alking home the other night. I was taken aback by the sheer amount of furniture left on Edinburgh‘s streets. A couple of mattresses slumped against a wheelie bin. a table. a chest of drawers and even a wardrobe. It’s the kind of detritus seen in most cities. And then it occurred to me who it reminded me of. Rachel Whiteread.
For the past twelve years. the London-born artist has been casting everyday. domestic objects — or the spaces inside. around and underneath them — using plaster. concrete. resin and rubber. From old mattresses. wardrobes. the insides of bathtubs and hot-water bottles to an entire house. lmbuing a haunting sense of melancholy and loss in each work. Whiteread carefully preserves the residue of human remains.
The forthcoming exhibition of fourteen major works at the National Gallery of Modem Art in Edinburgh. which opened earlier in the year at London‘s Serpentine Gallery. is Whiteread‘s first exhibition in Scotland. An exhibition which most will agree is long overdue. But since graduating in sculpture from Slade School ofArt in I987. Whiteread has been incredibly busy. Just a year after graduating. she had her first one-person show at the Carlisle Gallery in London. In I990. her cast of an entire rmm. Ghost. was premiered at the Chisenhale Gallery. Subsequent international group and solo shows confirmed her growing status as an outstanding young sculptor.
But it was the unveiling of House in I993. a cast of the interior of the last remaining terraced house on Grove Street in London‘s East End which propelled Whiteread unwittingly into the limelight. One of the most ambitious and contentious artworks in recent years. House commissioned by Artangel and Becks. was completed in October and demolished in January I994 amid much debate and intense media attention conceming its meaning.
‘I don‘t treasure media attention like some other artists.‘ says Whiteread now. ‘House was probably far more memorable because it’s been destroyed: the original house and my house. It‘s gone down in the history books in a way that it never would have done before.‘
Whiteread followed up House with another two public art sculptures abroad: Water lower. a transparent resin cast sited on the roof of a high-rise building in New York in 1998 and Holocaust Memorial for the Judenplatz Square in Vienna which. after many setbacks. was revealed in October 2000. And more recently. after four years of art research and development. Monument for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. the largest cast ever made in resin went public in June this year.
The Edinburgh exhibition encompasses a range of works dating from I989 to the present day. offering visitors the rare chance to see her work. Included is Whiteread‘s first bed piece. Shallow Breath. made in I989. two months after her father died.
‘For Shallott' Breath. I was looking for something that was an extension of the human form that wasn‘t figurative.’ she says. ‘Living in Hackney in East London. there’s a lot of
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From left to right: Untitled (House), 1993, Untitled (Novels), 1999, Untitled (Upstairs), 2001, Untitled (Black Bath), 1996, Untitled (Amber Bed), 1991
derelict mattresses around as well as a lot of derelict people and it became a way of speaking about the residue of the person that was on the bed.‘
Along with five bed pieces. the show includes Yellow Leaf (I989) the cast of the space underneath a kitchen table: Untitled (Black Bath) (I996); Untitled (Novels) (I999) cast from plaster. polystyrene and steel and Untitled (Pair) (I999). Whitercad‘s first large sculpture in bronze of a two-part cast from a mortuary slab. recently acquired by the National Gallery of Modern Art.
The two new sculptures created this year are perhaps the most personal. Untitled (Upstairs) and Untitled (Cast Iron Floor) were cast from the upper staircase and the terracotta floor from Whiteread‘s new studio. a former synagogue in Bethnal Green. For the Edinburgh show. the staircase will be shown in a horizontal position as opposed to its vertical positioning at the Serpentine.
‘l’d always been interested in the idea of having the staircase as a sculpture that could go in more than one direction. so it didn’t have to be something that sat on one
side.‘ she explains. ‘I knew that I could put that piece in and it would still work but in a different way. I like playing with spaces and I like installing things. so it seemed like a good marriage.‘
The floor piece Untitled ( C ast Iron Floor) has its obvious associations with the work of Carl Andre. but Whiteread approaches the subject differently. ‘The way in which Andre‘s things are made are completely different.‘ she says. ‘His works are without the human touch. The pieces I make have really intricate detail on the surface. there are chips and flaws which become quite clear when you see it. Also. when you walk across it. it moves so it’s quite disconcerting as it rattles beneath your feet. A lot of people found it quite uncomfortable which was my intention.‘
The floor piece is constantly changing as people walk upon it. Like all of Whiteread's work. it contains a history. Since its first showing in London. the piece has already altered dramatically. This attention to detail lies at the heart of her art. One of the curators of the show. Patrick Elliot. said of Whiteread: ‘Stains and dust signal our presence like fingerprints. they are our unwitting signatures; signs of our imperfections and therefore humanity. Whiteread tracks them down with the determination of a forensic scientist.‘
Does she agree? ‘Yes. I would.’ she says. ‘I think ill hadn‘t been an artist I would have been a forensic scientist as I‘m very interested in all of that. I forget how excruciatingly. irritatineg fastidious I am but it’s just how I am and I‘m sure it's incredibly eccentric and very irritating for other people. I may not look like that physically because I don‘t have nice haircuts or wear pointy shoes but with everything else I do. it's very fastidious.’
Whiteread‘s exacting approach to her work and utter determination has ensured her standing as one of the most important sculptors working today. Her ability to make to empty spaces visible and drawing our attention to mass and history is unique. And. in the words of American novelist A.M. Homes. “she shows us the unseen. the inside out. the parts that go unrecognised‘.
Rachel Whiteread opens at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh on Sat 29 Sep.
20 Sop—11 Oct 2001 THE LIST 13