Have you ever struggled to explain why you like modern art to your dad? Are you tired of your friend’s irreverent ‘I could have done this!’, when they very clearly couldn’t have? Then send them to the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Tate Britain, and go along with them; she’s the epitome of the modern sculptor whose seemingly simplistic and minimalist works raise the eyebrows of modern art-phobics. Whilst I usually adopt an open mind when it comes to modern art and the complexity of the thought-process behind it, I was quite sceptical about Whiteread. The only example of her work I’d seen on the Tate website was the plastic cast of a pink water bottle which, as it was cold December, I was more tempted to buy for myself than to consider as a work of art. The exhibition, though, changed my mind.
Born in London in 1963 and most famous for being the first woman to win the Turner Prize (in 1993), Whiteread is one of the UK’s most acclaimed sculptors. The exhibition takes the viewer through her career by displaying well known works, such as Untitled (100 Spaces), together with new pieces that have never previously been exhibited. It’s the largest collection of Whiteread’s work to date, and a fitting tribute to her easily overlooked artistic versatility, as the subtleties and details within her minimalism. In particular, it cleverly reveals how Whiteread plays around with size; large sculptures such as Untitled (Stairs) give way to her selection of pastel coloured ‘torsos’ (the hot water bottles). By juxtaposing, say, an alignment of multicoloured loo rolls with huge resin models of Victorian houses, this exhibition allows us to appreciate the domesticity central to Whiteread’s work.
Speaking to Linsey Young, the contemporary British art curator at Tate Britain, Whiteread explained her attempt to ‘preserve the everyday and give authority to some of the more forgotten things.’ At their heart, her pieces are embodiments of domestic memories. Particularly striking was a cast of two long bookshelves which had be moulded in such a way that preserved the different heights and widths of the books that had been there. This sculpture immortalises a moment in time, one in which a unique combination of books created an inimitable outline. Ironically, before realising that these were actual bookshelves, my first impression was of coffin casts; objects which, in serving to immortalise an individual’s memory, aren’t doing to dissimilar job to Whiteread. The exhibition ends with a short film which reveals just how much work goes into making her casts, whether small or monumental.
Whiteread redefines our perception of living spaces. By halting objects in time and casting them into something solid, she allows us to reflect on the role of the material within immaterial relationships: a home is only a home because it’s encapsulated in a house. With just a few days left before the exhibition closes, it seems the only appropriate words left are the following: for heaven’s sake, go!