Review: Rachel Whiteread, Tate Britain ‘Engaging if Not Thrilling’


There’s no doubting this is a mightily impressive exhibition, surely the most comprehensive survey to date of the work of sculptor, Rachel Whiteread. But that’s not to say this is the most exciting of shows. I say that not because I didn’t enjoy it – I did, very much so. But because I expect this is not going to be an easy sell to visitors in a season of big names.

Rachel first came to wider public attention when she became the first woman to win the Turner Prize, collecting the award in 1993 for House, a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced house in London’s East End. That work has long since been demolished (though drawings and plans for the piece are included here) but there are plenty of original works on display, from her earlier compositions, such as the tender torsos formed from casts of the insides of hot water bottles, to the monumental Room 101, 2003, the plasticised plaster cast of the room at the BBC thought to be the inspiration for Orwell’s famous room of torture.

And there’s everything in-between – from casts of everyday objects such as cardboard boxes, coke cans, mattresses, baths, sinks and doors, to, at the other end of the size spectrum, other monumental large-scale pieces such as Stairs and Nine Tables and, a personal favourite, Bookshelves.

Rachel’s works have a signature look and she has a signature technique. Whether it’s plaster, resin or concrete, the spaces within and around everyday objects are filled, left to set, then the initial solid object removed. What is left is a physical replica of an intangible object – space.

My first thought when I heard that this survey of Rachel’s work was planned was, how the hell are they going to get her big items inside the gallery? Will they have to be excluded? Well, credit to the Tate as they have gone the extra mile, removing many interior walls to create a single large gallery, a huge one, in fact. It’s quite a switch-up; you feel as if you’re in a warehouse – the ceilings are high, the space is wide, and the room is filled with light.

Yet even these reconfigured galleries are not able to provide enough space with new piece, Chicken Shed, 2017, out the front on the lawn, and Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995, of one hundred resin casts of the underside of a hundred different chairs, housed for all to see in the Duveen Galleries.

In total, there are over three decades of Rachel’s work on display around the Tate. But whilst the range varies from the intimate to the monumental, there is this unifying theme of making us see space. To capture into something solid parts of our world that are unseen, even temporary and ephemeral.

Whichever piece draws you in, these are works that demand attention. Superficially, many can seem quite bland – colour is rarely utilised and seemingly endless white and grey casts can cause the eyes to glaze over a little – but these are pieces that reward close contemplation.

There’s something poetic, even melancholic, in the way the ordinary and the invisible has been captured. None of the spaces Rachel has cast exist anymore, certainly not in the way it was when she created her artworks. Her work almost captures moments of time, a brief snapshot of permanence in something so impossibly fluid as space. So, as you look over these mattresses, boxes, doors and toilet rolls, you can’t help but feel, for all their plainness and heft, there is beauty here.

This show is therefore challenging and one that requires examination. Its impact is not necessarily immediate but one that develops over time. However, it would be fair to observe that Rachel’s range seems to be more in scale rather than subject matter. You wonder whether Rachel has an infinite interest in space, indeed whether there will ever be a point she looks to examine something else.

Then there’s the small matter of would I recommend this show. Well, I want to recommend this show, let’s put it that way. I am rooting for it all the way. Rachel remains one of the most important sculptors working today and one whose works deserve to be seen widely. But I have to also acknowledge that this show is unlikely to be for everyone and, in a season deluged with big, exciting headliners such as Basquiat, Jasper Johns and Modigliani, this one may get overlooked.

I would love to recommend this show to all of you but fifteen pounds is a lot of money – the standard price for admission to London art exhibitions these days – and I can’t help but feel that with the big guns still to come, visitors may prefer to wait for the big thrills to open elsewhere.

Tate Britain, London, to January 21, 2018
Admission £15 (without donation). Concessions available.

Image Credits:
1 Untitled (Pink Torso), 1995. Pink dental plaster 100 x 175 x 275 mm Courtesy the artist and Gagosian © Rachel Whiteread Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Mark Heathcote)
2 Installation image by Victoria Sadler. Foreground: Untitled (Nine Tables); Rear: Untitled (Stairs)
3 Installation image by Victoria Sadler of Untitled (One Hundred Spaces)
4 Untitled (Room 101), 2003. Plaster, wood and metal 3000 x 6430 x 5000 mm National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France. Purchased with the support of the Friends of the National Museum of Modern Art and the Clarence Westbury Foundation 2009. © Rachel Whiteread Photo: © Tate

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