BY Mark Sladen in Reviews | 11 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

Rachel Whiteread

BY Mark Sladen in Reviews | 11 NOV 96

The backbone of this exhibition is 15 of Rachel Whiteread's sculptures dating from 1988 to 1996 and made mainly from plaster, rubber or resin. The work includes casts from tables and chairs, baths and sinks, as well as two large pieces made by casting the spaces under floorboards. Her more public works are represented in a separate room, and include film and photographs relating to House (1993), as well as a maquette for a commission on which the artist is currently working: the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna. This is Whiteread's first museum retrospective in Britain and also the first major exhibition in her home country since 1993, the year in which she made House and was stamped onto the public consciousness.

It is hard to imagine a better and more timely presentation of Whiteread's work. The exhibition offers both a sober footnote to the House controversy and allows a broader reading of her work to emerge. The low-slung space of the Tate Gallery Liverpool is ideally suited to the sculptures on show, which have a more intimate aspect than the casts of rooms or houses. The works occupy the gallery in a variety of ways. Some hang from or are propped against walls, some sit on the floor like altars, while others consist of multiple elements which range across the gallery floor. Furthermore, the natural light of the galleries emphasises Whiteread's range of formal effects ­ the opacity of the plaster works becomes even more evident when placed next to the luminosity of the recent pieces in resin ­ and suggests that the artist is being drawn increasingly to the subtleties of surface.

Since a Whiteread cast represents an object through the space it leaves behind, and since the original object is often destroyed to create its image, Whiteread's works are often described in terms of loss. Commentators point out that the viewer has to engage in a process of imaginary recreation, an undertaking which makes us reconsider the original object. It is also argued that the relation of the chosen object to the human body encourages us to apply this pattern of loss and reconsideration to ourselves. Such an analysis is useful in many ways but it also tends to homogenise the work. By presenting a group of sculptures that are in some ways closely related but in other ways distinct, this exhibition enables us to take a different view of Whiteread's art. It allows us to see it as an evolving system in which individual pieces develop a host of different relationships ­ to the lost original and to the medium of the cast, as well as to the environment and to the viewer.

In some works, such as the casts of the spaces under beds, the sculpture's derivation from its original object is relatively clear. But even here the artist can go some way to disguise that relationship, making one of our original sites of fantasy even more strange. While in several sculptures, Whiteread's choice of media and casting technique seem to be part of a problem-solving exercise, in others her procedure seems intent on drawing out metaphorical relationships. Table and Chair (Clear) (1994), for example, consists of two resin casts taken from the spaces underneath the objects. The anti-table also describes the space that would be created if the anti-chair were pushed under it: a complex interaction which the transparency of the resin helps us to map in our minds. In contrast, Untitled (Floor) (1994-5), which consists of seven resin blocks cast from an underfloor space, exploits the play of light over and between its turquoise forms. A poetic relationship is established between the original empty space and a subaqueous one, drawing together two very different fantasy realms.

All of Whiteread's works share a basic grammar but the effects she achieves within these parameters are extremely varied. In the end, it is perhaps not so much the lost object that we pursue in her work as the lost figure of the artist. Very little is revealed about Whiteread's intentions but the more we enter into her system of self-imposed restraint the more eloquent it becomes about her relationship to us. Whiteread's choice of such a procedure is in one sense a critique of our culture's rabid consumption of images, while, conversely, the multiplicity that she demonstrates within it embodies the continual reinvention required of the artist in such a culture. If this exhibition achieves one thing, it is to make visible the multiplicity of Whiteread's work, a multiplicity previously hidden by the public controversy surrounding House and by the critical consensus that has developed around the artist.