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Rachel Whiteread: Reawakening Our Senses Through Negative Space
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Rachel Whiteread: Reawakening Our Senses Through Negative Space

Picture of Michelle Feng He
Updated: 12 December 2015
Rachel Whiteread is celebrated internationally for her profound works of art. She has manipulated conceptions of space to create artwork in voids; thus, every space is art. Her sculptures are innovative and have taken a number of forms, from sheds to interiors of houses to a water tower. With a permanent piece at New York‘s MoMA and a current exhibition at Luhring Augustine until the 20th of December, 2015, Ms. Whiteread is an artist worthy of celebration.

The fast-paced lifestyle of New York City is unrivaled, made famous by New Yorkers who, even when fetching coffee, face the streets with powerful strides and determined gazes. With such goal-oriented focus, it becomes second nature for natives to ignore the cityscapes. In 1998, however, British sculptor Rachel Whiteread redirected every city-dweller’s attention back to the physical landscape by giving tangible form to a neglected space. She cast the inside of a water tower, appropriating modern significance to a once banal artifact.

Water Tower (1998), a now permanent piece of the MoMA’s collection, embodies many of the motifs that Whiteread has worked with previously. One of her first major works, Ghost (1990), was executed in what would become her signature style; she cast the ‘void’ or the inside of an abandoned house in London. In an interview with the National Gallery of Art, Whiteread describes the intensive dedication she needed to complete Ghost; she was living in a studio without water or electricity, and she worked several jobs to continue her artistry. She also revealed one individual’s unique interpretation of her work: ‘One of the most interesting things that anyone ever said to me about Ghost was that it reminded him of feeling inside his pockets.’

Although Whiteread produces abstract works of minimalist design, her sculptures bear intricate retrospective analyses, and many ideas are rooted in her personal experiences. The result of casting the interior of a room with the book pages facing out, as she did for Nameless Library (1988), or the interior of a water bottle, Torso (1988), is what Whiteread calls the ‘negative space’ of an object. Fundamentally, the sculptor reimagines the domestic, often abandoned, space or ordinary objects that lead to habituation. By solidifying the spaces that individuals ‘use’ instead of ‘see,’ Whiteread jolts the viewer and invites him or her into a simultaneously familiar and alien experience.

In 1993, Whiteread created a monumental sculpture of the interior of a house that was to be torn down. From House, the artist was awarded the Turner Prize. However, the work became so politically controversial that it was demolished almost four months after it was presented. In an interview with Dazed, Whiteread spoke about the personal impact of House and how she recognizes it as a masterpiece in her career. The idea behind House gave life to many of Whiteread’s subsequent projects such as The Gran Boathouse (2010) and the sheds in Detached (2012).

These ‘shy sculptures’ are a part of Whiteread’s ideology about landscape and architecture; the artist believes that objects and landmarks become invisible because people interact with them every day. Unless one truly observes, a passerby might not even notice that The Gran Boathouse is an actual Whiteread piece. Placed on the water’s edge, The Gran Boathouse is part of the natural environment, subject to erosion and abandoned memory. For those who encounter it as an artwork, though, they can experience the duality of feeling both empty and filled. Although Whiteread was referring to Ghost, her comment is also appropriate in this instance: ‘I had this sort of eureka moment. And I thought I’m the wall, and the viewer is the wall.’ The viewer is, at once, subject to being outside of the space and to being a part of the space, imagining the space inside.

From September 19, 2015 to December 20, 2015, Luhring Augustine has curated a Whiteread exhibit titled ‘Looking Out’ that extends this dialogue of vision and the environment. The exhibit includes a collection of drawings and Detached III, a cast of a shed made from concrete and steel. It is a ‘shy sculpture’ that surrenders its meaning at the gallery. Luhring Augustine has paralleled Detached III to ‘the artist’s position [as] one who deliberately secludes herself from the world in order to reflect upon it.’ The gallery has also scheduled a later exhibit titled ‘Looking In’ that juxtaposes the first.

In all of her works, Whiteread displaces the functional purpose of the object: a house that cannot be lived in, a water bottle that cannot be filled, a spoon that has ‘lost its spoon-ness.’ At the same time, she preserves the sensory response of an object that can reawaken any viewer. Rachel Whiteread is recognized as one of the most important contemporary artists of her (and our) time.

Luhring Augustine Gallery, 25 Knickerboxer Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, USA, +1 718 386 2746

By Michelle Feng He

Whether she’s making art or devouring all types of narratives, Michelle always has a cup of tea. She also enjoys learning new words that are not easily translatable.