I’ve seen images of Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture that stands in Judenplatz in the first district of Vienna as a memorial to the Austrian victims of the Holocaust, but never the thing itself. Nevertheless, I’ve talked about it, written essays about it; praised, admired and been awestruck by it. Constructed from concrete and steel, it stands, squat, solid and unflourished, at the centre of a square overlooked by ‘fine’ houses, formerly homes to many of the Jews who were transported to those concentration camps whose names are engraved at the foot of the sculpture.
It is a library: a library to which the doors remain resolutely closed. No one can enter: and if they could, once inside, they could never escape. The walls are made from casts of library shelves lined with books, but the books – which all look like the same book – stand inside out, their titles and authors hidden. Anonymous and unread. Lives unaccounted for. Unacknowledged. It’s a statement about the loss of identity, the loss of life, the denial of memory. Uncompromising and uncompromised.
A powerful work, whose strength of form signifies its strength of meaning and discourages the ease of tears.
To have expected something similar, work which would have the same power or elicit a similar response, from the retrospective of Whiteread’s work currently at Tate Britain would have been unfair and not a little foolish. What I hadn’t been prepared for was being just a little bit bored.
Part of the problem [a problem for me, but not, from speaking briefly to others at the gallery, for many] is that Whiteread’s most significant work – which can mean having a significance beyond itself – is public work on a large scale and so can only be shown here in a photograph, a diagram, a plan. What the gallery gives us is a generously large space with several larger pieces – the interior, stairs and floors, of the former warehouse in which she and her family once lived; the room in Broadcasting House which might have been the inspiration for Orwell’s Room101 – at the centre and smaller works – windows and doors cast in plaster and coloured resins – arranged around the perimeter.
Walking round, it’s not difficult to think, okay, this is very clever, but why? Why in the case of the doors and windows, the Tate handout tells us, because “Such a re-imagining of this range of forms in their cast versions, as sculpture, emphasises their details and our relationship with the structures that surround us.”
To which I can only say, “Hmm … ”
But all was not lost. Along one wall there is a delightful array of small objects, some brightly coloured – and, oh, how the heart was crying out for colour in the midst of so much grey concrete – casts of everyday objects such as boxes and, nicest of all, the cylindrical tubes from the centre of toilet rolls. Even better, on the wall at the opposite end hang a number of photographs, sketches and drawings made using pen, pencil or paint – for the most part preparatory work leading up to the final sculptures, but satisfying in themselves. And, best of all, a long vitrine in which is displayed a selection made by Whiteread herself of pages from her notebooks, more sketches and photographs, along with a number of objects she has collected and kept. Absolutely fascinating.
Outside the gallery space, in the Duveen Galleries, are a number of pieces Whiteread has selected from the Tate’s permanent collection – sculptures by Richard Deacon, Barry Flanagan, Barbara Hepworth, Rebecca Warren and others. As one of the visitors I spoke to said, the problem with is that, set against range and liveliness of that work, Whiteread’s own can suffer in comparison.
And finally, a literary footnote. For the sales display outside, amongst the catalogues and postcards, is a small selection of books that Whiteread has recommended: and what a selection! Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead; The Safety of Objects by A. M. Homes; short stories by Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver; Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary; Henning Mankel. Enough to form the beginning of a small library of contemporary fiction.