Rachel Whiteread and the unrevealed life of things

by adela smejkal

The artist’s technique of casting wide range of objects brings an unusual sculptural creation.

A pink candy object resembling a hot water bottle or an enema bag is the title image of Rachel Whiteread’s exhibition at Tate Britain, embellishing the exhibition’s advertisements and brochures. Even those not familiar with the British artist and the first woman to win Tate’s Turner Prize in 1993 are suggested the exhibition will be an unusual sculptural show.  

Another teaser is the 100 of translucent components resembling giant fruit candies arranged in a grid in Tate’s Duveen Gallery when entering the museum from the north. This ‘Untitled (one hundred spaces)’ installation is one of the many artworks the museum presents in celebration of Whiteread’s three decades of sculptural creation. Furthermore, the vestibule of the main exhibition room, which hosted David Hockney’s retrospective, is dedicated to a range of images, models, and documentation of public commissions, which are an important part of Whiteread’s career. What to expect next is the main exhibition room, turned into a huge almost industrial looking space without separating walls.

The fact of seeing the whole of the exhibition in a single sweep of the eye might first feel overwhelming. There are two casts of stair floating-like ghosts on the left, a cast of a house in front, mattresses-like casts leaning on the walls, amongst others. Although it might seem slightly deceiving to have most works revealed at one glance, this approach is just what makes the show challenging and innovative.

First, Whiteread’s sculptures might appear as arbitrary objects taken out of context and turned into a raw state. The artworks are in fact casts of real objects often of a domestic environment or everyday human existence, carefully placed in 10 invisible sections with a different thematic.

 Rachel Whiteread, Tate Britain, September 2017

Installation views of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain | Photo © Tate, Joe Humphrys


The peculiarity is however that the casts aren’t duplicates of the actual objects, but rather replicas of their spaces within and around them. It is like a world upside down. Whiteread discovers the nature of things around us through their form and material. Her casts present the relationship concerning inside and outside, as she wants us to amend what is elemental about sculpture and what is foreign.

There is a certain contrast to her use of scale, materials, and colours. She deploys various materials such as resin, plaster, wood, metal, or rubber for different objects while also incorporating pigment to certain materials to generate coloured objects. For instance, ‘Torsos’ along with various windows and doors, are created translucent and colourful, seemingly made of soap or jelly. Small-scale random objects such as toilet paper tubes or cardboard boxes are on the other hand represented with neon colours.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Clear Torso), 1993 © Rachel Whiteread | Private Collection | Photo courtesy of the artist

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Clear Torso), 1993 © Rachel Whiteread | Private Collection | Photo courtesy of the artist


Whereas, the staircase sculptures, the cast of a library, or ‘Untitled (Room 101)’ are represented in white tones, and made of plaster. Colourful cast sculptures are for instance a well-known theme of the American artist Roni Horn. Her ‘Pink Tons’ belongs to the Tate Modern’s collection, and some of her recent glass sculptures were exhibited at Houser and Wirth in New York this summer. Unlike Horn, Whiteread extends her inspiration to architectural elements such as whole rooms, casts of her studio staircase, or models of houses. These are often complemented with drawings supporting the geometrical and technical tendencies.

Rachel Whiteread, Stairs, 1995 © Rachel Whiteread | Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Rachel Whiteread, Stairs, 1995 © Rachel Whiteread | Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian


Regardless the size, material, and colour, Whiteread’s sculptures appear as if they were inviting us to touch them, enter them, and feel them. Nevertheless, that is the artist’s intention, to tackle our senses and arise emotions while gradually uncover the structure, curves, and the imperfections of each object. It is about the appreciation of perplexing features of spaces, and sensing how the image of objects changes with the use of different colours and materials. The presence of these changes stimulates the human eye to engage with the artwork. Surprisingly, given the play of differentiating characteristics, all artworks appear in symbiosis, which might be partially due to successful curating along with Whiteread’s remarkable art practice.

We would be mistaken to think that the artist’s objects of inspiration for casting are just accidentally chosen. For instance, ‘Untitled (Room 101)’ is a reminder of the infamous torture room from George Orwell’s novel 1984, which was supposedly inspired by the room the author stayed in at BBC during World War II. After 1993, Whiteread was commissioned by BBC to capture the room’s internal dimensions before it’s destruction.

 Racehl Whiteread, Tate Britain, September 2017

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Book Corridors), 1997-8, Installation views at Tate Britain | Photo © Tate, Joe Humphrys


Another piece, ‘Untitled (Book Corridors)’ confirms the artist’s preoccupation with the fullness of the objects and it’s design, furthermore sensing the intellectual context of the books squeezed into the crammed shelves. A similar concept is embodied in Whiteread’s ‘Holocaust Memorial’ in Vienna, where a cast of a library room filled with books represents the fates of anonymous Jewish victims. It is apparent, therefore, that the artist employs symbolism in her works. But she also records the never-ending presence of spaces in which people used to live or move. To finish off the Rachel Whiteread experience, you can visit a white plaster sculpture on the lawns outside Tate Britain. This work untitled ‘Chicken Shed’ is one of her most recent works. Constructions such as cabins and sheds are one of the artist’s themes she enjoys to engage with, especially outdoors.

 Rachel Whiteread, Tate Britain, September 2017

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Book Corridors), 1997-8, Installation views at Tate Britain | Photo © Tate, Joe Humphrys


The works of Rachel Whiteread are so to say scattered over the premises of Tate Britain. However, together they create an entity, which very much succeeds in showcasing a lifelong artistic creation. It might not take long to see the artist’s show since there is quite a repetition of her, admittedly great, idea. On the other hand, we are left with a yearning for her next move.


Rachel Whiteread exhibition is on view until 21 January 2018 at Tate BritainMillbank, SW1P 4RG, London.