THE BROADER PICTURE / The world turned inside out

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL last week, this might have looked like any old building site. Tomorrow it will be revealed to the public as the newest work by sculptor Rachel Whiteread, one of the four artists shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize. For this work, called 'House', Rachel Whiteread has turned a small terraced house in Grove Road, east London, inside out. While scaffolding covered it, only by watching closely would a passer-by have noticed that, as the exterior was stripped away, an interior cast of cement was slowly revealed: a reverse image of home, turned outwards to the open air. Now that it is finished, the starkness and mystery of 'House' will probably invite praise, bafflement, ridicule and BNP graffiti in about equal quantities.

Its construction was an impressive process. After the interior was prepared, concrete was sprayed over the entire inside surface and left to harden; then the original house was demolished around the cast. Funding came from Artangel (the group that funds 'art in unorthodox places'), the Arts Council and the sponsors, Tarmac; although the house belonged to Tower Hamlets local authority, the work has cost them nothing. This, at least, deflects one obvious criticism of such an unusual housing project. According to Rachel Whiteread: 'People stop me and ask why I'm doing this. 'You could build a house for that money,' they say. And all I can say back is that I'm not doing that.'

What she is doing resonates on two levels: one domestic and familiar, the other public, contextual. Until now, much of her work has used images of ordinary domesticity (casts of mattresses, of an entire room, entitled 'Ghost') suspended in the hallowed vacuum of a gallery space. 'House' also delivers the shock of the not-new, the eerie half- recognition of known objects made strange. A sash window in reverse cast with its panes Magritte-blank; a 3-pin wall socket pointlessly plugged; the door in the air that was a cupboard. A fireplace, the symbol of homely warmth, protrudes coldly, as if to fend off intruders. Here was a home, a box of hopes and sadnesses, the sarcophagus of a way of life. It looks impossibly small, as if for large dolls; it looks like a temple to some unpronounceable South American god. And especially, it looks post-nuclear: you imagine a family walled up in this concrete bunker while the world around is flattened. Yet it is a tender image: somehow, the family is all right in there.

This is Whiteread's first public installation, and its context is unusually powerful. Around the site in Grove Road stands a complete panorama of 150 years of East End history. To the north, the grand spaces of Victoria Park, symbol of Hackney's proud days. Half a turn to the west, a few Thirties semis huddle under a hotch-potch skyline of Fifties and Sixties high-rises and Seventies low-rises, valiant or sad attempts to impose a brave new world on the huge shanty-town of pre-fabs that replaced the blitzed homes of East Enders. Over the road, an assortment of turn-of-the-century churches and chapels; the post-First World War workshops and small factories that were the area's pride and prosperity, now converted to living space or disintegrating. And to the south, slap bang along the sightline of the street, that preposterous Legoland monument to the Eighties, the Canary Wharf tower.

Whiteread's site is pure Nineties. A year ago, there stood a 19th- century terrace, one of thousands that housed the industrial workforce. 'House' is the last. The rest were demolished to make a bland green space, featureless but for the expensive iron railings that enclose it, useless except as a lavatory for large dogs. 'House', a concrete block on a flat green expanse, tells a story of a century.

East London has gained a fascinating piece of public art. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's not there to stay. The site must be cleared and returned to its owners, Tower Hamlets council, next month - so unless 'House' finds a permanent home, it will be demolished. In this Whiteread's work is a mirror-image of the heritage business. Writing recently about 'the universal obligation to preserve' works of art, Tom Lubbock insisted that their right to life must be judged against other values. If not, 'to the extent that their death cannot be contemplated, works of art are already only half-alive'. Rachel Whiteread's house, appropriately for its context, is condemned as soon as built, and this, on the Lubbock scale of things, makes it a ghost that is powerfully alive. -

(Photographs omitted)