Musings on Art

Untitled (Pair) by Rachel Whiteread

Gracing the east terrace of the Auckland Art Gallery is an arresting sculpture by Rachel Whiteread.  I studied her work, albeit briefly, at university and am very excited to see one of her artworks in person!

Hailing from Britain, Whiteread primarily works in sculpture and most of her artworks are casts.  She utilises traditional casting methods and various materials such as bronze, concrete, resin and rubber.  Some of these materials are normally used as moulds in the creation of sculptures, yet Whiteread treats these moulds as completed works.  She explores presence, memory and space, and a number of her artworks represent a space once occupied.  Her art can appear familiar yet strangely unfamiliar at the same time, kind of like Freud’s the Uncanny.  One of her works, Ghost (1990, plaster on steel frame, 269 x 356 x 318 cm, National Gallery of Art Washington DC) illustrates this, as she formed a negative cast of an entire living room of a Victorian townhouse, thus absence is given presence.  When asked about this work, she said she wanted to ‘mummify the air in the room’.[1]  What a quote!

Here is an interesting video (about 8 mins long) where Whiteread discusses Ghost:

This work Untitled (Pair) (1999, cast bronze and cellulose paint, 90 x 77 x 204 cm, Auckland Art Gallery) features two positive casts of a mortuary slab.  They seem nearly identical in shape and size, down to slender lip that runs around the edge, except the convex sculpture is actually a cast of the concave one.  Thus, they fit together when one is stacked on top of the other (like Lego!) intimately intertwined, as if they were made for each other.  I was somewhat reminded of Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, where he explains that humans originally had double bodies before being split by the gods, and they longingly seek out their other half in order to become whole again.

Auckland Art Gallery’s blog Outpost has some great photos of Untitled (Pair) please follow the link below:

These companion pieces are minimalistic in their design: they have been painted a pristine, clinical white all over, but are actually crafted from bronze, one of the sturdier materials that Whiteread employs.  The bronze I feel, could represent longevity as if these were tombs in a mausoleum.   Furthermore, white as a colour carries connotations of purity as well as the supernatural, symbolic of life and death.  These sculptures also look like twin beds that couples had in ‘50s films and TV shows; areas that are lived in.  Hence, there is this ambiguity with her works as to whether they deal with existence or loss. 

Whilst mortuary slabs represent death and mortality, she emphasises our relationships with each other by placing this pair devotedly together.  These sculptures can be seen as proxies; they sort of stand in for us, and illustrate our need for closeness both in life and death.  They are like a cute couple, sweet but a bit morbid, especially as you realise that the concave sculpture borrows its sloping surface from the way that a mortuary slab drains bodily fluids…  Yet by drawing attention to the space we inhabit, she ultimately creates new experiences for the viewer.  There is a silence to her works as her subdued style is more evocative and suggestive, rather than overt.  I find them eerily fascinating and filled with complexities that ask ever so softly, to be revisited.

Whiteread also has a captivating artwork called Holocaust Memorial (1995-2000, concrete, 390 x 752 x 1058 cm, Judenplatz, Vienna) in the Judenplatz town square in Vienna, Austria.  Created as a memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews that died in the Holocaust, this work is a negative cast of a library with all four walls coated in rows of books.  These books are positively cast with their spines facing inwards and the pages exposed.  The double doors are also inverted; hence this is a library that no one can enter.  Crafted from concrete, there is a weightiness and permanence with this work – this library cannot be removed or forgotten, and nor can the memories of the people who died.  I find this artwork beautiful and interesting, and it is on my Vienna ‘To Visit’ list 🙂

Untitled (Pair) is on a long term loan to the Auckland Art Gallery from Erika and Robin Congreve.  It is on view until Wednesday 30th November 2016, so there’s plenty of time to check it out!

Also, here is a song I can’t get enough of at the moment, that perhaps inspired my thoughts on these works 😛  ‘I Come Apart’ is by Florence Welch aka Elizabeth Siddal’s doppelgänger (did you know her mother is a professor who has written books on Renaissance art? Too cool) and A$AP Rocky, a Harlem rapper with serious swag, who honours his murdered brother by adopting his French braid hairstyle (and sometimes likes to call himself Lord Flacko).



[1] Education Division and the Department of Web and New Media Initiatives at the National Gallery of Art, Rachel Whiteread: “Ghost”. Video recording. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2009.