What Are Rachel Whiteread’s Hot Water Bottle Torsos?

British artist Rachel Whiteread is known for her large casts of negative space. But here’s a closer look at a small object she returned to again and again.

Jul 12, 2023By Susanna Galbraith, MA Art History, BA English Studies

rachel whiteread hot water bottle torsos


Over her career, contemporary British artist Rachel Whiteread (born London, 1963) has developed a unique approach to sculpture: casting the negative space around everyday objects and architectural works and presenting these castings as new uncanny art objects. Whiteread started using this casting method very early in her career, and she has stayed notably loyal to its principles. Continues reading to learn more about her fascinating pieces.


Rachel Whiteread: Casting Spaces

rachel whiteread torso pink dental plaster
Untitled (Pink Torso) by Rachel Whiteread, 1995, via theartblog


Within a couple of years of her first solo show, where her first ventures into this casting method were exhibited, Rachel Whiteread started working at an architectural scale and her larger cast-sculptures have become what she is best known for. She won a Turner Prize nomination for her 1990 piece Ghost, a plaster casting of the interior of a typical Victorian living room. In 1993, she scaled up again, making her most famous and (historically) controversial installation, House, for which she was awarded the Turner Prize.


rachel whiteread house concrete photograph john davies
House by Rachel Whiteread, 1993, via publicdelivery.org


House was a cement casting of the inside of an entire terrace house in East London. It was destroyed shortly after it was made, but Whiteread has gone on to make many more public works that apply this approach method to building-scale sculptures, such as the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna (2000), The Gran Boathouse (Norway, 2010) and Cabin (NYC, 2015), among others.


Returning to Small Things

rachel whiteread line up mixed media casts
Line-Up by Rachel Whiteread, 2008, via Studio Wolsey

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But alongside these big pieces, which tend to receive more attention, Whiteread continued to make works using smaller domestic objects and spaces like those she started out with. Over the years these have included, among other things, chairs, tables, beds, cupboards, window panes, doll houses, toilet rolls, and – repeatedly – hot water bottles. The results of her unostentatious Torsos play a unique role in Whiteread’s oeuvre and a closer look can help shed new light on her practice as a whole.


The first Torso

rachel whiteread torso plaster cast hot water bottle
Torso by Rachel Whiteread, 1988, via Tate, London


In 1988, Whiteread had her first solo show at the Carlisle Gallery in London. Whiteread had started to develop what would come to be her distinctive method for making sculpture at the Slade School of Art: casting negative space. This is where the first examples of these were put on show. These early pieces included Closet, Mantle, Shallow Breath, and, of course, Torso.


The molds for all of the plaster cast-sculptures in Whiteread’s first show were familiar domestic objects. Closet was a casting of the inside of a wardrobe, Mantle of the underside of a table, Shallow Breath of the space under a single bed, and Torso of the inside of a hot water bottle.


Torso was made by pouring plaster into a hot water bottle. The bottle was then closed and the plaster was left to dry inside it. When it was hard, the original bottle which had functioned as a mold, was cut away and destroyed. When the rubber was peeled back what Whiteread was left with was a solid object in the shape of the inside of a hot water bottle.


The important aspect of the objects Whiteread used to make these cast-sculptures was the particular spaces they framed or contained. It is these negative spaces we tend to only understand in relation to the shapes and objects that enclose them that the artist was paying attention to by both making them visible and strange


More and more Torsos

rachel whiteread clear torso wax torso
Untitled (Clear Torso) by Rachel Whiteread, 1993, via Spectator


Whiteread had started to explore the hot water bottle as an object in her art as a student, incorporating it into works as a found object. With Torso, the relationship between this object, the artwork, and the viewer was transformed. As with most of Whiteread’s castings, what the viewer encounters in Torso is an eerie inversion of a hot water bottle that somewhat echoes its shape but is, in reality, a reminder of its absence rather than its presence.


During the decade that saw Whiteread take leaps into large-scale and public works, creating Ghost (1990), House (1993), Water Tower (1998), and beginning plans for the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna (2000), she also kept returning, in the background, to the hot water bottle and the blueprint of her Torso. 


rachel whiteread eight torso sculptures
Selection of Untitled (Torso) pieces by Rachel Whiteread, via Studio Wolsey


A series of Torsos emerged as she repeated the same process she had gone through with the original, but using different materials like dental plaster, resin, rubber, aluminum, cement, wax, or silver. These materials represent most of those which Whiteread has worked with throughout her career. In many ways, the Torso cast-sculptures are micro-representatives of Whiteread’s practice as a whole. It’s tempting to view them as samplers. But there’s more going on here.


What’s Different About the Torsos

rachel whiteread yellow torso plaster cast
Untitled (Yellow Torso) by Rachel Whiteread, 1991, via Claire Mead


Torso was the title Whiteread gave to the original hot water bottle casting. Although all officially untitled, this original one is echoed in brackets in the titles of nearly all of the subsequent hot water bottle casts.


Whiteread has referred to her Torso sculptures as her headless, limbless babies. As a word, torso directly connotes the human body. While much of Whiteread’s practice has engaged with objects that interact intimately with the human body and bear its trace like rooms, chairs, books, or beds, the idea of the body as a figure is a rare allusion.


rachel whiteread shallow breath bed plaster
Shallow Breath by Rachel Whiteread, 1988, via BmoreArt


Alongside Torso, Shallow Breath comes closest to this sort of allusion. This plaster cast of the space under the bed was displayed vertically, leaning against the wall, the approximate height of a standing human figure in the gallery space. Its title also refers directly to the human body.


The Torsos made from different materials each have their own characteristics. Those made from resin have an ethereal quality, the light traveling through them giving them a different sort of ghostliness. The wax is also reminiscent of the wax sculptures that are traditionally the bases for bronze casts in fine art practice.


The different colors of plaster carry different suggestions: the yellow, sickly, the pink, at once cartoonishly feminine and connotative of the colors inside the body. The process of return and repetition the Torsos represent in Whiteread’s practice doesn’t result in uniformity. Rather, there’s almost a creatureliness to the subtle individuality of each version.


Rachel Whiteread’s Torsos and Art History

rachel whiteread one hundred spaces resin sculpture robert morris untitled mirror sculpture
Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) by Rachel Whiteread, 1995, via Tate, London; next to Untitled by Robert Morris, 1965, via Tate, London


Whiteread’s work has been described as minimalism with a heart. Many of her works resemble the typical abstract and industrial shapes and spatial interventions of minimalist sculptors like Robert Morris and Donald Judd. Similarly, they bear no trace of the artist’s own mark-making.


But, quite apart from the foundations of minimalism, Whiteread’s cast-sculptures of day-to-day things we use and spaces we occupy do carry the trace of a recognizable object and the trace of intimate human interaction with that object. In much of Whiteread’s work, there is an element of both re-presentation (albeit disorientating, inverting, and uncanny representation) and an implication of past-presence, of touch and impression.


belvedere toso marble sculpture
The Belvedere Torso by Apollonios, 1st century BCE, via Musei Vaticani


Whiteread’s Torsos, moreover, incorporate additional connotations of the body, representation, and viewer-artwork relations, putting more distance between her work and minimalism. The torso is a cornerstone of classical sculpture in terms of how it’s been experienced in modern times. It brings to mind famous examples such as the Belvedere Torso and the Venus de Milo. As such it is a loaded art historical concept and subject sculptors have frequently returned to. A couple of modern examples of this include Barbara Hepworth’s Torso (1928) and Henry Moore’s Pointed Torso (1969).


henry moor pointed torso bronze sculpture
Pointed Torso by Henry Moore, 1969, via MoMA, New York


Recalling the sculptures, in particular the damaged ones and partially lost sculptures of antiquity, torso is a word loaded with implications of traces of the past, of ruins, and material memory. With their missing identifying features like hands and heads, the concept connotes anonymity, loss, and disconnection. As such, it’s in keeping with themes and ideas that recur throughout Whiteread’s practice. But the suggestion of a body, or figure, as opposed to its charged absence around domestic objects and architecture, is unique in Whiteread’s work. With the Torsos, the viewer is not the only bodily thing in the gallery space.


Whiteread’s Torsos are small and displayed on plinths and in vitrines. As objects, they are something we can think about picking up and holding. Because of Whiteread’s consistency in approach, it’s easy to overlook her smaller works as miniature or trial versions of the more spectacular public and architectural works. But there is a lot more to be noticed about these works than that, especially when it comes to the Torsos.

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By Susanna GalbraithMA Art History, BA English StudiesSusanna is an editor, writer, and poet from Belfast, Northern Ireland. She studied English at Trinity College Dublin and Art History at the University of York, where she focused on modern and contemporary art. She has a particular interest in areas where literature and visual art overlap and interact. She is an editor of Abridged magazine.