With hand on heart, if I have one claim to fame in relation to Ms. Whiteread, it was that I offered the - then recent - Slade graduate her first day’s teaching in the sculpture department I ran at the time. Rachel duly delivered this, and a couple of others, but then she got a bit busy.
Long, before this though, I remember having a very heated (and protracted) argument with the, now renowned artist, great friend and most excellent Frieslander, Hans van Houwelingen. Our exchange related to sculptural conceits around the occupation of space, and the propensity of sculptural form to act as a means of spatial containment. Hans passionately and articulately argued that sculpture could hold space and act as a container for space in much the same way that a novelist of fiction might argue for the credibility of a character or in justification of a lyrical flourish. Van Houwelingen also argued the notion that sculpture could define positive space, and that negative space was what remained or surrounded it. At this point I should mention the fact that in those heady days of our time at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, this protracted argument continued literally daily, and during most evenings, for 11 weeks.
In contrast to van Houwelingen’s approach, I took a position that in fact it was physically and metaphorically implausible to claim that sculpture could contain space beyond its occupancy, except in a land of artistic make-believe; the wishful thinking and plausible self-deceit of the artist in being able to induce a state of induced credence in the minds of audiences. The Emperor’s Invisible Suit of Clothing argument if you will. Further to this, van Houwelingen used an empty wine glass as a theatrical property to support his arguments, a simple form he argued, that might be used as a model able to, metaphorically, contain space. In articulating my contrary position I asserted that surely, the wine glass existed in space, and as such was immersed rather than forming a containment. Hans refuted this until I filled a washing-up bowl with water, immersed the glass and asked him if the glass was containing water or immersed within it; at this point he conceded, but in retrospect and imaginatively I think I was wrong.
Within her work, Rachel Whiteread intuitively cites these arguments, exploring containers and containment, the relationship between solidified interiors and absent exteriors. We see what is normally invisible or inaccessible and she reveals the anterior of our world, an imaginative Doppelgänger, the evil twin to our reality. The effect of this dislocation is profound in placing us in a new reality which fundamentally questions our place in the world of things. We look at the likes of ‘Book Corridors’ and ‘Room 101’ from a position of empathetic antimatter, disembodied, adrift in the world of the dead and departed, behind the real and the physical.
Whiteread is an artist super articulate in matter, her work an evocative and perfect fit for memorials (see the ‘Nameless Library’ (2000), Untitled Monument’ (2001) et al.) but also, strangely, a perfect fit for our time; a moment when books are becoming displaced by technology, humans displaced by robotics, and social fabric woven in the gossamer of social media. The works are impressive, melancholic and should be essential viewing for anyone who doubts that there is a darker side. I think Hans knew all along.