As there are signs of emerging from lockdown Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) resonates with our experience in isolation. House is the sheltered space we have been living in for weeks during this global pandemic, where we have become disconnected from the world.
House was a concrete cast of the insides of a late Victorian house, part of a war-damaged terrace that had been deemed unsafe and the council was demolishing. When House was revealed, it was surrounded by controversy. The piece was shockingly new: a brutal concrete construction of an inside-out house. Public opinion was ferocious. Some hated it. Others loved it. Things came to a head on the evening of the 23rd of November. Inside the Tate Gallery, Rachel Whiteread was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize in a grand ceremony while outside the K organisation were gathering to present her with £40,000 (twice the value of the Turner Prize) for being the worst artist. On the same day, the Council rejected the proposal to keep House. House was demolished twelve weeks after it was first unveiled. Usually, art has the chance to age, for its newness to fade and its poetry to speak to generations to come.
A sense of loss always lingered over House. Like a fossil, the concrete cast revealed a house that no longer existed. A sense of loss can heighten an experience. We pay attention to things we’d ordinarily ignore.
House touches something primal- a need for shelter. Rachel Whiteread is open that her interest in internal spaces came from reading French theorist Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard extols: “The virtues of the shelter [which] are so simple, so deep-rooted in our unconscious.”. Out of the surface of House protrude those essential components of a shelter: the fireplaces that offer warmth, the windows that bring light in, and the doors that release us and let us back in. The intimate space where we work, sleep, bring up our families is given significance. The artist found poetry in the ordinary. And we’re drawn to the irregular features like the staining on the walls: traces of where the wallpaper hung in the original house, and the higgledy-piggledy spaces of the outhouses at the back which conjure the odd spaces we inhabit and relish from our childhood homes.
Bachelard is effusive about the home as a place “for cheer and intimacy”. He argues: “the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space.” The meaning of House is open. And this openness is unusual and sets Rachel Whiteread’s work apart. Artists exploring the theme of the home tend to ascribe particular values or emotions- that may be the homely cheeriness Bachelard talks of, or in the case of contemporary artists Louise Bourgeois and Mona Hatoum, who have subverted tradition, a state of oppression. Resisting a fixed meaning, House could change. It could look monumental as it does in the first photo. But equally, it could seem diminutive.
One feels a vulnerability more realising that House had no exterior walls. Rather like King Lear when he takes off his clothes and stands naked, removing the walls- the outer fabric- is exposing, but it also serves to reveal something precious: an authentic, inner world. Rachel Whiteread, talking about the earlier work Ghost (a plaster cast of an entire living room) describes a moment when she walked into her studio and saw the light strike Ghost and realised that “I am the wall.” Imagining herself as the wall, she wrapped a protective layer back around the intimate space.
The stripped-back Minimalist aesthetic of House has the simplicity of a child’s block house, delivering the concept of the house but allowing us to dream and bring our own experiences to it. Today, our perception of House might be coloured by our experience in lockdown and fluctuate between seeing it as a safe haven and it being the cell of isolation we want to escape from. In the future, people will find different things. What’s sad is that its poetry is only there in photographs and video footage. We should have found a way of protecting House.