Focus: Rachel Whiteread

When Rodin was accused of having cast his St. John the Baptist, 1878, from life he is said to have answered, “But did I cast the desert, too?” There is a measure of truth to the master’s quip: casting—like doubt—knows no theoretical limits. Rodin’s words came to me during my visit to Rachel Whiteread’s exhibition at the Basel Kunsthalle (the artist’s most extensive to date), comprising 15 works—from Closet, 1988, to the three dated 1994 and never previously exhibited—all of which derive from the simple technique of casting.

Though Whiteread began by using objects of modest dimensions as molds (first hot-water bottles like the rubber ones our grandmothers used to slip into their beds in wintertime, and then, perhaps metonymically, mattresses), she soon created Ghost, 1990, a much more imposing work, which consisted of a cast of the four walls of a room, turned inside out like a glove to form a huge and impenetrable white cube. Last year she amplified this gesture with House, 1993, a concrete mold of the interior volume of a three-story London dwelling, which unfortunately only remained standing for just under three months. There was no way to prevent its destruction, even though in the opinion of many—and in mine—it was one of the two or three best public-art works of the last decade. This demolition, the result of an unfathomable and inflexible stupidity, could be seen, on another level, as a kind of defensive response to the absurd excess suggested both by Rodin’s reply and by Whiteread’s growing appetite for making casts. In fact, in an interview with Iwona Blazwick in October, 1992, Whiteread responded to the question “Have you ever wanted to cast the landscape?” in a way that evokes the infinite and perhaps threatening potential of casting. “When the hurricane swept across the countryside of Southeast England, I saw these massive scars and wanted to pour something into them to cast and then reveal them. It was interesting to think of making something derived from an organic source—a glacial valley cast in plaster and then turned upside down. A bit ridiculous maybe, like playing God.”

There was literally nothing excessive in this exhibition, where a small side room near the entrance of the Kunsthalle, dedicated to the memory of House, included a video (a compilation of Whiteread’s own video material and footage from the video produced by Hackneyed Video Productions) documenting the construction and destruction of that work, as well as photographs by John Davies that perfectly captured the work’s sovereign strangeness. It is impossible to discuss Whiteread’s work—both what is to come and what already exists—without taking House into account, without seeing the rest of her sculptures through this exemplary effort. Within the conceptual and physical process that underlies her work, the tragic excess of House lies dormant like a sleeping beauty who could awaken at any moment.

The small room at the threshold of the exhibition could doubtless be interpreted in this light, but it also functioned as an announcement or reminder of the fact that the 15 casts to follow were all linked to the domestic realm: fragments of interior architecture or household objects. The only relative exceptions to this were Untitled (Clear Slab), 1992, and Slab (Plug), 1994, both made from a rubber mold of a morgue slab (the former in translucent white, the latter in an orange of curiously alimentary overtones). There is no visual indication that the work originated in this way, but once we know this (and especially given the omnipresence of the casting technique in her oeuvre), it is impossible not to pursue a thread of associations: death, our mortal condition, and even funerary rites.

In one of his most dazzling aphorisms, Walter Benjamin wrote, “The work is the death mask of its conception.” Every work that proceeds from imprinting or “recording” (a word Whiteread herself has applied to her oeuvre) doubles the reification operative in every work of art. What is interesting here is to see how the very act that fixes the object is an act that transforms and transfigures. What is at stake is a figure to which a new value is assigned, a figure torn from its original context. By definition, casts can only be figurative. Moreover, like photography, the cast necessarily implies a referent whose physical characteristics it transcribes, at least to some degree. But any translation is a modification (you are at this very moment reading the results of such an operation) and Whiteread plays fully on this. The morgue slab paradoxically engenders two sculptures that are light and fresh in aspect, while House, which was derived from a plain middle-class house, evoked a mausoleum, a kind of Egyptian mastaba. In the same way, Ether, 1990, the plaster cast of an old iron bathtub, evokes a kind of sarcophagus, even though it derives from an object designed for the pursuit of everyday comforts. This impression is reinforced by the insertion of the oblong hollow of the bathtub into a tomblike structure, and above all by the slightly eroded surface and reddish maculations that spot the cavity like so many bloodstains—bloodstains of uncertain origin, which are all the more disturbing for that reason. (These are in fact the marks left by the metal in the plaster.)

This transformative capacity of plaster casting occasionally shares in a certain anthropomorphism (a defect the orthodoxly Modernist Michael Fried thought could be detected in Minimalist sculpture, in the work of both Tony Smith and Robert Morris, for example, without considering to what extent this trait could reflect decidedly different esthetics in each case). Untitled (Amber Mattress), 1992, resting half on the wall and half on the floor, suggests a collapsed body. It is an image of fatigue, a fatigue evoked both by the body the sculpture suggests and by the function of its referent. It is also like a slice of pure color, a massive flow of colored matter that has solidified to produce this object with a wrecked, but incredibly delicate, surface. It is a “je ne sais quoi that has no name in any language”—the phrase Bossuet used to describe a corpse, the earthly remains of man, in one of his famous sermons. We are reminded that the Greeks gave the name kolossos to an ordinary stone or plank of wood stuck in the earth that was not, or not merely, a sign for the deceased, but a double of his or her person, a translation into visible form of death, which was thus inserted into life.

At the very least, one can say that 20th-century sculpture has avoided the question of the funerary work: barely able to treat death allusively, circuitously, it avoids looking it in the eye, in the same way that the conditions of modern life often constrain us in this respect, whether we like it or not. The strength of Whiteread’s work will have been, in one respect, to give this indirect gaze an original form. Table and Chair (Clear) and Table and Chair (Green), both 1994, suggest something of the mastaba, which was so striking in House, and this despite the restrained dimensions of these works and the fact that they present nothing but the solidification of the empty space defined by a table and a chair. There are many more things that might be said about this, but, in the end, this discrete reminder of a funerary dimension at the heart of what is ordinary bears witness to a joyful vitality.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.

This exhibition will travel to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in February, and to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in May.