In a sense, Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture EMBANKMENT began with an old, worn cardboard box. She found it in her mother’s house shortly after she died. Whiteread was going through her mother’s belongings when she came upon a box she remembered well. It had had many lives: it used to reside in her toy cupboard next to piles of board games, and at one point was filled with Christmas decorations. Over time its sides started to collapse, the printed logo on the outside faded, and the lid came to shine with the traces of all the Sellotape used to bind it up over the years.
Old containers of different kinds have often been the inspiration for Whiteread’s art. In 1993, she created a life-size cast of the interior of a condemned terraced house in London’s East End, a work that led to her winning the Turner Prize. In 2000, she completed the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz, featuring the cast of an entire library, with all the details of shelves and imprints of books. And in 2001, she crowned the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square with a translucent inversion of the plinth form itself. Each time, Whiteread has been drawn to spaces marked by signs of human life, be they ideas, monuments or bodies.
Although the inspiration for EMBANKMENT came from the single box she found in her mother’s house, Whiteread selected a number of differently-shaped old boxes to construct the installation for the Turbine Hall. She filled them with plaster, peeled away the exteriors and was left with perfect casts, each recording and preserving all the bumps and indentations on the inside. They are ghosts of interior spaces or, if you like, positive impressions of negative spaces. Yet Whiteread wanted to retain their quality as containers, so she had them re-fabricated in a translucent polyethylene which reveals a sense of an interior. And rather than make precious objects of them, she constructed thousands.
Around the time Whiteread began to work on this project she was preoccupied by the final scene of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in which the fabled Ark of the Covenant is stored away. After being gently lowered into a crate and the top nailed down, it is wheeled off on a trolley. As the camera pans away we see that when it takes its place it will be just one in a gargantuan warehouse full of crates filled with heaven knows what. Whiteread has spoken of wanting to make the Turbine Hall into a kind of warehouse, and this is an intriguing response to a space which was once industrial but is now a museum. For what is a museum, after all, but a storage depot for art?
Like much of Whiteread’s work, EMBANKMENT also makes reference to the legacy of American Minimalism. Artists like Donald Judd were drawn to the look of pristine, industrially fabricated cubes, and they used them to explore issues of repetition, the impersonality of mass production, and the relationship of the viewer’s body to the space occupied by objects. However, the cubes that make up Whiteread’s EMBANKMENT depart radically from these themes. Rather than impersonality, they maintain the imprints of human use; they are stacked up in both ordered and disordered piles; and whilst they encourage us to think about the space they inhabit, en masse they are also a spectacle, an unforgettable image that reveals itself slowly as the viewer approaches.
At one stage, Whiteread had considered making a single vast monumental sculpture for the Turbine Hall. Ironically, what she finally came up with is an anti-monument, a form collapsed back into a landscape. The title refers not only to its riverside location, close to the Thames Embankment, but to the nature of its construction with the piles of individual boxes forming a series of barriers.