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The Courtauldian

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The Courtauld Institute of Art

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Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain: Space Made Visible

November 18, 2017

 

Everything about the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Tate Britain forces us to continually shift the way we look, even when we might be looking at nothing.

 

The gallery room that is normally divided by false walls has been gutted and emptied to form one expansive space, leaving thirty years of Whiteread’s career sitting together. It’s a repetitive method that makes Whiteread’s whole oeuvre initially feel like one big series. The casting technique binds the differing works together: the underside of a bath, below a table, the dust collected under a bed, or other forgotten and unseen spaces. Yet the physical closeness of the works in the gallery space also makes their differences become clear: the variation of scale (from modest to monumental), the material (concrete to resin) and colour (cold grey to brilliant pink).

 

These differences jump out in subtle but surprising ways, perhaps most acutely in Whiteread’s Torsos. Lined up together side-by-side in a sarcophagus-like casing, the objects are smaller than their name might suggest. The art historical torsos we’ve come to expect have figured the heaving chests of men, but Whiteread’s Torsos offer other poetics of the body. Made between 1988 and 1999, some Torsos are sad in their anthropomorphism—sagging and deflated—whilst others are puffed up and proud, remarkably resilient. Cast in dental plaster, resin, rubber or wax, these hot-water bottles turned humanoid part-objects force us to look for subtle variations.

 

Yet the differences between the works in the show are not just located in what we see, but how we see. One work might demand we crouch down to inspect granular details, another invites us to crane our necks upwards to grapple with its towering scale, and the exhibition as a whole might ask us to take a step back to comprehend its entirety. Whiteread’s cast objects engender varying types of looking and seeing, and thus being with the work – where empty space is made visible.

 

The show runs until January 21st at Tate Britain.

 

 

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