Conjuring art out of thin air

For 10 years now, Rachel Whiteread has taken empty spaces - the void below a chair, the hollow beneath a mortuary slab - and turned them into solid objects. What will she do for her next trick? By Andrew Graham- Dixon
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The Independent Culture
Opinion is divided on the subject of Rachel Whiteread's earliest sources of inspiration. There are those who think Whiteread (born 1963) may have been influenced at a crucial formative stage by the American post-Minimal artist Bruce Nauman's work of 1965, A Cast of the space Under My Chair. Others hypothesise early exposure to Paul Jennings's book of 1967, The Great Jelly of London, an ingenious fantasy revolving around the attempts of a certain Mr Bonamy Didcot to make an enormous jelly using the Royal Albert Hall as a mould:

"Slowly, majestically, as the children cheered, the whole shell of the Albert Hall was lifted higher and higher till everyone could see the splendid orange jelly wobbling and gleaming in the sun. It came out perfectly. Hardly any of it stuck to the Albert Hall. You could see exactly where the organ had been."

An uncanny prefiguration of House, Whiteread's celebrated cast of the insides of a Victorian two-up two-down in Hackney, or merely a coincidence? No matter. "Shedding Life", a retrospective of her work at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, demonstrates that whatever her influences, Whiteread is an unimpeachably original artist. She had made more, much more of the technique of casting than Bruce Nauman. She has created jelly-mould effects undreamt of even by Mr Bonamy Didcot.

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), a Whiteread dating from 1995, confronts visitors entering the low-ceilinged galleries of Liverpool. Systematic and somewhat eccentric, it consists of 100 translucent resin casts of the spaces under chairs and tables, laid out grid-fashion in 10 rows of 10. Created in various artificial confectionery hues, they are the colour and texture of fruit pastilles sucked clear of their sugar coating. Like all Whiteread's work, this is sculpture as conjuring tricks. Thin air has been magicked, abracadabra, into solid object, 100 times over.

But to what end, on this occasion, remains unclear. Whiteread's works are often charged with a sense of melancholy, motivated by a desire to memorialise. But here that is not so. The phalanx of knee-high jellies is playful, the sheer multiplication of forms amounting to a joke about the singlemindedness with which Whiteread has adhered to her chosen method - and perhaps, too, a piece of bravado. Whiteread has been making casts of thin air for 10 years and more now. This may be her way of insisting that the shapes of unattended nothingness are still infinitely fascinating to her.

The earliest Whiteread in "Shedding Life" is a work called Closet. Made in 1988, it has the aspect of a childhood recollection perpetuated. The cast of the interior of an old wardrobe has been wrapped in black felt, a seven-year-old's hiding place become a monolith. But, elsewhere, Whiteread's imagination looks forward instead of back, issuing not in reminiscences of youth but forebodings of death. Bathtubs, cast in plaster or rubber the colour of precious amber, have evidently become resting places for the dead. Untitled (Double Rubber Plinth) consists of two casts of the space beneath a mortuary slab. It is as if the morbidity has seeped out of the form of her work and into its material, on this occasion a dense white rubber with the quality of coagulated fat. Like several other recent works, this suggests that the artist may have begun to feel a certain nagging discontent with the limitations of casting pure and simple. Whiteread is experimenting more with the materials from which her casts are made. Within the relatively narrow field of activity which she has allowed herself, that and colour are among the few variables which she can control.

The reproductive aspect of Whiteread's technique might suggest that she is, at heart, a realist. Her work resembles a solid version of photography, that fundamentally reliquary means of image-making. But there is also a considerable degree of expressive dishonesty behind Whiteread's strategems. The artist is fond of straight lines, and her materialised spaces are invariably blocks. But is the space under a chair really a cube? Can air really be sheared off and chiselled straight like stone? By solidifying air, by cutting it off from the circumambience of all other air, Whiteread inevitably denatures it. In doing so, she hints at what she is really about. Her art delimits as much as defines. There is a quality of agoraphobia here, a desire for containment and confinement; a need to fill up space, again and again and again. Whiteread clearly dislikes emptiness and is constantly demonstrating, by her art, her antipathy to a void.

Every Whiteread sculpture notes the passing of some human artefact and is, therefore, formed from an absence which invokes the greater and final absence of death. But although her work is inevitably morbid, it derives poignancy from its implicit resistance to the facts of mortality. The nature of the transfiguration that she practises is like a child's defiance or denial of death. She is always for resurrecting, for digging up, for flushing out what is no longer there, for dragging the unknown and the forgotten out of the dark and into the light.

In the current exhibition there are two works made from casting the spaces under the floorboards and between the joists of some anonymous house somewhere. A series of long, low, rectangular units, separated by thin interstices of air, lie before the viewer. One of these resurrected obscurities is formed from concrete, the other from a greenish resin which traps light and lends it an appropriate submerged quality. In each case this is a neat paradox, the air from under a floor, solidified, now lies on a floor. The results are also unexpectedly grand. This derives partly, no doubt, from the perennial portentousness of Whiteread's work - the way in which it holds up, for solemn contemplation, absolutely without distraction, some field of normally overlooked existence. But Whiteread has also learnt from Carl Andre and Richard Long, pioneers of the low-lying modular sculptural aesthetic. She knows the gravity and power of symmetrical, rhythmical, horizontal forms. She is a much more artful artist than some of her detractors have made her out to be.

This exhibition suggests that Whiteread's chief problem in the future will be to find new ways to "deepen the game", in Francis Bacon's words. Her position now is in some ways analogous to that in which the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg found himself, 30 years ago, roughly at the end of his first decade as an artist. His great invention, like Whiteread's, was a device for the systematic metamorphosis of reality. Where she makes casts of things, he made soft versions of things normally hard. The works forged by the young Oldenburg in the service of his own cult of flaccidity are still among the most touching, humane sculptures created by any post- war artist. But there came a moment (perhaps inevitably) when he and others felt that he had used up the full expressive range of Soft Sculpture. Having made up a world in which everything is floppy, lazy and friendly, there came a point when he tired of it and went looking for another.

Like the young Oldenburg, Whiteread has already created a body of work that will last, no matter what else she does from now on. Meanwhile, her invention continues, for the moment, to supply her with ideas for making sculpture. But for how long can her infatuation with inside-outness endure?

The pattern of Whiteread's career so far suggests that some form of sea- change may be imminent. Until now, Whiteread's art has fallen broadly into two categories. She has created relatively small, lyrical works: casts of baths, of chairs, of tables, of hot-water bottles. In counterpoint to those, she has also worked on a series of ever-increasingly monumental works. These have been both the masterpieces and the milestones of her life. First among them was Ghost, the cast of an entire bedsitting room in a house in East London. Then came House, the cast of an entire house in Hackney. Now she is working on the largest of all her schemes to date, a memorial to the Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis during the Second World War, which is to be unveiled in the Judenplatz in Vienna in two months' time. It is represented by a model in Liverpool, on which it should certainly not be judged. But the work clearly represents a change in direction for Whiteread.

Conceived on a far larger scale than any of her other works to date, the memorial will take the form of a phantom-like white library. The principal conceit of the design is that it is to look as if cast from an actual library, and as if the mould had been formed at the place where books meet wall. The result is a multi-storied mausoleum, a fortified block formed from thousand upon thousand unconsultable, unreadable and (since the fact of casting has turned their spines, forever, in and away from us) untitled books.

The symbolic meanings of the monument may require some iconographical decipherment. Whiteread's library alludes to the Jews as the "People of the Book", the anonymity of the volumes in her library presumably refers to the anonymity of many of the victims to which this is a memorial; the motif of the library may, further, carry a sinister suggestion of the bureaucratic efficiency of the Nazi killing machine. But all this sits somewhat uneasily with the rest of Whiteread's work, which has deliberately avoided overt symbolism and drawn its strength, instead, from a close and unsentimentally precise relationship to real objects in the real world. That thread has plainly been cut here, for this is a conceptual work - a cast of an idea rather than a real thing, designed to serve its memorial purpose through symbolism and metaphor. It remains to be seen whether her fragile art can stand the loss of specificity. This may turn out to be a rather more literary work of art than even Whiteread herself intended.

The nature of the commission has doubtless forced the artist into changes. But, perhaps, she is herself consciously pushing at the limits of her own work, seeking to precipitate a crisis she knows is on the way whatever she does. The first challenge that faces the contemporary artist is that of self-invention. The second is that of finding a way to grow and develop within the confines of that invented identity. The third is that of inventing the self anew. The first two obstacles lie behind Rachel Whiteread but the third awaits.

n `Shedding Life' is at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool (0151 7093223) to 5 Jan 1997