The Port Kembla Stack fell to the ground in an unearthly groan and a crumpled heap of cement and dust yesterday. Just an icon of my disintegrating past. I was there with the throngs of people waiting and watching, as we talked to each other, I noticed they all had returned from somewhere else. They had connected their home to the stack. It made me think of Rachel Whiteread and the cast of the space inside her home before demolition.
Recently I discovered the works of Rachel Whiteread, a British sculptor/artist whose connection to home and a simple cardboard box had produced a monumental work for the Tate Gallery.
Whiteread described Embankment as “working with a broader brush”, the installation was exhibited at the Tate Modern Gallery in London United Kingdom . The work took place in the Turbine Hall, an area of 152 meters long and 35 meters high. It was a commissioned work as part of the Unilever Series installed from 11 October 2005 to 1 May 2006. More recently in 2011 Ai Wei Wei’s installation of sunflower seeds occupied the same area also part of the Unilever Series.
Whiteread’s work comprises 14,000 translucent polyethylene casts of 10 selected cardboard boxes. Upon clearing out her deceased mother’s home, she came upon a box that had undergone different uses for family objects and this became the impetus for this larger work.
The work evokes a feeling of monumentality, partly because of the scale and the space it occupies. The white translucency of the boxes feels snow-like and gives the impression of being able to wander snow-capped slopes. The cold is a stark contrast to the emotional warmth apparent when Whiteread first came across the box. The box, like so many other everyday objects, conveys a sense of familiarity from re-use and storage from nostalgic objects. The notion of the box storing Christmas decorations evokes happier childhood memories. Perhaps Whiteread’s Christmas in the northern hemisphere was snow-capped and the feelings of cold are part of that environment.
A work by Peter Robinson, Gravitas Lite 2012, in the Sydney Biennale 2012 had a similar effect being exhibited in the Turbine Hall at Cockatoo Island. In both artist’s works the shapes, in Robinson’s chains and Whiteread’s boxes, have relevance to the industrial space they inhabit but the starkness and fragility of the material also create interest in the sense they do not belong. The strong shadows cast on the light of the white boxes and the forms in the way they are stacked, appear to replicate landscape features, such as mountains or crevices, feeling more organic within the factory backdrop and further fuelling the contrast of material and space.
Embankment is also reminiscent of work by Australian contemporary artist Hany Armanious whose casts of everyday objects take on a transformative appearance. Untitled (snake oil) by Armanious impinges on the investigation of each glass’ empty shape as a negative space in the same way Whiteread initially explored the space of the box. Armanious has cast the shapes of inside glasses and then used the base as a plinth with the cast sitting on top to produce an interesting object.
In the same way, Whiteread’s work is beautiful in its simplicity.