“…Someone looks at something (detail)”

Wednesday 1 March 2006

Like every other visitor to the Tate Modern over the past few months, I took some photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment in the Turbine Hall. You can see plenty of shots on Flickr, just search for “Whiteread”. So here are my contributions: some photos of people looking at people looking at Embankment.

Whiteread is known for making casts of spaces, making otherwise invisible interiors (literally) concrete. Her most famous work, House, cast the interior of an entire terrace house, a few minutes down the road from the Bunker. Her recent, avowedly Public Artworks, such as her inverted plinth in Trafalgar Square, have taken on more of the characteristics of objects in themselves, rather than denoting the significance of the space the object now fills.
Embankment is made of thousands of casts of several old, cardboard boxes. Because the casts are obviously box-like, hollow, translucent, the boxes themselves were evidently empty. Unlike Whiteread’s previous works, these objects refute the idea of an interior life once contained by the cast’s host.
There was a maddening adequacy about the whole thing. People looking at it comment on how it fills the daunting expanse of the Turbine Hall nicely, and that’s about all it does. There are gestures of accessibility for the punters (was this part of the commissioning brief?) but these and other aspects of the installation kept reducing the work to a disappointing level of domesticity, incommensurate with its ambitious dimensions.

At first it’s nice that you can walk amongst it, but then you realise it’s killing the mystery. It feels like a timid sop to populism, like the way that tourists visiting the Big Pineapple (or Uluru for that matter) are granted the opportunity to climb to the top. Part of House‘s impact was that it was impossible to enter: her earlier works were spaces with no insides.

The numerous punters wandering among the piles became part of the work as much as the boxes; the observation deck in the Turbine Hall overlooking the installation encourages this. The groups of people wandering around, apparently in search of something amongst the stacks and piles, looked for all the world like shoppers, and when I walked through it I felt like a shopper. The installation is at the end of the hall, so there can be no through traffic of pedestrians.
The arrangement of boxes – some in neat stacks, others in vast piles – felt decorative, being neither a random dump nor an obsessively regimented collection, so no mood was particularly evoked. It felt like some aesthetic effect was attempted, which was disappointing compared to the inadvertent, disinterested forms of a potential object created without intention, produced by Whiteread’s previous working methods.
Of course, it is forbidden to climb the boxes. Could you sneak off with one? Has anyone tried? Like any major, sort-of-public exhibit these days, there has been much pi-jaw about all the plastic in the boxes being biodegradeable and recycled; but I would preferred another type of degredation to have occurred, with the stock of boxes steadily depleted during the exhibition by people walking off with them. Rather like House, it could be another one of her works laid low by the people’s will.