Summary

Whiteread has been using architectural structures as the basis for her sculpture since the late 1980s. In such works as Ghost 1990 (Saatchi Collection), a plaster cast of the internal space of a room, architectural space is transformed to function as a metaphor for spaces related to the human body. The use of orange coloured rubber in such works as Untitled (Floor/Ceiling) 1993 (Tate T06769) emphasises often abject bodily associations. While Ghost and other early works evoked a very particular type of English architecture and therefore a particular period in English history, Whiteread quickly shifted the focus of her casting away from the nostalgia of the imprint of the past to the contemplation of an archetype. Untitled (Room) 1993 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) was cast from a room purpose-built by the artist in her studio. Without the history of contact with people long since dead or a past gone by it operates on more formal, abstracted and depersonalised levels, such as the materialisation of space and the creation of a presence out of an emptiness. She has commented: ‘I like the notion of the work being the mould of an explosion, or maybe an “implosion”, like casting a black hole – Pompeii was the mould of an explosion ... Re-negotiating a place for an abandoned object is the reality.’ (Quoted in Art from the UK, p.159.) Whiteread’s first floor cast was made for Documenta IX in Kassel in 1992. She has subsequently made several casts based on actual or fabricated floors.

Untitled (Floor) was made from a ‘fictional floor’ constructed by the artist in her studio; the irregularities on its surface therefore result from the casting process rather than a past history of human use. Whiteread has explained that she ‘used rough floorboards to give a heightened impression of wood’ (unpublished conversation with the author, March 2003). The work consists of seven sections separated from each other by gaps representing fictitious joists. These spaces also have the impression of roughly sawn wood. Each section has been divided into twin slabs to make handling easier as the solid resin is extremely heavy. Whiteread pioneered the use of solid resin and rubber to cast on a large scale in the early 1990s. Until she began working with these materials, they had not previously been used to fill such large volumes, as they had been developed by manufacturers for making small industrial casts. She has spent several years perfecting the chemical composition of her materials in order to make them solid and durable in large-scale works.

The green colour of Untitled (Floor) is a result of the catalyst used in poured resin. Whiteread has said: ‘I am careful not to let the inside become part of the outside ... In the resin works ... I wanted to make pieces that had an inherent transparency, so that its internal as well as external structure could be revealed.’ (Quoted in Art from the UK, p.159.) The green resin of Untitled (Floor) appears dark and opaque from a distance, but light and translucent close-up, reminiscent of a large body of water such as a lake or sea. However, the sculpture’s static solidity belies the sense of weightlessness and fluidity conferred by the resin’s watery appearance. Like German-American artist Eva Hesse (1936-70) who used industrial processes and materials to create minimalist sculptures with organic associations, Whiteread has used a synthetic industrial material to create a work with Romantic and transcendent resonances. Untitled (Floor) transforms the banal structure normally encountered as the surface which supports our feet and the weight of our bodies into blocks of space for imaginary projection.

Further reading:
Rachel Whiteread: Shedding Life, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1996, reproduced pp.46-7 in colour
Art from the UK, exhibition catalogue, Sammlung Goetz, Munich 1997, pp.158-63
Gabriele Detterer, Art Recollection: Artists’ Interviews and Statements, Florence 1997, pp.261-72

Elizabeth Manchester
October 2000/March 2003