British artist Rachel Whiteread (born London, 1963) was the first woman artist to win the Turner Prize in 1993. Whiteread is sometimes included in discussions of the Young British Artists, alongside artists like Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin. However, not really a core part of this group, her work has a unique and haunting quietness that sets it apart. Building on the legacy of minimalism’s aesthetics and viewer relations, Whiteread’s work has been termed minimalism with a heart.
Who Is Rachel Whiteread?
First studying painting at Brighton Polytechnic, Rachel Whiteread moved on to study sculpture at Slade School of Art. It was here she started to develop the method of sculpture-making to which she has remained remarkably loyal throughout most of her career: casting. More specifically, casting the negative space inside and around everyday objects and interiors.
From small to large (hot water bottles to entire houses), Whiteread’s cast-sculptures have predominantly been made from objects from the domestic sphere. These she defamiliarizes through inversion, making the space around or inside them into a solid object, an index uncannily reminiscent of the source object: strangely familiar and familiarly strange.
What Is Casting?
Think of the preserved city of Pompeii, death masks, dental molds, and mass production. These are some of the areas of historical culture and contemporary life in which casts and casting might most commonly be encountered. Casting is the process by which a material, usually liquid, is poured into or around an object and allowed to harden, creating a solid inversion of the original object. In engineering, medicine, and art, this can then be used, through different methods and repetitions of the process, to create copies of the original form. Traditionally, bronze sculptures are made by casting around an original wax sculpture to make a mold into which the liquid bronze can be poured.
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Deviating from fine art traditions, Whiteread’s cast sculptures are made from found objects rather than sculptures she has made. Moreover, she has embraced industrial materials in the creation of her casts-sculptures, such as plaster, rubber, concrete, and resin. Rather than creating copies of an original form, Whiteread’s practice has been focused on an interest in negative form.
Beginnings: Whiteread’s First Castings
In her first show in 1988, Whiteread exhibited the first examples of her plaster casts of negative space. These were called Closet, Mantle, Shallow Breath, and Torso. Closet was a plaster cast of the interior of a wardrobe, covered in black felt. Mantle was a cast of the space beneath a table, with the glass table top reattached. The surface embellishments of these first ventures into casting, the felt and the table-top were something Whiteread left behind, going on to focus on the casting itself.
Shallow Breath was a cast of the space under a bed, while Torso represented the cavity inside a hot water bottle, both, again, in plaster. Both of these early pieces have an anthropomorphic quality, emphasized by their titles’ references to the human body. Evading direct expression, the cast-sculptures are charged with vague connotations of intimacy and the vulnerability of bodies in the bed space. They can refer to privacy, childhood, or illness. Shallow Breath was propped vertically against the wall, approximating the presence of a standing human figure. The echo of the body in Torso goes without saying. Whiteread has referred to this and subsequent torso sculptures as her headless, limbless babies.
Adding to the uncanniness of negative space made solid and the ghostly pallor of plaster, there is a doubleness to Shallow Breath and Torso in how, inverting the art historical traditions of minimalist oblong and classical torsos, they seem to suggest a human presence, indirectly indexing the trace of human bodies and its absence, acting as an obstacle.
Whiteread returned to the space in and under beds and mattresses a number of times, turning to rubber sometimes as a casting material for these (as in Air Bed II (1993) for example). Throughout her career, she has repeatedly cast the inside of hot water bottles using a variety of materials.
From Object to Interior: Ghost, 1990 and House, 1993
In her next major project, Whiteread would scale up this method to cast the entire interior of a Victorian family room. Again, the primary material for this was plaster. The room had to be cast in sections and pieced together again in situ to create the strangely inaccessible room-ish object. In a direct acknowledgment of the haunting effect of her castings, Whiteread called this work Ghost.
With foundations in Closet, her 1988 cast of a wardrobe, the casting of an entire room changed the relationship between the viewer and the work. At this scale, the viewer has the additional feeling of being ‘cast out’ of a space. Whiteread has spoken about an intention to mummify the air in the room with this work. The age of the room is an important aspect of the work, with the plaster picking up marks and imperfections on the walls.
Again, the overall shape and presence of Ghost recall minimalism, but the weird recognisability of its origins, aided by the details of the door and fireplace, disrupts this. A suggestion of history and memory pervade, palpable but, ultimately, closed off. This simultaneity of connection and removal is what could be understood as most moving about Whiteread’s work in general. We can see spaces to enter and objects to touch, but we can’t do this.
Whiteread was nominated for the Turner Prize for Ghost. But it was for her controversial installation House that she won it, along with a torrent of criticism. This is probably the work she is best known for, although it only existed for a couple of months before being destroyed. Building on the principle of Ghost, House is a cement cast of an entire terrace house in East London, which was part of a row of houses due to be demolished. The house was supported with metal structures, sprayed with concrete, and then its original exterior was removed.
The work became a reference point in heated debates about public housing. Inevitably, this work took Whiteread’s cast-sculptures out of the gallery and into public space for the first time, a realm she would return to frequently in her career. The fact that House now exists only in photographs and conversation means it operates at even more of a ghosty removal than before. The method of casting entire buildings, however, left its mark and has lived on throughout Whiteread’s career, taking a variety of forms.
Casting the Unreadable: Untitled (Book Corridors), 1998 & Holocaust Memorial, 2000
Another of Whiteread’s most exposed and debated public artworks was her Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, Austria. The memorial sculpture takes the form of an inaccessible single-story building, a tomb-like library with its door closed. The walls are made up of rows of shut books cast in concrete, with their spines pointed inward, away from the viewer. What we see are the tightly packed pages of row upon row of unreadable stories. There is a heavy silence about the work.
Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial took over five years to come to fruition in 2000. Over this period Whiteread’s plans faced hurdles of scrutiny and criticism. A precursor of sorts for this work is Whiteread’s 1998 Book Corridors. These plaster casts of library shelves, however, are inversions of what appears in the Holocaust Memorial. Here, the books aren’t merely closed but conspicuous absences, indexed in the plaster.
Another Kind of Ghostliness: Rachel Whiteread’s Resin Casts
An important aspect of quite a number of these projects was the introduction of resin as a casting material. Although other materials appear, alongside plaster resin is a material that Whiteread has frequently returned to in small and large sculptures. In the public sphere, examples of these have included Water Tower (1998) and Memorial (2001), and in the gallery pieces like Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1995), Light II (2010), and other versions of her Torso sculpture.
The transparency of resin gives these pieces an uncanny quality that’s distinct from the banishing opacity of plaster and concrete. The objects appear ethereal, ghostly, and half-present. Space has been made solid here, again, but the light gets all the way through. This adds another layer of uncanniness, another moment of uncertainty, to later casts of window panes like Light II.
Whiteread’s commission for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London crowns the plinth with a weirdly translucent mirror of itself, as though it’s been reflected in another element, or, indeed, another world. The addition of strong color with resin also lends an otherworldly, fairytale-like quality to the works. From one angle, for example, the one hundred spaces casts look like giant gumdrops.
Rachel Whiteread Today
Another direction Whiteread has taken her work in public space is in the creation of what she has called shy sculptures. These various large cast-sculptures in one sense follow the mode of public works like the House and the Holocaust memorial but occupy tucked-away, less obvious public spaces. These include The Gran Boathouse (Norway, 2010) and Cabin (Governer’s Island, NYC, 2015).
Somewhere between public and gallery spaces, perhaps, Whiteread’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall commission Embankment (2005) was made up of polythene casts of cardboard boxes. Rooted in an experience of packing the belongings of her mother after her death, the transparency of these objects recalls the ethereal quality of resin elsewhere in her practice, and the casts have been aesthetically compared to sugar cubes.
In 2021, Whiteread introduced the world to a break with her casting method in the exhibition Internal Objects at the Gagosian Gallery in London. The titles of the two main sculptures, Poltergeist and Doppelganger, seem to call back to Whiteread’s first room-cast Ghost and its uncanny reference to lived-in interiors, to personal histories rendered absent-but-present in the work. They are white, reminiscent of her plaster casts. However, these shed-structures are not the result of casting. They are assembled from various materials, then painted.