Whiteread cast parts of her body during her student days at Brighton Polytechnic and at the Slade School of Art in London in the mid 1980s. In 1988, driven by ‘an autobiographical impulse, using something familiar, to do with my childhood’ (Whiteread quoted in Rachel Whiteread 1992, p.8), she cast the inside of a wardrobe as a dense, solid form, which she then covered in black felt. This work is titled Closet
(collection the artist). For Whiteread, giving tangible form to the internal space of the wardrobe was connected with ‘an idea of comfort, of something representing security’ (Whiteread quoted in Rachel Whiteread 1992, p.8). At the same time the dark, block-like nature of the piece evokes death and entombment. These two themes – the comfort derived from humble objects of intimate daily ritual, together with the more troubling aspects of bodily absence and death – coexist in almost all of her subsequent work, which has involved casting the spaces underneath beds, around baths and sinks, as well as a range of mattresses and mortuary slabs.
Untitled (Air Bed II) was made in London. It is unusual in that it reproduces the positive rather than the negative form of the original. In the first version of the work, Air Bed, RW50 1992 (private collection, Los Angeles), the inflated air pockets of the air bed appear as concave indentations. To make it, Whiteread built walls around the air bed and cast its convoluted surface. These walls have been used, in the second casting stage which produced the second version, as the sides of a new hybrid form resembling a mattress. The form of the air bed’s air-inflated strips now suggests regularly coiled intestines. In contradiction, the geometric walls around this organically undulating surface evoke notions of industrial containment, sectioning and reproduction. The beige rubber, in which the work has been cast, is a material traditional to manufacturing rather than sculptural processes and is reminiscent of (dead) flesh. Through its mixture of organic and inorganic elements, the sculpture thus opens up an ambiguous territory where inside and outside coexist.
Furniture is designed for and exists in close relation to the human body; in our daily life we are dependent on it and leave the traces of our physical presence on it. Whiteread’s casts of the negative spaces around furniture, which through her processes become new forms, resonant of but not reproducing the original object, serve to defamiliarise the familiar and to represent it as a memory. This memory is not so much of the object itself, or even other similar objects, but of the human presences and contacts with that object which have now disappeared. Whiteread has said: ‘I always use secondhand things, because there’s a history to them. The mattresses are always stained ... The smell of people, just everyday living.’ (Quoted in Rachel Whiteread 1992, p.13.) Through their universality (in terms of functionality) they tap into each individual’s memory or experience in relation to similar objects in their own lives.
Rachel Whiteread, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1992, reproduced p.28
Rachel Whiteread, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Basel, Basel 1994, pp.12-13, reproduced (col.) p.47