Thursday, May 2, 2013
Final: House by Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread is a British artist of the yBas group (Young British Artists) who became famous for her work “House”, built in 1993. Her art was influenced by minimalism, and she created gallery pieces similar to “House” before its creation. She filled the empty space of rooms and sinks, but she wanted to fill in the space of an entire house. It took years to acquire a house to fill, and the location ended up being the most distinct characteristic of the piece. Whiteread did not know that “House” would become so popular, and because it became public the instant she finished it, she didn’t get the usual time in the studio to evaluate her work before presenting it to people. In order to view her work, she would have to disguise herself and park down the street. For “House”, she became the first woman to win the Turner prize.
Whiteread found a house on 193 Grove Road, Bow, East London which was part of a neighborhood that was going to be demolished to make room for a new, more elite complex. The original house dated back to the 1950’s and its Victorian style embodied the nostalgic essence of old British homes. Whiteread wanted an old house because it commented on how people demolish old homes to make modern houses, which in turn would be knocked down in 20 years. Ironically, the piece only lasted 2 ½ months, and the very same day that people voted to give Whiteread the Turner Prize, a committee voted to demolish “House”. It won a 40,000 pound prize from the K foundation for the "Worst Artist for the Year". Originally Whiteread wan't going to accept the prize, but the committee threatened to burn the money if she didn't take it. She ended up donating the money to charity for the poor and to young artists. Also ironically, the previous owner of the house detested the work.
To make “House”, Whiteread sprayed the interior of the house with plaster and concrete and then peeled away the exterior structure to create a cast of the interior space of the house. This made an archeological-like form that resembled a fossil. The piece also resembles a ready-made because its essence was an already made form.
“House” caused a lot of public controversy. People viewed the work as a symbol of the gentrification that was taking place in the area. The government was kicking out the poorer class in order to make room for a nicer neighborhood. Housing policy was a big deal at the time because recent conservative policies had contributed to homelessness, empty houses, and council houses sold to their owners, and the government encouraged owner-occupancy. People thought the government was marginalizing the working class, and “House” memorialized their traditional way of life. Additionally, some thought that the money used to make it could have been used to make houses for the poor, artists protested its demolition, and people viewed it as wasteful, ugly, unwanted, and pointless. The different viewpoints caused different actions. Because the house couldn’t go in a gallery, it remained susceptible to demolishing actions. Some people spray painted on the house, saying “Not art,” “Wot for,” and “Homes for all, Black + White”. One time some drifters approached the house with tools in order to break through the shell of “House” and re-inhabit the work. The openness of the work expanded the accessibility of modern art because not only could anyone freely view the work, but also it relocated modern art from the elite areas to a lower class area. In fact, the work achieved so much popularity that in the few months that it existed than people came from all over the world to view it, and it created a constant traffic jam. Because of its publicity and the issues it brought up, House permanently imprinted itself in the public psyche, even though it lasted a short time. Like the Eiffel tower, people did not like it. However, unlike the Eiffel tower which was also originally supposed to be temporary, “House” did not last.
"House” deals with many different subjects such as death, time, absence, filling, universality, duality, and then nature of art. One of the concepts in psychology is the human tendency to fill the space of something lost in an attempt to keep it alive. “House” embodies this concept by filling in the space of the condemned house in order to keep it alive and remembered. However, empty space “has no other function than to make life possible”, so in trying to preserve life, filling kills the life. Some of the most distinguishing features of the Victorian house used to make “House”, such as the staircases and molding, became entombed in concrete when Whiteread filled in the house. The structure paralleled a sarcophagus, illustrating how the piece both silenced and preserved the house’s domestic life. Like the pyramids of old, it did not contain life yet preserved the memory of life by creating a cast. Casts trap an object in time, parodying the object by being so like the object but also marking its absence. They trap the objects form in space as if the object still existed and solidify the space’s life and potential. They use the present to speak about the past, but in doing so they destroy the past. This illustrates the unrecoverability of the past, and “House” addressed the issues of the lost way of life and community in the demolished neighborhood. Therefore, absence is a major theme of this piece.
It is impossible to view the piece without becoming aware of the house that is now missing. In order to make the piece, Whiteread had to destroy the original object and function. “House” embodies the trace or the scar of the empty space which used to be enclosed by the residence. One could say that you used to be able to see the space, but Whiteread made it so you couldn’t. Architecture “makes space for desire”, and so by filling in the space, Whiteread nullifies any past desires in the house. She freezes its potential. People tended to act negatively to the piece because it was disconcerting to see the space turned inside out and they could not enter the solid space. The only place a person could enter is the spaces where the walls used to be, symbolizing how people provide the structure that defines the interior, nostalgic space. Through “House”, Whiteread made the safe interior space of a house into public, exterior space. She allows the private to become publically open to viewing and scrutiny, and she also visualizes alienation. Some people are very lonely in their lives and their house, and this piece makes the lonely space very available to everyone. She also allows what was once intangible to become tangible, and creates an uncanny situation in which there is something where there should be nothing. The invisible becomes visible.
The facts that a woman created “House”, that the piece addresses domesticity, and that she is making the invisible visible creates a commentary on femininity. Visibility tends to be for the male and invisibility for the female, and this shows the representation of making the female more visible. “House” addresses many other aspects of duality besides male versus female. It challenges the idea of space versus materiality, culture versus nature, sociality and solitude, dwelling versus exclusion. Additionally, the piece polarized people. In general, about half of the viewers liked the piece and the other half hated it, and the division happened within all social, economic, gender, and age groups. Just as “House” divides, it also universalizes through its reference to shelter and its simplicity. Everyone needs shelter and everyone has feelings about home, so the piece evokes universal emotions by making a general reference to all houses. People empathize with the former residence’s loss.
“House” also questions the essence of art and public monuments. It can be considered art because it takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. However, just because it is art doesn’t make it impervious to demolition. Ironically, it formed a monument to some covert subject, yet it only lasted a couple months. Usually monuments last for a long time and represent a very clear purpose, but “House” didn’t have a clear purpose. Because it didn’t have a clear meaning, it created more interest than monuments usually do. Monuments tend to become invisible, but “House” lasted its whole life as a major social focal point. Whiteread commented that "it’s a shame it didn’t get to become invisible like architecture becomes invisible. In fact, since it was demolished, it exists in the art psyche despite the fact that it only exists in memory. People flocked to it, and many different speculations swirled around it as to whether it memorialized the domestic life, the community that once existed in the neighborhood, or the actual house itself. They questioned what deserves to be memorialized.