Renaming Rachel Whiteread

Artwork name: Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995. Artist: Rachel Whiteread

Can we ever escape our past? I am inclined to say no after I tried renaming Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces). Seeing the work in this setting (Tate Britain’s Duveen gallery) the first thing that came to my mind was my high school’s chapel. I know! Even after more than 10 years out of school! So I guess for me the answer is no, I can’t escape. 

Yes, this picture looked to me like my school’s chapel… except for the seats, they were way duller there than here! The objects in Tate Britain’s picture seem to me like they are made of gummy-bear material or even jello

With their suggesting pastel colors and translucent material, I feel more tempted to eat them than to sit on them. But to be fair, I also used to imagine that the floor in my school’s chapel was lava or, when hungry, strawberry syrup. If you’ve read my previous post on Hungarian artist Ilona Keserü you must have realized I am hungry quite frequently. 

But now that we are fully immersed in this Willy Wonka-esque world, you must agree with me in the following conclusion: if these are jello-chairs then they must be made to be used by someone fitting. So of course not me, as they won’t last much. Probably not you either. Who would enjoy these seats without making them disappear? There is only one possible answer: gummy bears.

Group of gummy bears attending mass
Group of gummy bears performing a satanic ritual instead of attending mass

That’s why I am renaming this work «Gummy Bear’s Church«.

But… What is this artwork really about? Is it actually made of jello? And the most important question: is it edible? 

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) is the work of Rachel Whiteread, one of Britain’s leading contemporary artists. She was born in London in 1963 and was the first woman to win the Turner Prize, in 1993. Whiteread uses industrial materials such as plaster, concrete, resin, rubber, and metal to cast everyday objects and architectural space

So we said her works typically take the form of casts, but what exactly is a cast? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a cast is “an object made by pouring hot liquid into a container and leaving it to become solid”. If that definition doesn’t say anything to you, Tate has an amazing video teaching how to cast like Rachel Whiteread

Making air solid

But the most special thing about Whiteread is that most of her casts are of negative space, or as Tate puts it on their website, of “the space between, under, or around things”. This is the case of Untitled (One Hundred Spaces): each piece takes the form of the space under a chair or table! So yes, I was not far when thinking they were seats… I was in fact very close, as these are the resin casts of the spaces underneath 100 school chairs and tables!

By casting negative space, Whiteread’s work “makes the invisible visible”, as Tate puts it. It’s “as if she’s making empty space and air solid”. If you look closely at her work Untitled (Book Corridors), you can see the sculpture is not the cast of bookshelves, but of the space between them

Rachel Whiteread Untitled (Book Corridors) 1998 © Rachel Whiteread

For this work, Whiteread poured plaster in the empty space between the shelves. “It’s the invisible spaces around us that Whiteread has turned our focus to”. 

The artist has been doing this with all kinds of objects and spaces, but undoubtedly her most striking work is the one that awarded her the Turner Prize: “House”. I think “House” is one of the artworks I’ve ever learned about that has impacted me more. “House” is an in-situ life-sized cast of the interior of a condemned terraced house in London‘s East End. A cast of a whole house!! WOW.

Rachel Whiteread, House, at 193 Grove Road, London E3, 1993.  © Rachel Whiteread. Photo by Sue Omerod. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.  

The work, commissioned by Artangel, was made by spraying liquid concrete into the building’s empty shell and then stripping off the walls so that only the impression of the inside remained.

Whiteread had created a similar (but smaller) work in 1990, casting a bedsit room in North London for her sculpture Ghost.

Rachel Whiteread casting Ghost with details of the room at 486 Archway Road, 1990. Courtesy of the artist.

The original building used for House had been set to be demolished by the council, together with all the buildings in the street, as part of a regeneration plan for the area. Because of its weight, House, unveiled on 25 October 1993, was exhibited at the same location as the original building. Set in a street empty of buildings, it told the story of redevelopment in London’s East End.

On the same day Whiteread was awarded the Turner Prize, the local council decided to demolish the work. So, sadly, House can’t be seen anywhere. If you want to read more about it, Apollo Magazine has a really good article about it

More (great) works by Whiteread:

Rachel Whiteread Untitled (Pink Torso), 1995 © Rachel Whiteread
Photo: Seraphina Neville and Mark Heathcote © Tate
Rachel Whiteread Due Porte, 2016. Galleria Lorcan O’Neill (Rome, Italy) © Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread Untitled (Stairs), 2001. Tate © Rachel Whiteread
Photo: Tate (Joe Humphrys)
(For this sculpture, Whiteread poured plaster into the empty space under a staircase.)

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