Sunday, October 03, 2010

Private Workings

They are quite secretive really. I use them very much as a sort of worrying technique, of doodling and understanding how a work is going to happen
Rachel Whiteread on drawing, Art World magazine, Feb/Mar 2008

Rachel Whiteread is showing drawings at the Tate Britain, representing her various preoccupations and projects over some twenty years, but they are not plans or technical workings in any exacting sense – more a diary, or a thinking-ground of artistic process. They are sculpturally rich, for Whiteread uses varnishes and gums that pinch and flood and wrinkle the graph papers so that the drawings take on something of the materiality of sculpture; correction fluid is used like paint, and it is perhaps understandable that Whiteread would wish to use materials other than oil paints and acrylics in exploring sculptural ideas, loaded as they are with painterly baggage. The drawings are accompanied by maquettes and models of works that we are, in the main, familiar with, so that it is possible to continually cross-reference. There is also a vitrine of objects – further pointers towards a greater understanding of Whiteread’s concerns with material and with surface: crystal balls, skulls, teeth and jaws, fossils, books and bones, waxen tablets, twine and rock, children’s shoes and natural stone. Collected objects kept close in the studio, radiating their strange suggestive powers. We are shown a similar, ongoing collection next to the vitrine comprising rows of postcards, mainly vintage tourist postcards with old-fashioned sepia colourings. On many, Whiteread has intervened with white-out, or with pen; some have punched holes of varying sizes in whole or in part of the photographic image so that we view something of the space behind, slight shadows throwing the flatness into three dimensions, an attempt, seemingly, to upgrade the pictorial flatness to the condition of sculpture.

The centrepiece of the show, for me, was something quite personal. When I arrived in the East End of London, in the Autumn of 1993, there was a commotion going on down the road – at the corner of Grove and Roman Roads, in one of those desolate, bombed out pockets, Whiteread had made House, the now famous cast of the inside of number 193 Grove Road, the middle-house of a crumbling Victorian terrace. The ambition began a year previously with Ghost, a cast of an North London sitting room installed at Chisenhale Gallery. Whiteread’s proposal was to ‘mummify the air’, so that the chalkyness of the plaster filled every inch of space, the resulting, and corresponding, negative reassembled in blocks; its focus the sooty traces left in the fire grate. But House went further than Ghost: a weighty reminder of not merely a single room, but an entire dwelling. The work was commissioned by Artangel, and sponsored by Becks Bier, and it was technically difficult. Whiteread hadn’t discovered at that point, for instance, how to cast stairs, so the main staircase – which would have been viewable from the south side of the sculpture – was missing. Tower Hamlets Council gave their permissions, which were subsequently and sadly reneged, adding fuel to the fire of the resulting hoo-ha. It was a confrontational work.

I knew I would find something in the exhibition that would remind me of House, and, sure enough, I spent a good deal of time with a group of four colour photocopies. Blown-up photographs of the Grove Road terrace taken prior to the demolition and the reinstallation of 193, when its dusty corners were preserved, briefly, in concrete, Whiteread had filled in the house/void on the copies with an approximation of its proposed sculptural re-draft in tipp-ex. They look oddly accurate, and I realised, in the middle of this exhibition, how important House was to me. It was probably the first time I became aware of the complexities and potential power of public sculpture, but also the first time I became aware of a sort of locking of horns between the art-world and the general public, and this is probably the case for many artists of my generation. The work provoked a big debate on modern art, of how and why it could/should be sited, and what on earth its point might be. It was an interesting time to be making art in London. House survived only a matter of weeks. Whiteread has spoken of her regret of barely being able to spend any time with the work, but it was perhaps fitting that it should be bulldozed, that it should have been allowed to exist only fleetingly – as transient and elusive as the void-space it filled.

Rachel Whiteread Drawings
Tate Britain
Until 11th January 2011