Rachel Whiteread began working in London during the mid-1980s when she was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art. For the past fifteen years she has pursued and developed various approaches to casting as both a process and a vehicle for content. Working initially in wax and plaster, then later in resin, Whiteread created uncanny replicas of ordinary objects, parts of the body, and eventually, empty space.
In its scale and ambition, Ghost is her breakthrough piece and, by far, her best-known work. Approximately nine feet wide, eleven and one-half feet high, and ten feet deep, Ghost is a negative plaster cast of the space of an entire parlor in a modest Victorian townhouse. Intending to "mummify" air, Whiteread worked in an abandoned building at 486 Archway Road, North London. She first stripped the room down to its bare architectural décor, and then, using compositional proportions derived from Renaissance paintings by Piero della Francesco, gridded each wall into units that could be handled easily. Over a period of three months, Whiteread then covered the interior walls with multiple plaster molds, each about five inches thick. When the plaster dried, she peeled the molds from the walls and reassembled them on a steel frame. The result is a spectral monument: a structure composed from a void in which the architectural elements defining that space -- windows, doors, a door handle, soot-streaked fireplace, tile grids, moldings, light switch -- all appear in reverse.
The tomblike appearance of the aptly named Ghost emanates stillness and quiet, a mood reinforced by the unassertive pallor of the plaster. Fixed in time and isolated from its conventional cycle of use, Ghost triggers memories of something familiar that has suddenly become strange -- a once lively domestic space frozen in rigor mortis. The association of Ghost with death and loss is reinforced by the artist's reference to her experience on the grounds crew at Highgate Cemetery. Fascinated by the moldering graves and crypts, she found herself compelled to peer through the cracks. Viewers find themselves doing the same thing as they walk around Ghost, translating its cavities into protrusions and vice versa. In so doing, details -- the smooth black hole of the door handle or the circular depression of the light switch -- that normally would be overlooked become unexpectedly prominent. Even if the volume of the room is physically clear, it is, as one critic noted, "psychologically impossible" to comprehend, for Ghost places viewers inside and outside the parlor at the same time. We are on the outside, locked out as we gaze at interior walls. Simultaneously, we are on the inside, unable to escape, and it is the tension between exclusion and entrapment, between absence and presence that makes the sculpture at once alienating and compelling.
The poetry and power of Ghost derives from the unexpected emotional, psychological charge elicited by this minimal form. Neither abstract nor representational, Whiteread's sculpture references numerous art historical themes: the history of memorial architecture and symbolic space; the history and temporal implications of plaster as a medium that preserves an original; and the extension of minimal and conceptual art at the end of the twentieth century. Ghost has already been acknowledged as a new "classic," one that resonates deeply with the history of Western art and architecture, and Whiteread is now recognized as one of the most important artists of her generation.
Marks and Labels
- Rachel Whiteread. Ghost, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 1990, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Rachel Whiteread, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, 1991.
- Rachel Whiteread, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1992-1993, repro.
- Young British Artists. John Greenwood, Damien Hirst, Alex Landrum, Langlands & Bell, Rachel Whiteread. The Saatchi Collection, London, 1992, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Passagearbeten. Passageworks, Rooseum Centre for Contemporary Art, Malmö, Sweden, 1993.
- Rachel Whiteread, Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1997, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London; Neue Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 1997-1998, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Between Cinema and a Hard Place, Tate Modern, London, 2000, no. 22, repro.
- Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Les Abattoirs, Toulouse, 2002-2003, pl. 211.
- Gagosian Gallery, London, 2004.