I gained a good appreciation for the development of Rachel Whiteread’s work from reading Charlotte Mullins book¹. What impressed me most is how it has evolved over time: the scale of her plaster sculptures grew until she cast an entire house, then shrank again as she explored new materials. Once more her ambition becomes apparent as small resin sculptures were replaced by enormous projects, previously considered impossible in that medium. I love her rebellious refusal to be contained by the apparent restrictions of a given material or object.
Translating empty spaces, (for example beneath furniture) into tangible sculptures that can be seen and felt, forces the viewer to regard the world differently. The changing the relationship between space and negative space, or object and space fascinates me. Untitled: Floor (1992) is my favourite example of this.
I feel much less emotionally involved with the destruction of the domestic objects in Whiteread’s work than I did with the sacrifice of natural organisms in Rachel Dein’s. However, I think it is really important that Whiteread’s chosen objects are domestic as this makes them accessible and relatable to the human body. The human link is vital to the plaster sculptures in particular, without it I think they would just be solid lumps of material, the imperfections caused by the human body add life and soul. This is a really important observation for me and my perfectionist tendencies!
The resin pieces are more forgiving because colour and translucency have already made them attractive. Of this collection of works, I found Untitled: One Hundred Spaces (1995) to be my favourite. The spaces beneath chairs have been translated into glowing, jelly like forms that are hard and solid. As well as being beautiful in their own right, the grid like arrangement is very satisfying, not least because it adds another layer of ’empty space around solid space that should be empty’.
One Hundred Spaces, is also testament to material led investigation:
“A lot of the work I do involves pushing materials to the limit. With the resin pieces, the people I spoke to about the material, the chemists, were saying that the scale of what I wanted to do was impossible. The materials were designed for making paperweights, very small objects. I spent a lot of time figuring out how I could push it. Playing with materials is very much part of my ongoing investigation.” ²
This actually reminded me of the cutting edge technologies Janet Echelman has had explore in order to actualise her vision. If I am honest this dedication to problem solving scares the life out of me- sculpture is not for the fainthearted!
Whiteread’s book sculptures had the biggest influence on me and I found this strange because I actually like them the least of all her work. I find them really creepy and looking at them makes me feel uneasy, deep down in my stomach. I am beginning to notice that I am able to sit with works that evoke unwanted and undesirable emotions. When I first started with OCA, I would have simply bypassed these pieces. I now understand that I don’t have to ‘like’ it, to judge it successful. Perhaps it is the power of the response illicit that measures success?
¹ and ² MULLINS, C. Rachel Whiteread. (2004) Tate Publishings.