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.