Art Chronicles: Rachel Whiteread

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Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

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Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

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.

 

 

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Mona Hatoum

The first time I knowingly came across the work of the artist, Mona Hatoum, was when three of of her pieces were included in Between Cinema and a Hard Place, a group show at Tate Modern in 2000, curated by Frances Morris and including work by, amongst others, Douglas Gordon, Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread. It wasn’t until some years later, 2011, when I was taking a course taught by Dr. Diane Silverthorne, Art & Identity: History, Memory and Post-war Art, as part of the History of Art programme at Birkbeck, University of London, that I encountered her work again, when it was included in the exhibition, Jean Genet Act 1 & Act 2, at Nottingham Contemporary.

The second half of that exhibition, Act 2, was organised around Genet’s support for anti-colonialism, focussing on the Black Panthers in the United States and the freedom fighters of the Palestinian Fedayeen. Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family but living in London, and later, Berlin, it was in this latter context that Hatoum’s work was shown.

There were two of Hatoum’s pieces in the show, Keffiah (1998 – 2000) a traditional Arab scarf , embroidered with female human hair and Still Life (2008-2009) made from glazed ceramics, wood and painted steel.

As I noted at the time, in this latter work there are 42 small ceramic pieces, each individually coloured and approximately the size of a piece of fruit such as an apple you might hold in your hand. Some are round, like baubles, others oval: some are smooth, but the majority are divided on the outer surface into ridged sections similar to the outside of a pineapple. In general, the colours – greens, blues, yellow, orange, red, white and black – are bright, the surfaces highly glazed so as to reflect the light.

Mona-Hatoum-Still-Life-2008

The objects are arranged in a seemingly casual way on a wooden table, open to view, open – apparently – to touch. Their very openness is appealing, and, within the setting of the gallery, unusual. Their brightness invites us to come close, walk around the table, examine them as we would pieces of fruit – the title, Still Life – reinforces this notion. And yet we don’t pick them up. In part, due to our awareness of what is appropriate and inappropriate with works of art, but also because our initial reading of the objects has now (surely?) been replaced by another. These attractive, seemingly innocent objects are potentially lethal; they are like hand grenades, small explosive devices, and to touch (like Eve plucking the forbidden apple from the tree) is to court destruction. The title, Still Life, takes on an ironic twist.

Hatoum has said that her work is often “about conflict and contradiction, and that conflict and contradiction can be within the actual object.

And further, “I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.

The current exhibition at Tate Modern (till August 21st), a retrospective that concentrates on the sculptures and installations Hatoum has been making since the late 1980s, makes clear the extent to which she has achieved those aims. Piece after piece draws you in then sends a jolt to your brain while kicking you in the gut. It’s terrific work, not least because it’s about stuff that matters.

Take Light Sentence (1992), seen below …

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… a three-sided construction made up of wire mesh lockers and illuminated by a single light bulb moving slowly up and down at the centre and casting shadows on the surrounding walls. We think of animal cages, experiments; think of blocks of flats, certain kinds of architecture, human beings crammed together, caged; as we walk around the light throws our shadows, too, onto the walls amongst the grids and squares so that for the time we walk around we have this sense of being trapped there, caged also.

Or Measures of Distance (1988) …

Measures of Distance 1988 by Mona Hatoum born 1952

Measures of Distance 1988 Mona Hatoum born 1952 Purchased 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07538

… a video piece in which Arabic writing, representing the letters Hatoum received from her mother while living in London, is veiled across images of her mother in the shower at her home in Beirut, the soundtrack carrying both a conversation between Hatoum and her mother in Arabic and Hatoum’s voice reading a translation of the letters into English. As well as showing the closeness and intensity of their relationship, as Hatoum says, “it also speaks of exile, displacement, disorientation and a tremendous sense of loss as a result of the separation caused by the war.”

One of Hatoum’s earliest works was a performance piece in which she walked through the streets of Brixton in bare feet with Doc Marten boots – footwear favoured by both skinheads and police – attached to her ankles by their laces. On the day of my first visit to the exhibition at Tate Modern, we were followed around by two men in their late 20s, early 30s, both wearing shorts, each man holding a long pair of leather reins – the kind more normally associated with dogs – at the end of which two small children crawled and tottered and cried.  Containment, anyone? Conflict, contradiction? It should have been an art work, but it wasn’t.

This is a wonderful show, genuinely thought-provoking, by a major artist, and for anyone interested in the relationships between contemporary art and life pretty essential. See it if you can.