In 1993 Rachel Whitehouse captured the artistic imagination with the «negative space» house she made of concrete in Bow, South London. The controversy of her sculpture, at the time, had to do more with the government’s policy of housing demolition than with art. This article by artist, writer and curator David Thorpe appeared in the Winter issue of Untitled Magazine that same year
Along the mountain road to Aberystwyth stands a huge rock, the deposit of some geological activity thousands of years ago. The road runs right by it, and emblazoned on its side in letters three feet high is the word ‘Elvis’. This memorial to the King has stood since his death as a reminder to all who drive by that one fan, at least, remembers him. It has stood, that is, with one disruption. One night about eighteen months ago, the name of Elvis was deleted and replaced by ‘Benny Hill’. From then on, and over a three-week period, a kind of skirmish took place. Benny Hill was deleted and replaced with Elvis. In the night, ‘Elvis’ would be changed back to ‘Benny Hill’ until finally Elvis was added with a warning to anyone who dared to replace it. There the matter lay. Now, with the warning gone, the solitary name of Elvis has been reinstated on the side of his memorial.
Memorials attract intense responses. Rachel Whiteread’s House has had the legend ‘WOT FOR’ painted on it, no question mark; maybe the perpetrators didn’t have time to add one. But the question indicates the puzzlement and irritation that contemporary art can generate. When I last saw House no one had visited the sculpture in the night and replaced ‘WOT FOR’ with ‘Because’. Unnecessary, I suppose, because unlike that solitary rock in the Welsh hills, House illuminates its own history, a reminder of the former street of terraced houses.
This particular house, once inhabited, with fires lit in its grates and windows opened to let in the sunshine, survived the devastation of the Blitz to be preserved in concrete, as much a mausoleum as a memorial. A memento mori of the East End. If you can’t see what it’s for, then it’s your loss; art cannot be spelt out in words of one syllable in a way that the tabloids can easily digest. Rachel Whiteread’s work here is a sensitive response to the history of the area and a magnificent challenge to the local environment and to perceptions of what art, or more specifically sculpture, can be about.
Whiteread’s sculpture has developed consistently from her early pieces dealing with the negative spaces made by furniture. The central endeavour of her sculpture seems to have been the development of a response to a negative space; the thing that objects create by their presence but which disappears in their absence.
On the one hand it harks back to drawing, the attempt to inscribe the sense of an object in space through the emptiness it establishes; on the other, even the earlier works contain a sense of building, of filling and materially completing the full identity of an object.
If you imagine having your mouth full of marbles or cotton wool, you have a physical sensation of the volume inside your mouth. For me Whiteread’s works are a bit like that and they make me think of Duchamp’s piece, With my Tongue in my Cheek or the earlier Wedge of Chastity and Objet-dard. As Gloria Moure points out in her monograph on Duchamp, “in Wedge of Chastity the galvanised plastic mould interlocks with the soft plastic material; the ‘wedge of chastity’ is thus hidden and with it the inframince of the two materials. In Objet-dard of 1951, other territories are invaded; the mould does not enable the form to be identified, and causes total dilution of conventional meanings….”.
Much of Whiteread’s sculpture, it seems to me, has been exploring similar ideas. Things once hidden and private are made prominent but, to an extent, still concealed. In House the empty space, the negative space, through which the house’s inhabitants once moved has been solidified.
These rooms, hollow or not, cannot be moved through. They are the mould of the sculpture, but unlike Duchamp’s dilution of conventional meanings they intensify the meaning of the house or the home turning it inside out for all to see its fossilised history.
In Whiteread’s best known piece to date, Ghost, first shown at Chisenhale Gallery just round the corner from the current work, this combination of atmosphere and history with the fundamentals of sculpture was first successfully explored. One of the beauties of Ghost was the ethereal presence that this solid sculpture evoked. The plaster cast of a complete room from a Victorian terraced house has been developed in public with House and incited someone to get a pot of paint to daub their question on its side. Placing worthy questions about public art and social responsibility to one side, the challenge of contemporary art to established values and to the comforting certainties that people try to maintain against the odds, is one of art’s driving forces. It is there to challenge and it is for us as onlookers to fill in the meaning. If you have to ask ‘what for’ of House you may be better served and definitely more comfortable with the soap opera certainties of East Enders and Neighbours.
Images: Main photo, John Davies; Cover of inter Issue of Untitled Magazine 1993 and Rachel Whiteread’s house graffiti © David Hoffman.