The British art scene of the early 1990s is best known for the appearance of the Young British Artists, a generation that proposed uncompromising aesthetics to dissolve the rigidness of the dominant representational canons imposed by the conservative institutions. The group was vast with many of the leading proponents becoming famous such as Damian Hirst or Tracey Emin; however, there were others associated with the group active at the time who were equally, if not even more, talented, Rachel Whiteread being one of them.
This acclaimed sculptress came to prominence for her simplistic casting method apparently influenced by the interwar Modernist legacy and Minimal art. The pupil of the renowned Phyllida Barlow and the former invigilator at the Serpentine Gallery, she gradually constructed an impeccable oeuvre that is characterized by well-articulated exploration of the domains of sculpture with a special emphasis on its utilitarian potentials and socio-political implications.
Practically at the beginning of the ninth decade of the previous century, Rachel Whiteread released her seminal work titled The House that encapsulated not only her technical skillfulness and conceptual approach, but more importantly it marked her practice as a critically driven one.
This memorable sculpture or public intervention stood silently on a street in Mile End in East London. It was presented on 25 October 1993 and demolished eighty days later, on 11 January 1994. Whiteread won the Turner Prize for The House, making her the first woman to receive this prestigious prize.
Before she made this work, Whiteread previously exhibited the sculpture Ghost, a plaster cast of few rooms of an abandoned Victorian townhouse, at the Chisenhale Gallery in 1990. The House was practically an extension of that project on a larger scale commissioned by the established foundation Artangel. The casting was conducted from August to October 1993, and since it was so heavy, The House was exhibited at the original site of the house that was located on the edge of a new public park, Wennington Green.
This piece was the continuation of the artist’s exploration of the material and form conceived with the sculpture Ghost that; it was a cast of a single room Whiteread found in a house on Archway Road in north London that resembled the house in which she grew up. The plaster was used to cast the parlor walls and ceiling in sections that were then assembled on a metal frame. Ghost debuted at the nonprofit Chisenhale Gallery, and shortly afterward it was purchased by Charles Saatchi and exhibited along with other Whiteread’s works in the collector’s Young British Art exhibition in 1992.
Throughout 1991 and 1992, Rachel Whiteread searched for the perfect site across London, and eventually, she selected a Victorian terraced house in East London for the work; Whiteread applied for a temporary lease and the local council of 193 Grove Road, in Mile End granted it.
Until the 1990s, this particular area was socially diverse, with churches from three denominations, an array of Victorian villas and terraces, high-rise blocks of flats from the 1960s and later. At that time it was under the urban redevelopment, and the local authorities decided to demolish the existing terraces to create a new park beside Grove Road and Roman Road. Nevertheless, the local Sydney Gale opposed its demolition at 193 Grove Road and continued to live in his house until he was eventually persuaded to move out.
In 1993, Whiteread took possession of the building and decided to produce a concrete cast of the inside of the house including basement, ground floor, and first floor, with stairs and bay windows, but without the roof. The artist installed new foundations to support the new concrete after internal units such as cupboards and sinks were removed, and holes in the walls and the windows sealed so that the internal surface could be sprayed with a debonding agent in three layers and reinforced with steel mesh.
Quickly after the revealing, The House became a popular attraction, with an enormous number of visitors per day. At one point a graffiti Wot (What) for was added and was followed by the reply Why not!.
The influential The Independent journalist, Andrew Graham-Dixon, described The House as "one of the most extraordinary and imaginative public sculptures created by an English artist this century." On the other hand, the chair of the local council, Eric Flounders, described the sculpture as a monstrosity, while the petition for the permanent stay of the sculpture was signed by three thousand and three hundred people; it was eventually declined by the House of Commons and House and scheduled for demolition in November 1993.
Interestingly so, the same day when the decision was announced, Whiteread won the Turner Prize, as well as the K Foundation art award for the worst British artwork of the year.
The public condemned the controversial decision comparing it with the fate of other public sculptures. The structure was fully removed within two hours on 11 January 1994. The person who operated the earthmover which destroyed the work, Joe Cullen, stated for the press that It's not art, it's a lump of concrete. The artist was present during the demolition and was determined not to express her emotion in public. No physical artifacts were left of the sculpture.
In the contemporary moment, this extraordinary piece is still powerful since it responds to a ravaging nature of gentrification, and the housing issues related to the growing class (and racial) discrepancy in British society (this problem is best illustrated by the Grenfell tower tragic events in 2017). Furthermore, House tackles the very notion of home and the privilege to have one in the context of contemporary migrations and therefore has almost a prophetic connotation.
Editors’ Tip: Rachel Whiteread: House
In 1993 Rachel Whiteread created a work of art which was hailed as one of the greatest public sculptures made by an English artist in the twentieth century. Whiteread's concrete and plaster cast of an entire house in the East End of London attracted equal measures of praise, wonder and controversy. Her monumental sculpture, on view when she won the Turner Prize, attracted some 3,000 visitors a day before it was demolished in January 1994. This book is made in collaboration with the Artangel Trust and provides a unique document of this remarkable work.
Photographs and working drawings chart House's progress from construction to demolition. Six distinguished authors contribute their responses and the book also surveys the whole spectrum of critical reaction to the work.
Featured image: Rachel Whiteread - House, 1993. Images via simonharutyunyan.files.wordpress.com, Pinterest and Dezeen. Used for illustrative purposes only.
Bristol, United Kingdom