The Unilever Series at Tate Modern: Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment
[This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]
No one who keeps an eye on the British contemporary art scene will need a much of an introduction to Rachel Whiteread, the 42-year old artist whose massive installation, Embankment, currently occupies the east end of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Whiteread’s name has long loomed large in BritArt circles. Her work — mostly casts of ordinary, every-day objects — has already found a place in the text-books. As major figure in Freeze who soon attracted the notice of uber-gallerist Karsten Schubert, she was an early recruit to the senior ranks of the Young British Artists (or YBAs, to give them their marginally catchier, Saatchi-generated brand name) and if she seemed to stand aloof from some of her coevals’ more outrageous antics, she certainly received her fair share of the hype that now seems, in retrospect, to have been that group’s outstanding positive achievement.
Not least, as every proper YBA apparently was required to do, Whiteread achieved her very own success de scandal. In 1993 House (a cast of a demolished house, later itself demolished) in London’s East End, made headlines of the sort that at the time were de rigeur for anyone angling for central placement in the BritArt pantheon. Frankly, though — and it’s a point with some relevance to the rest of this review — it’s quite a challenge these days to remember quite what all the fuss was about, so grossly did Sensation inflate the shock-horror currency soon thereafter. In the same year Whiteread won a Turner Prize for her casts, whilst concurrently managing to emerge with dignity from a laboured Situationist prank on the part of the K Foundation, which might almost be seen as a tribute in itself.
In 1997 she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale (various casts of things, deployed tastefully around the British pavilion) — the first woman to receive this distinction. Her work Plinth (a cast of a plinth) has occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Unlike the bulk of her fellow YBAs, she’s even made some impact beyond the limits of central London, having been commissioned, for instance, to create a Holocaust memorial in Vienna (casts of shelves filled with books, their spines turned inward). She is represented by Gagosian. Her work (casts, generally, but also drawings of past casts and plans for future casts) is held in all sorts of collections, public and private, here and abroad. She’s been profiled everywhere. In other words, when it comes to glittering prizes conferred by the international arts establishment, she has had pretty much all the ones going — the real things, too, not just casts this time.
Yet despite the terribly dated YBA label (sooo early 1997, darling) and the detumescence of the Saatchi bubble, Whiteread has somehow managed to retain a reputation for seriousness, sensitivity, hard work and formal rigour. She is eminently capable of securing praise, even genuine admiration, from quarters that other YBAs just don’t reach. Part of this is, I think, the fruit of circumspection. Whiteread comes across in interviews as a down-to-earth, practical, agreeably mumsy figure — far more at home in her studio, wearing jeans and covered with plaster dust, than in the glare of gala private views or at Shoreditch club openings. We know less of her extra-curricular hobbies, for instance, than we do about those of Damien Hirst; we are less familiar with her décolletage than that of Tracy Emin, and certainly less bored of hearing about her glamorous pals (assuming she possesses such things) than those of Sam Taylor-Wood. Whiteread’s work, in other words, is very public — the artist herself far less so. Which is appropriate, in that much of the meaning of her work is to be found in the interplay of surface versus content, inside versus out, what we see every day as opposed to all the many empty spaces that we discount, overlook or forget.
Well, that’s the theory, anyway. But how much substance is there behind claims for Whiteread’s status as one of the greatest artists of her generation? Whiteread has evidently learned most of the obvious things which can be learned from Eva Hesse, minus Hesse’s pervasive air of creepy bleakness, as well as from the canonical 1960s minimalists such as Carl Andre and Donald Judd. She has mapped out a particular territory of concerns — the domestic sphere, including rooms and the things these contain — and turned it inside out through this persistent business of making casts. She has cast in a variety of media (wax, resin, plaster, rubber) and has a strong feeling for the sensual qualities of her materials. She also possesses a far better eye for colour than one might expect, achieved through the medium itself or through the play of light on a textured surface, and she’s not squeamish about using colour to achieve emotive, expressive ends. So it’s easy enough to see why she’s received the accolades she has. She does something that makes a sort of conceptual sense, and she’s learned to do it well.
But if one were setting out to make a case against Whiteread’s pre-eminent place in the contemporary art world, the materials would not be difficult to find. The main complaint would, surely, revolve around the somewhat repetitive nature of her work. When does the ‘persistent exploration of a theme’, or ‘refinement of a highly personalised technique’, shade into, well, laziness? Over at The Jackdaw, the reliably grumpy David Lee labels Whiteread a ‘one trick pony’, and while doubtless her admirers could enthuse for days on end about her merits, writing essays about them in all the most credible arts magazines, it has to be said that even her staunchest defenders might have a hard time identifying tricks number two, three and beyond. Meanwhile the sort of critic who gets worked up about issues of skill and facture might question the extent to which artistic ability per se — rather than one good idea plus a Filofax full of the telephone numbers for competent fabricators — underpins Whiteread’s work. (To be fair, though, many of the smaller works are actually executed by the artist herself, as well as designed by her.) Finally, there’s bound to be a hard core of doubters somewhere out there who would presumably raise the usual ‘what is art?’ questions with reference to Whiteread’s oeuvre, suspicious that making cast of things might not really have much to do with art at all.
Those, at least, are straightforward objections. All of them raise issues far outside the scope of a review. More to the point, though, none of them, to be honest, bothers me enormously. My own concern about Whiteread’s work is a rather different, more personal one. Here, strangely, doubts seem to flow from exactly those points where Whiteread’s work appears most successful. Compared with most of her YBA contemporaries, in whose work some notional flash of irony again and again fails to disguise a tediously predictable literal-mindedness, the evasive, non-literal qualities of Whiteread’s sculpture can easily be made to look enticingly deep — but in that company, what wouldn’t? Similarly, compared with the wilful ugliness of so much contemporary art, Whiteread’s casts are, whatever else one might say about them, sometimes very attractive — but does this mean that her qualities are purely relative ones? Or to reduce the charge to its most basic level — is Whiteread only any good because her BritArt contemporaries’ work is mostly so shockingly, culpably bad?
We are all, I suppose, hapless victims of the circumstances in which we first encounter an artist’s work. Hence it probably means something that my strongest memories of the fabled Sensation involve Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), a series of one hundred resin casts of the empty space under a variety of chairs and stools, set out, rank and file, in a room of their own.
The work generated a lot of comment at the time — not least from critics absolutely panting to discuss anything other than Hirst’s virtines, Harvey’s Myra, Ofili’s elephant turds and the Chapman brothers’ apparently inexhaustible bad taste. By contrast, in front of Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) there was much to be said about making the intangible tangible, about the ghostly and forgotten, about materialism and Thatcher’s Britain — and plenty of people ready to say it, too. Minimalism can be lovely that way, creating a vacuum into which oceans of prose are always attempting to flow. Art that doesn’t attempt to say everything immediately, that doesn’t wear its heart on its patinated surface, is so much more fun to write about than the other sort. Given the choice between Richard Billingham’s family snaps, Michael Landy’s creaking jokes and a mysterious mattress cast in rubber that looked like marble, who wouldn’t opt for the mattress?
But at the time I wasn’t thinking about writing. I was simply — insofar as there’s ever anything simple about it — experiencing the work. And yet what sticks in my mind from Sensation is, perhaps oddly, the sheer beauty of this particular example of Whiteread’s efforts — the slightly murky translucence of the resin, the delicately rhythmic variation of size and shape and surface, the purples and greens and ambers, so deliciously reminiscent of antique gemstones, old glass or, even more oddly, old-fashioned boiled sweets. For it has to be said that Whiteread’s minimalism is, unlike the minimalism of the 1960s from which it is in part descended, anything but cold and intellectual. Instead it can look sensuous, luxurious — romantic, even, with its appeals to a recent or perhaps ancient past. In any event, compared with most of what surrounded it in Sensation — all things lurid and lame, the porn, the gore, the tawdry unpleasantness, the desperate and febrile attention-seeking superficiality — it really did seem almost unbelievably effective. From that point on, then, despite all these reservations, I’ve had a lot of time for Whiteread’s work.
Doubtless, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) was benefiting here from the company it kept. As sculpture goes, it’s not just that these casts didn’t add up to the wrecked magnificence of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, or the robust perfection of Donatello’s Gattamelata, or the Bernini confection of your choice — most obscure English parish churches probably contain handmade works of sculpture that could easily compete with Whiteread’s best efforts in terms of formal persuasiveness, technical skill and gut-level impact. But that’s hardly the point. No one was setting up those sorts of comparisons, and anyway, what one feels about those works inevitably has a lot to do with their context, too. Instead, at the time, standing there in the Royal Academy, surrounded by so much pointless rubbish making great claims for itself in terms of ‘art’, I was struck by the way in which Whiteread had created a tiny island in which a few older cultural values — a hint of detachment, a whisper of beauty, a shimmer of mystery if not quite revelation — seemed at very least not to have been entirely forgotten. It was easy to linger there, drifting back and forth amongst the candy-coloured resin cubes. Not just easy, either — it was pleasant as well. The experience was a powerful one. And so probably that way of viewing Whiteread’s work has never entirely left me.
Thinking outside of the box
I was reminded of all this last week, when Whiteread’s Embankment was finally unveiled at Tate Modern. The work, which is enormous, has a typically small-scale, almost cosy creation story. Apparently Whiteread, engaged in the sad business of clearing her late mother’s house, found an old cardboard box. The box had once contained Whiteread’s toys, and then was used to store Christmas decorations. All this happened at a time in her life when Whiteread was moving house, moving studio — when much of her life was in boxes.
Let’s allow the unshakeable authority of the Tate Modern press release to take over at this point:
The box had an emotional resonance for [Whiteread]. It prompted consideration of the associations with the box in our daily lives. She began to explore the universal quality of the box in its widespread use as she came upon them squashed in the street, stacked in the back of a lorry or used more inventively such as for solar ovens or children’s play houses. The box also has links to memory and loss, as well as having a latent familiarity. Massed together, the boxes invite parallels with the museum as a keeper of collective memory.
Hence Whiteread’s Unilever scheme, which involved casting ten ordinary cardboard boxes of varying sizes and shapes, then having some 14,000 of these commercially fabricated in semi-opaque white resin. Whiteread spent about five weeks stacking and gluing together the resulting resin forms at one end of the Turbine Hall. The building-sized stacks themselves vary in scale, shape and orderliness. Some are tidy, encouraging the viewer to appreciate the repetitive pattern made by their surfaces. Others are chaotic, random, precarious. Visitors are able to wander amongst the stacks, the tallest of which must be many dozens of feet high, or to observe the installation from the floors above. Special new lighting beams down upon the casts, creating strong shadows and producing an eerie silvery glow as the light reflects off the many slightly textured resin surfaces.
What to make of it all? In my book the only truly unforgiveable fault in a critic is to lie about his genuine reactions in the face of the actual work. Here, then, is the simple truth. I thought Embankment was perfectly delightful.
Preconceptions, lack of preconceptions, mood, surroundings, companions present and absent, incidental train of thought, the weather outside — they all play their part in the personal success or failure of a particular work. I first saw Embankment at the press view on a warm, sunny, suspiciously summery day last week. As sometimes happens at press views and on warm autumn mornings, there was something of a holiday feel to the whole enterprise. Coming down the big ramp from the West entrance to Tate Modern, it was just possible to glimpse something white just behind the central gallery. By the time I’d been handed my press pack I was sufficiently determined to see more that I quickly tucked the folder under my arm, unopened and unread, and set off to explore the installation. And so, because I didn’t yet know the story behind Embankment’s creation, I was under no pressure to unpack (as it were) the metaphor of boxes, their emotional resonances and symbolic freight. In fact, since I didn’t know that cardboard boxes were in any way associated with the work, boxes weren’t, oddly enough, on my mind at all.
Instead, I was thinking of archaeology. I have already mentioned that Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) reminded me, with its murky lustre and faded colours, of old glass or ancient gems, but it’s also the case that Untitled (Yellow Bath), her rubber and polystyrene cast of a bathtub, resembled nothing more than an incredibly old sarcophagus cleansed of its bones and dust. Actually, the more one thinks about it, there turn out to be abundant references to archaeology in Whiteread’s work. The whole business of casting, for instance, has been associated with archaeology for a very long time, perhaps reaching its zenith in those terrible casts taken, from 1861 onwards, from the gaps left by the bodies of the men, women and children killed in the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD — some of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen, by the way, if only because it is so tempting to read the indistinct, contorted, writhing forms as ‘art’ until one stops to realise what they actually are instead. (So you see, I’m no more immune to ‘what is art?’ quandaries than anyone else — they just strike us all at different moments.)
But casts are also what conveyed, in the main, knowledge of the high art of classical antiquity to much of the Western world; the Greek government’s refusal to display, at the Acropolis museum, casts of the Elgin Marbles reminds one of the issues casts are still capable of raising, even now, regarding absence and presence, loss and memory, simulacrum and real thing. All of which is a long way of explaining how, as I walked through the labyrinthine structures of Embankment, amongst what looked like outraged tombs or piles of broken stones, I felt that I was somehow wandering through some roofed-over portion of an archaeological site, in which some of the structures were still quite well-preserved and others a bit of a mess, such as one sees at Delphi, or Cumae, or indeed many dozens of other such places. Only of course the site wasn’t real, the heaped-up stones weren’t stones, and the feelings one always has amongst ruins were, obviously, completely spurious. In other words, ‘art’ managed to intrude, in the good old fashioned sense of something that’s a man-made thing, the result of human skill and enterprise — in this case, a sort of happy deception. The conceptual issues raised here were gentle, non-insistent, faintly romantic ones. Rather than being harangued by Embankment, as so often happens with contemporary art, I felt I was — to use another good, old-fashioned word — being diverted by it.
Meanwhile, others were reading the installation in their own ‘incorrect’ ways. Some, the reviews would tell us later, were reminded of blocks of ice, which is quite neat, as Whiteread recently undertook a journey into the Arctic Circle for some vague purpose associated with global warming. Many saw it as landscape, replete with peaks and ravines and non-insistent references to the Sublime. Best of all, a charming member of Tate Modern’s catering staff, while offering me a cup of coffee, opined that the structures, which she much admired, reminded her of piles and piles of sugar-cubes. The implied tribute to the Tate Gallery’s founder would have been a particularly apt one. But the main point here is that people — real people too, not just the air-kissing, back-stabbing press view crowd — seemed genuinely to enjoy the act of exploring the work. This turns out to be a markedly sociable experience, with visitors sharing smiles, and sometimes even comments, as they encounter each other round the back of some of the taller, more vertical structures. As I left the Turbine Hall a little while after the press view had finished, there were already children chasing each other around the stacked-up cubes, and couples strolling hand-in-hand around the outskirts, looking up at the towering forms — all illuminated by that strange, uncanny, milky white light. Whatever doubts I may still harbour about the genuine quality of Whiteread’s achievement, I felt happier for having experienced Embankment, and I think these other people did, too.
Unilever’s Turbine Hall commissions are, famously, something of a poisoned chalice. Not every artist has what it takes to function on that enormous, industrial scale, so much in the public eye and so open to comparison with all that precedes and follows. Louise Bourgeois’s staircases and spider didn’t make much impact, whereas Anish Kapoor’s big ear-trumpet, or calla-lily, or whatever it was, succeeded mostly because the red he selected was such a ravishingly rich one, so saturated that it seemed almost to throb and pulse around the edges of one’s field of vision; having few expectations about Olafur Eliasson’s quirky Weather Project, most visitors ended up loving it, whilst the wretched Bruce Nauman, surely not even one of the better artists Fort Wayne, Indiana has ever produced, should have been made to give his payment back, so lame, lazy and annoying was his ‘sound installation’ offering.
Whiteread’s Embankment has, for its part, received mixed reviews. Most critics, of course, loved it — at least in the docile, sporting, uncritical way in which their species invariably falls in love when confronted with the combination of A-list artist and A-list arts institution. A few, though, voiced doubts — and not just the excellent Brian Sewell, either, although his accusations of ‘meritless gigantism’ must have delighted arts editors everywhere, if only for making it possible to claim that this entirely inoffensive work was somehow ‘controversial’.
Where there was dissatisfaction, it seemed to spring as much from the press release, or at any rate claims made for Embankment, as it did from the installation itself. One critic, for instance, wrote at some length about the whole notion of boxes, and the interpretation of the work as an enormous storehouse, alluding perhaps to the museum as a receptacle for our collective memory — or words to that effect. (I am paraphrasing, and not providing a link, because the actual article isn’t available online.) This critic felt — and it’s a reasonable point — that this didn’t quite work, because the polythene casts are so very clearly solid things, not boxes. They don’t open, and they are empty casts, so the viewer is perfectly aware that there’s nothing, not even ‘collective memory’, stored inside them. So the concept, and its apparent failure, got in the way of the actual experience of the work. Others simply weren’t impressed. Maybe they came with different expectations, or in a different mood, or with different requirements. Whatever worked for me, in any event, wandering in and out of the weird white-out ambience of Embankment, didn’t work for them. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.
So once again, my response to Whiteread remains ambivalent, and where it’s most positive, more than slightly guilty. Oh, I enjoyed Embankment, but I can’t help thinking that I did so more at the level of an entertainment of some sort — a variation in the routine of daily life, a brief and cost-free holiday from my everyday world — rather than in the way I’d normally expect to enjoy ‘art’. On the one hand, this may signal a defect in my understanding of what installations are meant to do. On the other, it may signal a defect in the boundary-fence that separates contemporary art and life.
As ever, my enthusiasm for the work may have something to do with all that it is not. Unlike some of the efforts elsewhere in Tate Modern, Embankment didn’t seem to have any very obvious didactic or polemical point. It didn’t even seem to call much attention to its own nature as a work of art. It isn’t transgressive, or disturbing, or even particularly disorienting. It’s pleasant enough to look at — certainly better than the ‘deranged Argos warehouse’ some papers have suggested — but hardly in a way that proclaims from the rooftops either the formal brilliance or the theoretical savvy of its creator.
Instead, whatever she may have intended, Whiteread seems to have produced a highly functional, fun, slightly dreamy space in which children can run round in circles, playing hide-and-seek, whilst adults wander here and there, radiating benign unconcern, or amusement, or occasionally something marginally more dynamic, eyeing each other up. Some of us have long suspected that Tate Modern’s true role, given its terminally flawed collection and odd acquisitions strategy, is in fact not as a museum at all, but rather as a nexus for ‘see and be seen’ activity — a kind of indoor ramblas or boulevard for a rainy, chilly nation. To the extent this is in any way the case, Whiteread has responded to the suggestion admirably, by dressing up the Turbine Hall with a sort of indoor pleasure-garden, a Winter Wonderland fantasia, bathed in bright light as if in defiance of the dark winter days that lie ahead of us. Thinking of Whiteread’s stature, it’s hard not to warm to the sheer practicality of the work. For despite its scale, it somehow comes across as modest and generous, where so many lesser artists might have been proudly, aggressively self-indulgent.
Is Embankment art? Is it any good? And insofar as it’s any good, is its goodness just the inverse of so much contemporary art badness? Embarrassingly, I’m still not sure. However much I enjoy some of Whiteread’s work in practice, many of the claims that others make for it strike me as silly and inflated. Perhaps, ultimately, it’s no more than a reflection of the aesthetically unambitious, dumbed-down age in which we live this is so. All I do know, however, is that I’m due to return to Tate Modern in a fortnight’s time — and I’m genuinely looking forward to experiencing this likeable, memorable creation once again.