Rachel Whiteread: Breaking the Chains of Form and Content
In his essay “The Present Body, the Absent Body, and the Formless,”1 Uros Cvoro provides us with a compelling analysis of Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 public sculpture House. Although it was destroyed only three months after it was constructed, Cvoro argues for its persisting relevance: “The questions that House raised about the articulation of memory as a displacement of past into present, the tracing of absence, and the dialogue between the viewer’s body and the materiality of the object remain as pertinent as ever for any serious study of sculpture and memory.”2 Since we take a real interest in both sculpture (as students of art) and memory (as human beings), it would seem dangerously negligent to overlook this landmark work.
Cvoro begins by rightly criticizing “the unquestioned assumption that House either acted as a symbolic substitute for the body of the viewer–an inverted, disrupted body–or represented the absence of the domestic body.”3 As he keenly observes, “the result of such an approach to the work overlooks… the conceptual potential of House to dislocate the oppositions of work/beholder, text/reader, and object/subject.”4 In order to bring the discussion back to the realm of reasonable analysis, Cvoro sets out to “link Whiteread’s work to a material operation of sign deferral that contests its very materiality as fixed location and show how it has the capacity to decompose the very coherence of form on which the materiality of House has been thought to depend.”5
Now, Cvoro draws on the work of Bois and Krauss in order to introduce the important notion of the formless, a notion without which we might be left groping in our encounter with more recent approaches to art. As Cvoro explains, “Bois and Krauss detach the trace of the formless from the visual form, thus undermining the proximity of the trace to the form and the possibility of the trace being absorbed by the form. Their point is that if the trace of the formless is independent of the visual form, it will eschew the binary logic of form and content.”6 As my readers are well aware, this binary logic of form and content has tyrannized art theory for far too long. But in introducing the essential notion of the formless, we find ourselves in the happy position of moving beyond this relic of ancient speculation.
But Cvoro is here concerned with House, and he makes skillful use of the previous considerations to open our understanding of the work. Cvoro suggests that
“by using the operations of the trace and the formless as models for our reading of House, we will open the interpretative possibilities of the work to more democratic ways of reading. More specifically, we will be able to eschew the confounding absent/present binary of the body. In short, I will suggest that just as the trace is without a past, and the formless is without a form, House is without a body.”7
With this move, Cvoro can finally declare checkmate against “the reductive humanist perspective” that has hitherto been “brought to bear on House” and that “always returns into the symbolic economy of the body.”8 If House is in fact without a body, then any debate over its status as either inverted body or absent domestic body is rendered meaningless, no matter how well entrenched it may be.
I suggest that my readers review their own past modes of thinking and see if they are not equally infected with the form/content prejudices so prevalent even in this new millennium. I expect that you will be surprised and greatly benefited by the realization that there is indeed a way out of this binary straightjacket, a way that can lead us closer to our elusive quarry, artistic truth.
1-8: Cvoro, Uros, Art Journal, Winter 2002, Vol. 61 Issue 4, pp. 54-64.
In the late nineteenth century, Grove Road was a typical row of terraced houses of the kind built throughout the East End of London. Some of the road was destroyed in the Second World War and by the 1950s the area was covered with temporary housing. As new tower blocks were built the prefabs were removed.
By the early 1990s the terrace was no more – the final houses were demolished early 1993. From the interior of the last remaining house, Rachel Whiteread made an extraordinary sculpture.
Whiteread’s cast of a Victorian terraced house in London’s East End was hailed as one of the greatest public sculptures by an English artist in the twentieth century. Completed in autumn of 1993 and demolished in January 1994, House attracted tens of thousands of visitors and generated impassioned debate, in the local streets, the national press and in the House of Commons.
“Denatured by transformation, things turn strange here. Fireplaces bulge outwards from the walls of House, doorknobs are rounded hollows. Architraves have become chiselled incisions running around the monument, forms as mysterious as the hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs.” (The Independent)
It began, an idea without a name, in the quiet of Rachel Whiteread’s studio in East London. And it ended several years later, a sculpture called House, demolished in the full glare of the world’s media. House always had the potential to be a contentious work of art. But in my first conversations with Rachel Whiteread in the summer of 1991, it was impossible to imagine that it would be quite as exposed, quite as contentious as things turned out; and that its transition from private projection to public phenomenon would be so dramatic and so quick.
House could have been made elsewhere, in a different place, at a different time; perhaps with another cast list and chorus. Indeed, Whiteread and I had looked at several other terraced houses in North and East London through 1992 without success. At one stage, a condemned house in Islington seemed possible, but the right permissions failed to materialize. Another in Hackney was knocked down before we could make a proposal to the owner. Finally, after months of private persuasion and occasional public meetings, the councillors of Bow Neighbourhood voted by a small majority to give a temporary lease on 193 Grove Road, one of the few remaining houses in what had once been a Victorian terrace. After several months’ more waiting, Whiteread took possession and the physical making of the work began in August 1993. From that moment, House was of a specific place and a particular time. And it was this configuration of time and place, with its attendant contingencies of local and national politics and the added spice of the 1993 Turner Prize which, as much as the physical appearance of the sculpture, created the meaning of House and determined the course of its short life.
House was completed on October 25 1993. There had deliberately been almost no press until one day before. Slowly at first and then more quickly, interest and comment began to grow in the locality and beyond; in the pages of the national press and on television news. Newspaper leaders and letters, columns and cartoons appeared and multiplied. Visitors grew day by day. On November 23 two decisions were made simultaneously in different parts of London. A group of jurors at the Tate Gallery decided that Whiteread had won the 1993 Turner Prize, and a gathering of Bow Neighbourhood Councillors voted that House should be demolished with immediate effect. It was an incendiary combination.
From that moment, the debate which swirled around House became increasingly adversarial; in the press, on television and, in a more good-humoured way, in front of the sculpture itself. Seasoned campaigners dusted down familiar battle formations from past controversies such as the Tate Gallery’s acquisition of Carl Andre’s infamous ‘bricks’; or, for those few who cared to add an international dimension, the notorious case of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. Others invoked the English taste for iconoclasm which had generated campaigns against public sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill earlier in the century. But perhaps the most salient and certainly the most encouraging aspect of the controversy around House was the way in which it exposed the inadequacies of these old charts to describe the complexities and the particular contours of this controversy. Local against national, the art world against the real world, grass roots realities against disconnected dilettantes… Such binary oppositions could neither explain nor contain the multiple shades of opinion and sentiment which House engendered.
There were passionately different responses, of course. But the differences of opinion were always located within any identifiable community or constituency, and not between them. There was no consensus amongst the inhabitants of the block of houses opposite, on the street or in the neighbourhood, nor in the letter pages of local and national newspapers. There was no consensus amongst the local councillors. Even the fateful decision not to grant an extension to House was taken only on the casting vote of the Chairman after the councillors were equally divided. There was no consensus even within the Gale family whom the Council had moved out of the home which eventually became House. House did not seek to manufacture some confectionary consensus, as many public works of art are compelled to do. Indeed it laid bare the limits of language and expectation which afflict the contentious arena of public art.
House was literally rooted to its spot, but the meaning of Whiteread’s work was inherently unstable. Unlike the heroic models of triumphal arches and declamatory statues, it was by no means clear what values it sought to promote. It did not seek to predetermine the ways in which people could respond to it. Rather, like notable predecessors of a similarly sombre kind such as Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall, (originally planned as a temporary memorial) or Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., House was both a closed architectural form and an open memorial; at one and the same time hermetic and implacable, but also able to absorb into its body all those individual thoughts, feelings and memories projected onto it.
The way in which opinion swirled around it echoed another way in which House was constantly changing. It was impossible not to view the whole of the sculpture without also seeing a part of its immediate environment. Close to the textures of the cast, the indentations of domestic details invited contemplation of the interior life the house once had. But from further away, the sculpture gradually became implicated in a mute dialogue with the various architectural forms which surrounded it. Across the road, within a hundred yards of each other were three different churches; Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness and Church of England. These modest temples of organized religion contrasted tellingly with the image of Home which in Victorian times had displaced God as the main organizing agent of social stability. Looking from north to south, the view was dominated by Canary Wharf, the tallest building in England and symbol of the transformations which had been wrought upon the East End through the 1980s. And, from far away across the expanse of unused park which had until the Second World War been filled with row upon row of terraced housing, House began to appear very small and vulnerable. Towering over it, beyond the section of Grove Road with its churches and refurbished flats, loomed three concrete high-rises, emblems of more recent ideals of social housing which had at one time supplanted the model of the Victorian terrace. It was not possible to separate House from its place, or the place from House.
A little way down Grove Road, only a few hundred yards from the place where House was made, some wooden sculptures are sited in an adjacent stretch of empty parkland. Carved from trees blown down in the Great Storm of 1987, they stand in a forlorn arrangement. All the time I spent in Grove Road meeting with Whiteread, with local councillors and residents, contractors and sponsors, helpers, students and journalists, I never once saw anyone looking at the wooden sculptures. It seems as if, moments after the commemorative plaque had been unveiled, meaning had evaporated from them as quickly as the local dignitaries had drifted from the opening ceremony.
In his observations on the urban environment of the early 20th century, Robert Musil wrote that ‘the most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them. There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument… Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment’. The wooden sculptures had acquired that instant invisibility of which Musil wrote; an invisibility which is the precondition of the vast proportion of contemporary civic art, the prerequisite for their commissioning and their survival. House, always envisaged as temporary, could not aspire to that condition. In time, over decades, it might have become invisible too. But time was the one thing Whiteread’s work did not have.
As I write this, a campaign for a new monument – ‘The London Memorial’ – is being orchestrated by London’s evening newspaper, the Evening Standard (who were far from being one of House‘s most enthusiastic advocates in the autumn of I993). The London Memorial is planned to commemorate the experience of London and its people during the Second World War before it passes beyond living memory; the people who served, those who died, were bombed out or displaced or survived. And, by some strange irony, a particular street in East London was one of the first places put forward – the place where the first flying bomb fell – none other than Grove Road in Bow. I don’t suppose that the connection will be made by the Evening Standard – but perhaps their London Memorial has already been and gone.
Demolition of ‘House’