Rachel Whiteread, Tree of Life, 2012
The poetic, defiant and challenging spatial inversions that form Rachel Whiteread's sculptures have been given a lasting presence at London's Whitechapel Gallery, in her first permanent commission in Britain. Supported by the Art Fund, with the backing of the London 2012 Festival, Whiteread was invited to produce a frieze to adorn the gallery's original façade. An east London cultural landmark, the Whitechapel is a grade II Arts and Crafts building, designed by Charles Harrison Townsend in 1901.
It is not unreasonable to think that an artist so preoccupied with the mummification of space would so readily be drawn to the resolute, vertical plain of a wall as platform for display. Whiteread's work often, in fact, firmly positions the viewer as the wall; through inverting and solidifying space the artist's work forces a new relationship between object, material and mass.
Rachel Whiteread, Tree of Life (detail), 2012
Unveiled to the public last month, Whiteread's frieze has principally drawn its formal inspiration from the Tree of Life motif present in the original façade in terracotta. Exaggerated gold leaf replicas are scattered across the surface, as if suddenly roused from the roadside by a gust of wind. At the centre are four terracotta inverted casts of the original windows on the lower levels (the part most quintessentially Whiteread). The original plans for the building reveal that the upper section of the façade (a blank rectangular space) was to showcase a frieze embodying the Whitechapel's public message: to bring great art to the people of London. It has taken over one hundred years for this plan to be realized.
Whiteread's Tree of Life does not try to seize your attention; it is quietly seductive, delicate, and beautiful. It has immediacy, an unapologetic energy and lightness of touch. And it points beyond the façade as a mere surface of entrance or support. In an area in the midst of seemingly endless transition, Whiteread encourages a moment of silence, a chance to look up and away from the matt grey flux of the street below, to be swept into an instant of shimmering light.
The layers of history and culture that make up the dynamism and diversity of London are hinted at here. The work evokes a secular altarpiece, a playful yet serious celebration of surface. It absorbs your gaze and provides a platform for contemplation. Wistful, delicate, and subtle, Whiteread's atypical latest commission is another example of the profound in her work. In the artist's words: it is a "quiet gift to the East-end".
Whitechapel Gallery: http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/
Rachel Whiteread: Tree of Life continues indefinitely.
Stephanie Hesz is a graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specialized in art museum history and theory, contemporary public art, and memorials. She has worked and lectured at a number of art institutions including The Royal Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, and MoMA, New York. Currently living in London, she works as an art history educator and writer. She is Akimblog's UK correspondent.
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