Today, on Rachel Whiteread's Birthday, we thought we'd take a look at a slightly more unusual aspect of her career - the negative feedback - and the aplomb with which she faced it.
“All the bloody meetings. I would start stamping my feet because you can't make a good public sculpture from meetings.”
Rachel Whiteread has had her fair share of both good and not-so-good responses. The first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, she also ‘won’ the K Foundation art award for “worst artist of the year” for the same piece. Her most well-known works include House, Untitled Monument, and Vienna’s Holocaust Memorial. The pieces are casts and molds of the negative space around objects, capturing “the residue of years and years of use.” She began by casting the space around bottles and underneath chairs, and has since moved onto capturing the image of full rooms and houses. As The Guardian puts it, she is “an artist who explores the ghostly gaps between objects and conjures an absence into a substance.”
Even with her acclaim though, she’s had to encounter (and sometimes fend off) less-than-stellar reviews, and the plethora of opinions her pieces have inspired is amazing to see. Even a single piece can be seen with so many views, such as Whiteread’s 2005 Embankment being called both “a work as rich and subtle as it is spectacular” and “another example of meritless gigantism that could be anywhere.” Looking into her history and responses to her criticism is both uplifting and inspiring in an age when the internet makes it all too easy to receive all manner of feedback.
This was the piece which awarded Whiteread the 1993 Turner Prize, a cast of an entire North London Victorian terrace house set to be demolished. Displayed at the original site of the home, the monumental piece was created by pumping liquid concrete into the house and then stripping off the exterior. What remained was a building-blocks impression of the interior rooms and windows.
Those hoping to go see the piece though would be left disappointed. Just three months later, as soon as its council-approved period expired, it was demolished by Tower Hamlets London Borough Council to both yays and nays. Though it received the Turner Prize, it was also ‘awarded’ the K Foundation art award for “worst artist of the year.” In response, Whiteread said “Everyone can have a say, but not everyone's an expert, not everyone's an art critic. It's become far too easy to have a pop at modern art.”
Untitled Monument (2001)
Also known as Plinth or Inverted Plinth, this piece was erected in Trafalgar Square on the empty Fourth Plinth. The piece itself was actually a resin cast of the plinth itself, placed upside down to create a mirror image of the object below. It is thought to be the biggest object made out of resin, and as Whiteread said: “a 'pause': a quiet moment for the space.” Though there was much praise, some censure came from those protesting post-modern art, disliking the move from traditional art to the exploration of space.
Nameless Library (2000)
Erected in Judenplatz, Vienna as a Holocaust memorial, the piece was constructed on the excavation grounds of the city’s oldest synagogue. The stark and harrowing sculpture is specific to the site and stands above the foundations of the previous building which can still be visited. The monument is comprised of casted cement books, placed with their spines in and alluding to the lives and accompanying stories lost with Austria’s 65,000 Jews who perished. In the artist’s own words, it was to “invert people's perception of the world and to reveal the unexpected.”
There was a great deal of criticism of the placement of the piece, many citizens feeling the area should stand testament to itself, or else worrying of the effect on parking space. City officials even suggested the sculpture be moved, but Whiteread stood firm. Of the long process and argument around the piece, Whiteread said: “you can't make a good piece of public art by consensus; it's just not possible. So I really had to stick my heels in.”
With the rise of the internet and evolution of the Global Village, both inspiration and critics have become accessible right at our fingertips. It can be difficult to balance accepting feedback and keeping to your vision, and it is comforting to know that even a renowned artist like Whiteread goes through the same.