Rachel Whiteread exhibition at the Hammer Museum yesterday. I have not been able to actually see a great deal of her large-scale work, because it would take more travel than I can contemplate. Billed as "Drawings," though, this show did include a number of the British artist's three-dimensional works, and it offered a rare opportunity to get better acquainted with an artist I have admired, as it were, from afar.
Whiteread is known for working with molded forms, substituting a specific object--a table, a chair, a mattress...
... a light switch, even an entire house--for the space it contains, or the space that contains it. The result is what I can best describe as a real-ization, a concretization of absence. Like the wind, the object becomes invisible to the eye, or visible only in the traces it leaves in its wake--the shift of leaves in the trees, the movement of blades of grass. In Whiteread's work, the mind is left to re-create, or imagine what was there, which becomes a ghostly incarnation of its previous existence.
This is intensely elegiac work. The affect is one of ineffable sadness, where emptiness is given tangible form that requires us to make the effort to search for what we can no longer see. It's also intensely human: we live, we experience our presence as bodies in the world, we die and, so far as we can tell, we vanish into nothingness. We experience the same with those we love, those close to us. They vanish from our lives, and yet we continue to sense their presence through their very absence. We are confronted, for example, in this exhibition, with an empty antique bathtub, its absence recreated in solid, adjoining blocks of concrete, and feel ouselves in the presence of a stolid, silent sarcophagus, which seems to demand that we imagine its occupant, some long-departed Marat, say, still haunting its vacant space.
No wonder, then, that Whiteread won an international competition to create a Holocaust monument for Vienna, Austria...
... and how appropriate that she should have envisioned a vast library turned inside-out, its myriad volumes turned spine-in, anonymous, standing in for the absent ones who lost first their identities and then their lives to Hitler's madness. The model for this magnificent memorial is on display, along with the detailed drawings that led to its creation.
Also on display, in a "Vitrine," is a multitude of small objects from Whiteread's personal collection--fossils, kitchen molds and utensils, rocks, shoe-trees, boxes and dental molds--each one casting light on the inner workings of her creative mind; and a collection of postcards, mostly of architectural structures, with areas shaded out or punched with holes which leave the eye searching for the lost structures and forms. These, along with the drawings, offer a fascinating study of the way in which this artist's own distinctive vision sees the world, the objects that shape our human lives and the spaces in which we dwell. If the exhibition's dominant tone is sadness, it is a sadness that leaves us more acutely, more profoundly aware--and more mystified by the wisdom of that old Buddhist conundrum from the Heart Sutra: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form." Oh, yes!