Untitled (Rooms) is a very large, free-standing sculpture made up of many parts bolted together. It is an internal cast of a group of three parallel rectangular rooms, a long narrow corridor and a small chamber which together made up an apartment within a larger building. The artist cast the inside of the rooms in sections, using a durable polymer reinforced plaster, known as Jesmonite, combined with layers of fibreglass matting, painted directly onto the surfaces of the walls and ceilings. Once released, individual casts were marked and holes were drilled in their edges in order to facilitate assembly as a whole. The casts are approximately 80mm thick. Although the assembled sculpture has the appearance of a solid block, it is in fact a shell.
The apartment from which Untitled (Rooms) is derived is one of two Whiteread found in a building she and her partner purchased as a home and studio in 1999. Located in Bethnal Green, London E2, the building had been reconstructed in the 1950s after bomb damage in the Second World War. Originally a synagogue, as the Jewish population in the area diminished it fell out of use and was taken over by a textile company for warehouse storage. The two apartments on the first floor were purpose built to house the Rabbi and the synagogue caretaker. Whiteread began casting the spaces in her new home in response to a commission by the Guggenheim Museum, which invited her to make works for an exhibition touring its Berlin, Bilbao and New York venues. Although initially thinking about relating the architecture of the different buildings, she decided to bring her own architecture to the spaces instead. She cast both apartments, Untitled (Apartment) 2000 (Guggenheim Museum) and Untitled (Rooms), three separate flights of stairs: Untitled (Basement) 2000 (Guggenheim Museum), Untitled (Stairs) 2001 (Tate T07939) and Untitled (Upstairs) 2001 (private collection, courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery, London), and the synagogue floor Untitled (Cast Iron Floor) 2001 (private collection). In this way she preserved the building in the state in which she had found it, before altering it to suit her own needs. She commented:
It’s almost like taking photographs or making prints of the space. If those parts of the building don’t exist later, I’ll still have ... this archive of the space ... I’m interested in the layering in buildings, and the traces that are left behind by the change of use of places. My work is really about the strange kind of architecture that cropped up during the post-war years.
(Quoted in Transient Spaces, p.48.)
Whiteread’s work has focused primarily on the processes of casting the negative space around objects, or their inside spaces, using materials such as rubber, resin and plaster. Following the principles of Minimalism in her reduction and abstraction of forms, Whiteread uses archetypal everyday objects, such as tables, chairs, baths and beds, creating sculptures that retain the traces and resonance of human presence. She began making architecturally-scaled works in 1990 with Ghost (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), the cast of a room in a Victorian house in North London. For Untitled (Room) 1993 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), she constructed a room specifically in order to cast it. House 1993 (now destroyed) was the internal cast of an entire terraced house in East London. With Ghost Whiteread had intended to ‘mummify the air in a room’ but on putting it all together, she discovered that she had ‘become the wall’ (quoted in Transient Spaces, p.52). In House she was obliged to leave the internal walls and floors intact for structural reasons but in Untitled (Rooms), as in Untitled (Apartment), the walls have been translated into narrow channels between the block like rooms in which the viewer may glimpse the imprint of the light fittings and ventilation panels. The artist used a blank release agent ensuring that stains on the walls from cigarette smoke or external pollution would not transfer onto the casts. As a result the sculpture appears a pristine white geometric abstraction, a formal composition in imprinted architectural detail.
Rachel Whiteread: Transient Spaces, exhibition catalogue, Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin 2001
Charlotte Mullins, Rachel Whiteread, London 2004, p.104
Judith Nesbitt and Jonathan Watkins, Days Like These, exhibition catalogue, Tate London 2003, pp.144-9, reproduced pp.145-8 in colour