Tate Modern

Rachel Whiteread has described her artistic motivation as being to communicate through the language of sculpture, her vocabulary becoming more sophisticated as her work evolves.

Whiteread tends to cast the space around or within domestic objects, using the lost form process in which the original object is destroyed by the very act of its immortalisation, prompting the artist to call her works death masks.

Whiteread describes the first cast she made, of a spoon, as the beginning of a fascination with the process which preserves the essence of an object while simultaneously destroying its physical presence, as she described, the spoon was gone but she had captured the ‘spooness of the spoon’.

This morbid compulsion instills in her work a sense of loss and melancholy. Her main choice of domestic objects adds an existential layer of meaning as the presence of those objects implies that there is, or was, an associated human presence. As Satre wrote, ‘my body is everywhere, the bomb which destroys my house also destroys my body in so far as my house was already an indication of my body’. Whiteread’s ambitious project to cast the interior of an entire house was completed in 1994. Despite being popular with residents and critics at the time, ‘House’ was bulldozed after only three months. The destruction of the piece added another dimension to its ephemeral nature.

Another of Whiteread’s most documented works is ‘Ghost’, 1990: the cast of a living room in plaster. ‘Ghost’ stands silent and white, all the features of the original room inverted and useless, the ashes from the last fire are still evident in the grate. It is a memorial to domestic existence and a particular lifestyle extinguished.

As our possessions provide evidence of our existence, so our lives could be inventoried from what we leave behind. From the ancient Pharaohs entombed with their valuables, to modern day capitalism we sense that the validity of our existence is proven by our earthly acquisitions.

‘Embankment’, the latest installation in Tate’s vast turbine hall eloquently and subtly continues Whiteread’s sculptural conversation with the issues of mortal existence. Again her inversion of the physical creates a remarkable sculptural object, the aesthetic detail of the everyday being brought to our attention. The work is at once serene, pure white and exhilarating. But Whiteread’s decision to cast the interior of boxes has meaning beyond the aesthetic. Each box is manageable, a space in which to store things we own. As we pass through life we tend to acquire more and more of these and take them with us as we pass from place to place. When 14,000 box casts are stacked they become an intimidating mass that, sculpturally, works well in the Cathedral-like space at Tate Modern but also makes physical the emptiness of a life spent in acquisition

Assistant Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. PhD in contemporary art and audiences.