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Rachel Whiteread
by Janet Goleas

Rachel Whiteread, Installation View, 1996

The sculpture of Rachel Whiteread is loaded with a type of preordained content that cross-references nearly every chapter of the Dictionary of Cultural Awareness. This may account for the fact that, while reviewed and summarized, the smattering of works recently shown at Luhring Augustine were largely ignored by their New York audience. "Oh, it's been done before, to be sure." From the architectural teachings of spatial imaging to the death masks of the 15th century to Drawing 101 to the area beneath Bruce Nauman's chair--it's been done Ok! She's not a nun. I'll admit the whole idiom may be a little over-cooked, but it hasn't yet fallen off the bone.

Let's first look at the work independent of the above. Fundamentally, these sculptures--whatever the result--attempt to describe absence. And absence, in and of itself, is a concept rife with innuendo in this, the latter fraction of the 20th century. But as for the word itself, and how it might transmute into a physical presence, the question becomes: What is the essence of a thing defined only by the area which it does not occupy?

As for absence itself, we live in a time framed by endings. We grapple with the death of Modernism (and with it, the end of a formal belief system, which begs for the development of a mythic belief system--a surrogate--until we come up with a suitable replacement); we have AIDS (just the first, undoubtedly, in a chain of ever mutating viruses desperate to survive our diminishing environment); we've got the bomb (and so does everyone else) and we are facing the end of the millennium. And as for previously unoccupied areas, we have revisionism. We live in an era so hyper-conscious that each previous era (up to the minute it seems) is scrutinized in retrospect, frequently before it has reached anything close to a conclusion. It is the era of the "Word." In the end, we live in an era where your last walk to the drug store becomes the currency of your own psychopathology; an era where each instinct--every decision--can and will be used as fodder for universal exploration.

But, I digress...

Allow me to suggest that in an era of scrutiny such as ours, on some level, the simple gestalt of negative space turned into substance is a refreshing departure from the deflated idealism, nose-thumbing, and basic sensationalism of the neighborhood in general.

In the end, there is a translucent idealism in Whiteread's works. A moment of simplicity. It's interesting that while Whiteread uses a language of minimalism, these works are not minimal. They are too evocative of memory, too associative, and too metaphorical to be in close partnership with minimalism. And while they dance around the insistence of the body they are not strictly about figuration (conceptual or otherwise). And conversely, although they make a bold attempt to be blithely unaware of their circumstances, and to achieve a kind of humility of presence--to be just what they are--what they are stretches out beyond the confines of these presumably marginal spaces to dislocate notions of nostalgia, memory, the body, and realism.

If Whiteread is part of the British invasion, she is counter to her fellow Brits in one more important way: hers is more an act of self-colonizing than of pioneering frontier territory or throwing over existing tropes. It is more about memory, temporality, and how to make a mark that says "I am not here." We're in the neighborhood of romanticism here, but we didn't bring any luggage. Whiteread is not picturing nothingness--not the abyss--not by a long shot. She is identifying the space between memory and experience. Pointing to it; naming the properties; stealing the innocence from, as it were, the unnameable. To the extent that we are all talking about the nature of being, Whiteread is hashing out the fundamentals of it.

And so, we're back to the palpability of space and its role as the bread and butter of Whiteread's work. Chasing after authenticity, Whiteread is nostalgic for a time and place of absolutes. She is given to the tacitly physical and the need to depict the non-object. On the other hand, she's a realist. Given the climate, there is a modicum of head banging to this pursuit, a slight insanity to it all, as if she's whispering, "it's all I know. It's all I know." Relief, perhaps, from the penchant to know. After all, doubt is the only sure thing. And so, doubt, itself, becomes our most reliable ally in the search for absolutes. To not know, finally, is a great relief. And embracing the need not to know verges on the creation of a mythic belief system. You might say all of art history is an undulating mythic belief system, or indeed, that all formal systems are mythic at heart. Or, you might say I'm just taking it all too seriously.

Anyway, we all know the history of Pompeii--the corresponding story of its instant and quite unexpected burial under a good 20 feet of volcanic debris; its rediscovery centuries later and its subsequent excavation. Giuseppe Fiorelli, the chief excavator at Pompeii, developed a technique of injecting plaster into mounds of hollow earth--mounds of earth under which the residents of Pompeii and the fragments of their lives, long since reduced to dust were frozen in time. The result: a method of casting the negative space, which, in this case, revealed a city-size plaster sculpture of the moment of; bathing women, sleeping dogs, breakfast cooking--all caught unaware and preserved in an unadulterated state. Not in a funeral site, but a reluctant monument to civilization as is. It is not utopian; not sentimental; not self-conscious. Simply: there/not there; presence/absence.

Memory is transitory. History is in a constant state of flux. Being itself, is temporal. The need for evidence of a thing once there--now not there--is basic to Western thinking. In 15th century Florence, the making of death masks--a cast taken from the face of the just dead--was a highly prized and very popular endeavor. Now we have infrared camera techniques to authenticate the presence of an absent thing. Still, the legitimacy of these methods of proof is subject to scrutiny.

Is Whiteread concerned with legitimacy? Or, is she interested in the evidence of a history which is implicitly fictional? This may be open to interpretation, I suppose. But oddly, while they reference the need to make space and memory finite and absolute, her casts of voids--the spaces between them, behind and underneath--are made of fragile, throw-away materials. Even plaster, though virtually eternal, is a high-maintenance material, more commonly the vehicle associated with permanence. And so, among the wax, rubber, and plaster casts, there is also an implicit vulnerability, as if one has entered the Vatican reliquary and realized that all the relics are made of ice.

Janet Goleas

New York, New York
June, 1996

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