Rachel Whiteread

What is left

Rachel Whiteread’s work has always been about absence, most typically the absence of humans in a space. Ironically, what made me want to write about her now is the absence of her own work from the galleries of the Royal Academy, where Modern British Sculpture is currently showing (an absence which marred my enjoyment of the exhibition). Perhaps that’s ok; maybe it’s incorrect to think of her in terms of conventional sculpture, as she hardly ever creates “new” objects; in her casts of baths and boxes and rooms and stairways, she is memorialising the ordinarily domestic, making sarcophagi of the accoutrements of the living. She is showing us what is already present, just from inside out, from one remove.

The first piece of hers I knew was House, her concrete cast of a derelict Victorian dwelling at 193 Grove Road in Mile End, still stubbornly standing even after the rest of the terrace had been demolished. This is what Andrew Graham-Dixon said in 1993, when House was first on view:

To visit House or (as many will do) simply to come across it, isolated in a scrubby patch of parkland at the corner of Roman Road and Grove Road, is to be suddenly and disconcertingly transported elsewhere. It is to be taken to another world, like and yet completely unlike this one: the world of the photographic negative, with its phantom-like reversals of known fact; the world that Alice enters through her looking glass; the world that lurks behind the molten silver mirror in Cocteau’s Orphee, where normal relations between objects have been summarily suspended. Denatured by transformation, things turn strange here. Fireplaces bulge outwards from the walls of House, doorknobs are rounded hollows. Architraves have become chiselled incisions running around the monument, forms as mysterious as the hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs.

The comparison to the Egyptian tomb seems very accurate. I thought at the time that House looked like a grand mausoleum, only you could never enter (and therefore, never leave); it had gone from a building with a doorway and windows, to something shut in, complete. Rather than looking out of or into, it was something to look at, a monument to itself. I thought it was beautiful, but also very ugly (Whiteread has said in interviews she likes making objects which are both), a mark of the way the city makes ruins of the old. We are used to garbage, to the ubiquitous brownfield, a place of waste and statis. So House stood as a symbol for that urban wasteland too.

I finally wrote the poem that follows several years later, not exactly in response to ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, but to Auden’s idea in that poem of “the human position”, how the ordinary resides alongside the miraculous; and that’s what art does, it shows us the juxtaposition.  And there it was in House: the monumental and the commonplace combined.

The final irony was of course that Whiteread’s House was eventually demolished, the victim of one of those ridiculous public debates about the value and meaning of art, etc. I later entered my poem in a poetry competition sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, and to my great surprise, I won with a poem about a building, which was really the concrete cast of a building, and was neither ancient, nor, in the end, preserved.





The concrete fills the spaces between

the walls and what they held a child’s cry,

an argument, dulled. It hardens, cools.


The house is peeled away like a skin:

a fire protrudes from the shell of a room,

the ghost of a fire gone out. 


A mausoleum to newspapers and spoons,

deep pile carpets, nights consumed

by the bluish glow of the TV,


perched in a field, a grassed-over street

where once other houses stood,

gathering lives together.

The pleasure of ruins

Someone came up to me after a reading once and said you’re obsessed with abandoned buildings. Until then, I’d never thought about the disturbing number of poems set in ruined or desolate structures, but once it had been pointed out, I decided to explore the reasons. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a recurring dream of returning to my childhood home, in the dream in ruins, although I know the layout of the rooms intimately, as if the map of the house is ingrained in my feet. Gaston Bachelard writes about ‘the land of Motionless Childhood’, contained in the house we grew up in, which is 'physically inscribed in us … each one of its nooks and corners a resting-place for daydreaming.’ I suppose I didn’t start having the dream until I was well into being an adult, until the house was long-closed to me. The house is still standing, but much altered, and I suppose I wouldn’t really like to go back. As Bachelard says, 'the first, the oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows’. And besides, the house stands in another country far away, a country I hardly visit these days, a country I haven’t lived in for over twenty years. A country which is foreign to me. So the fact the house is a ruin in my dream may have to do with the old cliché of 'burning bridges’, the brutally true statement of Thomas Wolfe’s: you can’t go home again. But Bachelard says you can, through dream and memory, the way we carry aspects and angles, scents and shapes with us always (for Bachelard, it’s a deep cupboard which retains 'the odour of raisins drying on a wicker tray’). Also, there is no denying that the poet has hit middle age, with all its threats and petty gripes; if the circus animals haven’t deserted me yet, sometimes they seem to be just visible through the haze, bobbing up and down on the merry-go-round in Asbury Park that I used to ride on as a child.

Asbury Park was already crumbling when I was little, once a thriving seaside resort which eventually fell out of favour and was left to decay. Although it was in no way romantic or imposing, like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, I loved the air of somewhere forgotten, somewhere that was hard to love. That may be why I like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of ancient storage silos and water towers (as a child, I was also obsessed by water towers, the old-fashioned wooden ones you used to find near barns or atop buildings, the kind that Rachel Whiteread recently immortalised in New York), always in black and white, suggesting an industry which had been superseded. Asbury Park was always a sad place, even when the sun was shining. And that sadness was extremely attractive.

I’ll return to this subject, obsession that it is for me, very soon … in the meantime, links to sites which feature the work of the photographer Camilo José Vergara, whose book American Ruins is one of my favourites:



photo credit of 'Tillie’, on the side of Palace Amusements in Asbury Park:       Andrew Mills/ The Star-Ledger