04. Nalina Moses On Rachel Whiteread And Rendering the Void

The English sculptor Rachel Whiteread made a name for herself in 1993 by rendering the inside spaces of a demolished East London house in concrete and exhibiting them on the empty, sandy lot where that house had once stood. The project, House, was direct, imposing, lyrical and politically suggestive.

In the most literal sense, House makes an absence present. It reconstructs the ordinary, three-story, Victorian wood-frame house that once occupied the site, a house that had sheltered generations of families and been a vital part of the streetscape before it was razed. To prepare for the piece, Whiteread took historic photos of the row of houses that originally stood on the block and blotted out the selected house with correction fluid to shape an opaque white silhouette. Her intention in fabricating House might have been to build this removal.

House serves as a pun on the modern architect’s conception of space. In contrast to traditional architects, who understood a building’s mass as a figure within a field of empty space, modern architects have understood space itself as an active, energized element. There’s some humor in how physically and visually inert the rooms of the house become as they’re rendered in concrete. And there’s irony in the way the windows, architectural elements that connote transparency and openness, clutter its elegant front facade. The piece also upends a modern architect’s notions of function and utility. While the structure employs the scale and language of architecture, it remains uninhabitable.

Like all castings, House points firstly back to its source, the shell from which it was cast. The sculpture was produced by lining the individual rooms of the building with spray concrete and setting them between the original wood floor and stair assemblies, mostly likely over a concealed internal frame. Concrete profiles of peripheral elements like doors, windows and fireplaces, although rendered inversely, are easily identifiable. Sized and positioned like the original house along the sidewalk, the sculpture stands for that house.

Yet House represents that original house with some ambivalence. The exposed wood floors that separate the three levels of cast rooms complicate a simple, seamless spatial representation. When the piece is viewed orthogonally, the floors and stairs emerge as markings against a field of concrete and the entire piece has a flattened, graphic quality. The surfaces of the sculpture offer information about its interior organization in the same way that a technical diagram or an architectural drawing would.

House doesn’t fall into easy symbolism. Like Jeff Koons’ Bunny from 1986, the piece is faithful in size and detail. But Bunny, the depiction of an inflatable toy in mirrored stainless steel, is entirely self-referential, pointing only to the largely insignificant object from which it was cast. The particular inversions and exclusions in House complicate a direct relation to the object from which it was cast. Firstly, House is a cast of the inner spaces of a building and not the exterior shell of the building itself. Pointedly, the attic, chimneys and roof of the original building, the house’s most iconic elements, were not rendered. The way that House is cut off, abruptly, just inches above the third floor windows, lends it a compressed, surreal quality. These concrete volumes that were cast from the rooms of a house, while impartial, are a collection of incomplete, de-centered, impressions. They stand for the building uneasily.

The cast concrete rooms of House have been drained of their physical vitality. The sculpture, which appears to be supported only by the exposed wood floor and stair assemblies, projects a sense of physical instability and vulnerability. In contrast, Richard Serra’s installation, Equal Weights and Measures from 2006, a series of room-sized, room-shaped blocks of solid steel, asserts its weight and density. Oxidization and forging marks on the surfaces of the blocks accentuate the presence of the steel. The pale, gritty concrete blocks of House, while also weighty, appear weirdly immaterial, as if they’re hovering three-dimensional tracings of the rooms of a house.

Like all castings, House captures the moment of its casting. It also simultaneously references the original building’s construction and its demolition. More broadly, the sculpture reasserts the history that was flattened with the original building, a history that includes both the development of the neighborhood in East London where it stood and the personal lives that unfolded within its rooms. House remains so tied up in past moments — physical, personal and political — that it is in effect a memorial.

In its abstracted, orthogonal surfaces, House has the aspect of a minimalist sculpture, purposefully purged of denotation. Yet the object is charged with perceptions: the interior space of a room, the idea of a home, the history of a city block, the architecture of a building and the destruction of a property. If it was Whiteread’s project, very literally, to make a structure that was not present, present, then this is something that she has accomplished with surprising syntactic complexity. House points directly to a house and also enriches this relation with other divergent associations. In depicting the voids of a demolished building, Whiteread has both recaptured a structure and amplified its presence.