Whiteread brings cubism to the Tate

Rachel Whiteread is the latest artist to try to conquer the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. Does she succeed? Tom Lubbock assesses the Turner prize-winner's installation 'Embankment'

Rachel Whiteread's Embankment is the most recent work in Tate Modern's annual Unilever Series, where an artist is invited to fill the giant Turbine Hall. Last year Bruce Nauman filled it with muttering sounds. Before that there was Olafur Eliasson's baleful foggy sunset.

The Turner Prize winner is famous for her casting. Her ingredients here are 14,000 cardboard storage boxes whose interior spaces have been cast in white, translucent, ice-tray plastic - and then piled up in towering bergs and pinnacles and mounds, to create a mountainous, snow-drifty landscape.

What's the idea? You have all these white "ghosts" of cardboard storage boxes, evoking all the stuff that we pack up, put away and forget about. It is the familiar Whiteread pathos effect - memorials to things hidden, overlooked, lost. And it could surely have been made to work once more, if the whole installation had suggested a huge attic or warehouse. You can well imagine these ghost-boxes stacked high and neatly, in aisle after aisle, evoking some vast spectral archive, the memory bank of a lost civilisation, countless boxes of personal belongings, the lost property office at the end of the universe, etc.

But obviously Embankment isn't like that. The thousands of boxes are stacked up as they would never be stacked for storage purposes. There's no imaginable human or natural eventuality that would result in boxes arriving in this formation. Looking at the whole construction, the idea of storage just becomes irrelevant. The arrangement, in other words, has got nothing to do with the ingredients it's made from. Basic concept failure.

There's also a failure of theatre. People talk about the "challenge" of the Turbine Hall, but it's not just a matter of scale. There are some big spaces where you could put quite a contained and sober work, and it would still resonate. The Turbine Hall isn't like that. It's an awful, awkward big space, and it can only be conquered by the most theatrical spectacle.

Rachel Whiteread is an artist of fine and minimal taste. She operates well with a single object or with several objects set in a regular formation. But here she's attempting theatre, and romantic set design is not her speciality. When you're in among them, it doesn't take long to notice that the shapes of this landscape, though high, are not in the least dramatic. There's no doom or vertigo in them. You strain to feel something dynamic or apocalyptic. It's not there. A photo in front of you is as good as it gets.

Rachel Whiteread: Embankment: Turbine Hall, Tate Modern; every day to 2 April; admission free

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