosures served as the molds for the plaster and organic orange colored rubber and polystyrene castings.  “Ether “ which closely resembles a stone Greek sarcophagus is “a coffin like form, which, in turn, alludes to the practice of casting death masks.”2   “Orange Bath “ reverses this affect by resembling a sarcophagus made of petrified orange jello.

Rachel Whiteread "Ether”, 1990, plaster, 35 x 80 x 43 in.
Rachel Whiteread "Untitled (Orange Bath)”, 1996Rubber and Polystyrene, 32 x 82 x 43 in.

        Whiteread’s doubles of the discarded objects of our lives have an uncanny ghostlike presence.   Sigmund Freud discussed this affect in his essay: The Uncanny.   Freud postulated that “the 'double' was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego, an 'energetic denial of the power of death', … and probably the 'immortal' soul was the first 'double' of the body..."3  In today’s society, as in times past, people collect and surround themselves with objects and elements that bring a homelike comfort to their daily lives.  These objects, an outer manifestation of the ego, create an outer protective shell to our lives.  However when we outgrow these objects and discard them as old dead things, their ego supporting function reverses itself, and “the 'double' reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death."3  The power of Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures stem from its unconscious connection to our repressed fear of death in that they are the ghostlike manifestations of the hidden, discarded elements of our lives.  Freud mirrors this observation defining the uncanny as  “in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression."3

        Whiteread’s work references not so much human death as our psychic memories of the objects and spatial forms of our manmade environments.  Her work references these forms as dreamlike mirror objects.  To achieve this Whiteread uses “reversal, confrontation of positive and negative, dissolution, transference between public and private, inversion and mirror imaging"4 which are all features that are inherent in her casting process.   The results are dreamlike traces of the objects and the spaces of our lives.  Bachelard contends that a house (and by inference the objects within it) is a place where thoughts, memories, and dreams are integrated and collected.

 Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths. Daydreaming even has a privilege of auto valorization. It derives direct pleasure from its own being. Therefore, the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling -places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling places of the past remain in us for all time.5 

Thus the places and objects of our lives constitute the material for our dreams and Whiteread manifests in her work the dreamlike traces of our memories of place, what is invisible becomes visible, what is inside become the outside of her sculptures.  

Rachel Whiteread "Sequel IV”, 2002, Plaster, polystyrene and steel, 31.9 x 29.5 x 9.8 in

        Whiteread’s ghostlike mirror reversals of form found a powerful and very public manifestation in her 1993 sculpture “House” which won her the 1993 Turner Prize, an annual award given to the "Best British Artist of the Year" by the Tate Gallery.  “House” was cast from the last row house left in an area in East London that being demolished for urban renewal.   The brick and wood structure of the house was used as a mold for the casting of “House”.  After the structure was stripped away, what was left was a ghostlike monument to the private insides of a dwelling turned inside out.

 It set a familiar past in the space-time of today; it made present something which was absent; it was the space of a house no longer there.  Secondly, however, it worked spatially: it turned the space inside out.  The private was open to public view….the intimate was made monumental and yet retained its intimacy.6 

This was a reversal of an enclosing, comforting, dwelling, a place of repose and comfort, a symbol of domestic hopes and dreams.  What was left was a monument to one’s most private moments but with the privacy stripped bare and petrified.   “House” monumentalized the past in a subversive manner, instead of allowing for a connection to and retrieval of the past, “House” subverted the warm cozy memories of home.  According to Doreen Massey,

House triggered a sense of nostalgia in the public arena because it disrupted the time and space of the present. As a site of memory that revolved around collective heritage, House was inaccessible and therefore did not allow retrieval of the past. In this respect, the cast was uncomfortably subversive. Traditionally at a site of memory buildings are retained and nostalgia is very often commodified…Narrative features of the life of 193 Grove Road were interred in concrete as House became a monument to memory; a souvenir of daydreams inscribed with the cultural significance.6

        Someone once called Whiteread’s work "Minimalism with a heart"7.   Minimalism was for the most part a cold and geometric reaction against the self-expression of the feelings, which was a part of abstract expressionism.  In contrast, Whiteread's work is geometry softened and incorporates the feelings of memory of place.  Whereas Minimalism practiced a sense of detachment and reduction to pure, self-referential form, Whiteread's sculptures affirm their connection to the world of objects and space.

- Damon Hyldreth

Down 1 Guggenheim Museum Online, Highlights: Rachel Whiteread, accessed 2004 April 12 http://www.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/singular_forms/highlights_15a.html
2 Nationmaster.com, Encyclopedia: Rachel Whiteread, accessed 2004 April 12 http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Rachel-Whiteread
3 Sigmund Freud, "The 'Uncanny'" [Das Unheimliche] (1919). From Standard ed., Vol. XVII, trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1955, page 220
4 Rachel Whiteread, Christiane Schneider (Editor) Rachel Whiteread, Haunch of Venison, 2003, page 24
5 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994
6 James Lingwood (Editor), Rachel Whiteread's House, Phaidon Press, 1995, page 36
7 Jane Burton, "Concrete Poetry." Art News. v.98, no5 (May 1999). page 15

Rachel Whiteread is represented by Gagosian Gallery
©2023 Damon Hyldreth