A few hours before I entered the Rachel Whiteread retrospective at the Tate Britain, I had been listening to a podcast on musical greats who had died in 2017. Reflections on the death and significance of AC/DC’s rhythm guitarist and songwriter, Malcolm Young, perhaps prompted my first thought as I entered the exhibition. Surveying the array of casts of the negative spaces created by various objects and locations, I couldn’t help being reminded of Malcolm’s brother, Angus’ witticism to a New York Daily News music writer: “I’m sick of people saying that we put out 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve put out 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” The contemporary moment rewards the capacity to mine a single idea to levels of refinement and sophistication that even the authors of deathless rock classics like “Hell’s Bells”, “Highway to Hell”, and “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” would admire, and, with increasing frequency, Rachel Whiteread’s oeuvre is being queried for its similar single-mindedness. Something like the Captain Ahab of resin, Rachel Whiteread is not afraid to dig deeper into the same ground she’s ploughed for the more than two decades since she became the first woman to win the Turner Prize. Coupled with another large scale work, “Untitled (100 Spaces)”, resin casts of the space around 100 chairs, which is positioned directly outside the doors of the retrospective, the viewer is forced to ask whether this consistent probing of a single fundamental concern functions more like the meditative intoning of the syllable “om”, where repetition clears the mind and creates space for deeper insights into the divine or into the self, or if it is simply reflective of an unwillingness to step outside of one’s artistic comfort zone and challenge oneself.
I would say that I began walking through the exhibition with an inclination to the former interpretation. Whiteread’s consistent aesthetic approach makes interesting demands of the viewer. For example, standing before “Untitled (Book Corridors)” (1997-1998), ghostly white casts of library shelving, the viewer is both permitted and, to a certain extent, forced to attempt to reconstruct the objects around which the work was formed. In the current age of proud aliteracy on the part of global leaders – one can imagine a very proximal world in which the boast of the fictional British TV character, Garth Marenghi, “I’m one of the few people who has written more books than he’s read,” could be uttered by a politician to subsequently improved poll numbers, the shelves stand as a kind of monument, even perhaps a memorial, for a culture that has devalued considered and consistent forms of argument, and indeed, objecthood itself. Such a work, however, seems somewhat at odds with the casts of mattresses or hot water bottles that also appear in the show. Beyond a rather immediate hit of recognition, and a kind of wistful displacement of material identity, these works, presented as something like a variation on Daniel Spoerri’s conception of the multiple, lose a considerable degree of their power. They feel much more like the work of an artist who has discovered something “works”, and, thus, returns to the metaphorical well until it is past exhaustion, only to then make a cast of the empty well and present it at the Gagosian Gallery. Historically significant works like “Room 101” (2003) retain their otherworldliness, and more modest works like the pastel casts of toilet paper rolls in “Line Up” (2007-2008) offer less of the self-aware stateliness than what has come to be associated with Whiteread’s aesthetic. Taken complete with “Untitled (100 Spaces)”, the retrospective left me with the somewhat ironic sense that Whiteread’s works feel most like the work of one of the UK’s most important artists when they appear least conscious of that fact.