As I write, the remains of the upstairs bathroom are being removed from my house in chunks, the builders having taken a mallet to it. It is the norm around here in leafy Stockwell, where skips and scaffolding are a regular occurrence in our endless need to remove the vestiges of previous inhabitants and their now-antique ways, to ‘improve’.
Now the builders are wrestling the bathtub down the stairs; yesterday I stood in front of Rachel Whiteread’s piece Ether, which features in the current retrospective at Tate Britain. I remember being struck the first time I saw it by its resemblance to the alabaster sarcophagus of King Seti in Sir John Soane’s Museum; Whiteread’s piece is a plaster cast of the underside of a typical B&Q-style bathtub – the kind my builders are about to chuck on a tip. It does indeed resemble an ancient sarcophagus, because both bathtubs and coffins emulate the shape of the humans who will lie in them. Nothing more than a practical form to serve a function. Whiteread understands this – by removing the bath itself, we are left with its outline: a receptacle for the body. And that makes us think of the vulnerability and impermanence of our bodies, and how most of us will be laid out like this, but in more modest containers than King Seti’s.
I’ve written here before about Whiteread’s work; her themes – absence, ruin, preservation – are akin to my own. My poem ‘House’ was based on her concrete cast of a derelict Victorian two-up two-down, the lone survivor of a terrace of identical houses in Mile End. That her House was eventually demolished seemed apt: if nothing else it stood for the idea of impermanence – its contents removed, sold, trashed; its residents long dead.
Whiteread has done a bit of demolition herself in Tate Britain; she’s removed all the walls in the galleries, so her larger pieces, Untitled (Room 101) from 2003 and Untitled (Stairs) from 2001 appear to be floating in space while still sitting solidly on the floor. The removal of room partitions made me and my poet companions (Anne Berkeley and Siriol Troup) look up towards the funky triangulated 70s ceiling, which we would normally not notice, focussed as we typically are on the artwork on floors and walls. I’m sure Whiteread has also noticed that ceiling and the pattern it makes when we are allowed to view it as an uninterrupted surface. Because her other big theme is the built environment – even in recording emptiness, the resulting pieces become solid sculptural objects with their own moods and dimensions. She is obsessed (like I am) by the structures we build to accommodate our bodies: houses, stairs, beds, chairs, doors, tables, windows.
Whiteread has a way of making you revisit the most commonplace as wondrous. We don’t stop to consider the beauty of a staircase, rising like an Incan pyramid, because it exists for its function, to breach the distance between floors. I’ve never before thought about the resemblance of hot water bottles to the delicate torsos of babies when they’re filled, until seeing Whiteread’s resin and plaster casts of the former, lined in a narrow case. We use hot water bottles when we’re chilled – an object of warmth and comfort; we cradle them to us like babies. The undersides of chairs are mini monuments in jewel-bright resin, like sweets you could eat.
The other point about the undersides of chairs is that they are a negative space, a place we can’t define, just air. Whiteread gives vacancy volume. Her undersides of tables and chairs are monuments to the void. What she is chiefly interested in is absence. What is our world without the things we build, and without us to build them? She makes something out of nothing.
Back in my bathroom, or what was my bathroom, now a blank space, I touch the plaster and lathe which probably hasn’t been exposed in over 150 years, and I think of someone constructing this wall, building this house, this structure that carries the imprint of all those who have made a life here before me.