Sometimes art is about recognition. It is like a story, that magic moment when a reader opens a book and recognizes in it.
Ten years ago I was studying architecture and didn’t know Rachel Whiteread. A teacher showed a picture of an immense industrial gallery filled with translucent polyethylene cubes – Embankment - her 2005 installation at Tate Modern. I remember being struck by the way in which the white boxes played with positive and negative space: the container inside the container, the story inside the story. I instantly knew that if I ever was an artist, I would want to be one of her kind.
Rachel Whiteread experiments with domestic life. She has a very intimate way of looking at the landscape of her everyday environment and – literally – turning it upside-down. The current exhibition at Tate Britain offers insight into her work, materializing her thirty-year career through the evolution of techniques, materials and expressions.
The show consists of only one room. A big space where the pieces sit in a seemingly informal arrangement, as if the visitor were the artist herself evaluating the result of her experiments. This feeling of closeness is not coincidental. Through her sculptures, Whiteread unfolds the stories that lie hidden inside the most commonplace things; and thus, the spectator learns gradually to look at them from a new perspective.
She starts with small objects: doorknobs, handles and vessels. These are tiny elements that represent our daily environment and that also go unobserved as a result of habitual use. But Whiteread notices them. She understands that they define who we are because they are silent witnesses of our lives. And thus, she studies them, she casts them, she tries to bring to the surface the inner structure contained into them.
By degrees, she moves into casting bigger and more complex things that surround her. A door, a closet, a mattress. She goes out of the bedroom. The bathtub, the chimney, the wall. She looks at the spaces. The staircase, the library, the living room. Eventually, she goes out of the building and fills a whole Victorian house with concrete
Rachel Whiteread is, in fact, a storyteller. She connects with the public through intimacy, revealing our most guarded secrets. She casts our life and tells us our own story. The one we live in the inside, when no one else is looking.
Rachel Whiteread is at Tate Britain, London, until 21 January 2018. Click here for exhibition details.
Photo Credit for Header Photo - Rachel Whiteread at the Tate Modern in 2006. Image from http://enacit3srv5.epfl.ch/alice2/WP_MASTER/sa2012/blog/2012/10/23/apparatus-references/rachel-whiteread_embankment_nd-2/