Whiteread's Engaging Spaces

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Review of Rachel Whiteread Exhibition

I met a friend outside the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Edinburgh's Gallery of Modern Art who said he had come out with a feeling of disappointment. In a strange way, it struck me that perhaps that was quite an appropriate response. After all, Whiteread's extraordinary sculptures are all about absence and departure. So it's logical to feel a sort of nostalgia when you look at her work
Like many people, I had always associated Whiteread with her monumental pieces - the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, the ghostly House which stood in east London for a while, the empty vessel on the plinth in Trafalgar Square. The exhibition, by contrast, is mostly domestic, even intimate - which is an odd word to use about the heavy concrete and rubber pieces she makes. The first couple of rooms contain rubber casts that look like beds and mattresses. Two of them are curved in different directions. They sit in isolation in open white rooms. But if you look closely there are marks and grooves, carefully preserved. You know that someone was lying there, recently perhaps - but there's no real indication of how long these things have stood in suspended animation in these echoing rooms. It feels uncomfortable - half the story seems to be missing or lost, the spacious room somehow abandoned or emptied, leaving behind only this remnant of another life. It leaves you with that feeling of disappointment, as if you had come just a little too late to understand.

Four holes in each corner of one mattress are mysterious at first, until you realise that this is the space under the bed - emptiness cast as a solid mass. It's a device that Whiteread often uses. Her Black Bath is a cast of the inside of a bath and the space around it - the bath itself is marked by a gap between the two components of the piece. In that way familiar things seem upside down, strange and eerie. There are a table and chair - or rather there is the absence of a table and chair, the spaces under and around it solidly represented in a semi-transparent resin. And Yellow Leaf, a dining table made in the same way but with this one remaining piece of the other side, the real table, which has somehow held on in the transition from the solid to the empty.

On one wall of the gallery were Twenty Four Switches - some on, some off. At first it wasn't clear whether these were part of the gallery's electrical system or another work. But the effect was bizarre. Were you in the room or on the other side, locked in negative space, while someone else on the other side of the wall was actually switching real lights on and off? Most powerful of all for me, and the bridge to those other, monumental works, were the two shelves of books - one in black, one with gashes of colour. Yet they too were records of what used to be there, shadows of real volumes now disappeared. It's hard not to feel cheated - or at the very least bereft of all the things you might have learned from those books, if they hadn't been removed by some malign hand. These two pieces were made while Whiteread was preparing her Holocaust Monument in Vienna. This solid concrete block sits brutally in an elegant bourgeois square. Its walls are casts of books - but the spines are facing inwards, locked inside this concrete library to which none of us has access. That's the barbarism, the dehumanisation, the monument commemorates.

House, like Ghost,was also a kind of cruel trick. A home turned inside out, 'transformed into a kind of fossil' (as the catalogue puts it), so that all the life, movement and dynamic of the lives lived there were somehow arrested and frozen. In the exhibition these huge casts are echoed in the piece called Upstairs - two sets of stairs at an angle to each other. They sit like the debris of some contemporary Pompeii, just like the stairways of Esher's famous visual trickery where going up becomes a descent and vice versa, and no journey ever leads anywhere.

John Molyneux, writing about Whiteread three years ago, described these pieces as 'poignant'. It seems a curiously delicate word to use about these solid, worn blocks. Yet it is precisely what you feel when you emerge from those rooms, with their remnants of other lives that force you into your own memory to make sense of these lonely, abandoned things, and translate the anonymous marks and scratches on every surface as messages from some other time. This is great art that will not allow you simply to watch. It forces you to tell your story and refill the empty spaces.