When trying to find the site of memory in an architectural landscape, one need look no further than to personal memories of home. In his classic examination of how humans experience intimate space, Gaston Bachelard asserts that a house should be considered our first universe; a microcosm for our lives. Yet, the physicality of the everyday lives led in the domestic space does not concern Bachelard. In truth, he believes that the chief benefit of a house is that it is a protective shelter for the imagination:
Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths. Daydreaming even has a privilege of autovalorization. It derives direct pleasure from its own being. Therefore, the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling -places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling places of the past remain in us for all time.
Bachelard contends that this scheme of security for the daydream means that a house is a place where thoughts, memories, and dreams are integrated. Yet, at this moment of synthesis does memory exist solely within the human? Is it possible that fragments of memory are released into the very substance of the house? The surprising answers to these questions provoked by Bachelard's musing were proffered by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963) when she cast House in an East London neighborhood in 1993. A psychogeographical investigation of House reveals a poignant site of memory.
House, a cast of the interior of a three-story Victorian terrace house, was a complex and more ambitious project than any the artist had undertaken before. It should be made clear that House does not really depart from Whiteread's previous work in terms of style or concept. Indeed she had explored the intimate relationship between domestic space and memory for some years previous. After graduating from the Slade School of Art in the late 1980s Whiteread steadily and methodically produced casts of negative space around familiar domestic objects such as baths, beds, tables and chairs, and even the larger space of an entire room.
As ambiguous signifiers of everyday life, Whiteread's casts can be regarded as a reflection of our temporal existence. Whiteread's methods and materials play a large role in her efforts to trap evidence at the site of memory. Her signature process captures traces of time and memory associated with a unique space and upon closer inspection it is possible to see that her seemingly minimalist forms are infused with expressive significance. This is the key to answering the questions about the site of memory derived from Bachelard's thesis and it useful to consider Whiteread's process in detail.
Whiteread's close association with an innovative variation of the traditional "lost form" casting technique began with Closet (1988). Typically, casting involves duplicating an object by pouring a hardening substance such as plaster or molten metal into a mold. As part of this process, known and used since antiquity, the mold is destroyed when the cast is created, hence the name "lost form" casting. Traditionally produced in wax or plaster, the mold is made directly from the original object and is merely utilized as an inverted emissary stage between the object and the cast. The mold, therefore, is essentially a transitory object.
Whiteread's reworking of the traditional "lost form" technique is conceptually significant. It allows the artist to dispense with intermediary steps of casting and strengthens the metonymic link between the original object and the cast. The object becomes its own mold and it, rather than the "lost form," is destroyed. For example, in the making of Closet, Whiteread turned an old wooden wardrobe on its back and filled it with plaster. When the plaster had cured the wardrobe was totally destroyed as it was stripped away from the cast. In this way the "lost form" becomes the object of creation and retains the integrity and authenticity of the original object that no longer exists. In the form of a negative, the "lost form," as a solid form, recreates a space which was once void and in doing so indicates presence rather than absence. This is the element of Rachel Whiteread's investigation of space that ultimately allows us to map the site of memory. Author Neville Wakefield's eloquent comment on Whiteread's process seems to confirm this:
For the space that we are presented with is an impossible space, viewed from a position we could never assume: the space between the object and the cast, the space of release. . . Substituting the phenomenology of absence for that of presence, Whiteread's resonant voids activate not just the (minimalist) space of object-relations but also that of memory.
Wakefield points to a significant rethinking of minimalist intent in his suggestion that Whiteread's casts activate memory. The impossible space of release is the site of memory; a space that is usually intangible and ethereal but which Whiteread's process becomes solid and entombs imagination. In the process of casting, spaces once void are literally and emotionally filled with private expression. Whiteread often adds to the space of release by infusing the object with personal memory. In the case of Closet an intimate description of her own memories explains why she covered the cast with black felt:
It started from a notion of an experience I had as a child: I would sit inside wardrobes. . .that was my hiding place. I just remember the sort of delicious smell, the blackness, the very material smell of all the different fabrics or whatever was inside. . . It was a very magical place but also a very sinister place.
In other early castings Whiteread's lost forms capture memory in the space of release in a much more universal way, through an association with loss and death. In Ether (1990), Whiteread cast the underside of an old cast-iron Victorian bathtub. Small patches orange-brown on the resulting cast indicate where the plaster absorbed areas of rust from the outside of the bathtub. This iconic reference clearly signifies the passage of time and acutely illustrates Whiteread's preference for the expressive quality of certain materials: "Plaster is a dead material, but the surface is very sensitive. It picks up details - stains and cobwebs - and embalms them, leaving mummified space and a sense of silence." In Ether, Whiteread's investigation of domestic space in search of the site of memory unearths signs of ritual, the passing of time, memory and decay; aspects, one can assume, which converge at the time of death. Indeed many writers have described Whiteread's bathtub casts as modern-day sarcophagi.
Similar memorial or funerary symbolism has often been applied to Ghost (1990), a plaster cast of a parlor from a condemned, and derelict 19th-century row house in Highgate, North London. This was Whiteread's first attempt to cast a wider architectural space and it marks an important shift in scale. Akin to the rust stains on Ether, the surface of Ghost exhibited physical scars of the transitory nature of life. Here the site of memory was indicated by scratches, patterning from wallpaper, and traces of soot and ash. Considerably larger than previous casts, Ghost goes beyond the intimacy of the space of living as seen in Ether. It is perceived as an architectural structure and is strikingly reminiscent of historic funerary monuments, such as an Egyptian mastaba or a Victorian mausoleum. It would appear that Ghost assimilates the space of both states of the human body; the living and the dead. It memorializes the physical space of daily life and simultaneously references the inert space of entombment inhabited by the body after death. This intriguing symbiotic relationship between the space of the living and the dead at the site of memory can be witnessed again in Whiteread's ill-fated House.
House was Whiteread's first truly public work. Whilst previous castings had been shown in national and international exhibition venues, House was a site-specific work, created and presented in a public space in October 1993. It is believed to have played a significant role in Whiteread securing the 1993 Turner Prize, an annual award given to the "Best British Artist of the Year" by the Tate Gallery. The exposure that Whiteread received as the winning artist threw House into the spotlight of a very public debate about the very nature of art, and more specifically about the arts funding and the state of art in Britain. Many critics voiced that if a minimalist concrete cast was the best of British Art, then the country was going to the dogs and that Turner, for whom the prize was named after, would surely be turning in his grave.
In the midst of public debate in the forum of the British media, attempts were made to extend the life of House. It had originally been conceived as a temporary monument by Whiteread. The cast would stand for a month and then be demolished to be replaced by a park and, rather ironically, a heritage trail organized by the local neighborhood committee. But many admirers of the structure recognized the unique quality of House and attempted to prolong the life of the cast through government petitions. Other cities even offered to relocate House but Whiteread refused indicating that location mattered. In January 1994, with crowds and television cameras on hand, House was demolished to the sounds of cheers and jeers across the nation. The best of British had been destroyed.
The controversy that erupted over this structure demands a detailed understanding of the politics of its location and the ensuing significance of the relationship between place and memory. Whiteread's initial reasons for casting House were quite simple. She perceived the structure as political statement and a way to draw attention to the state of housing and homelessness in London and indeed the whole of Britain. Whiteread's concerns were palpable and can be contextualized in light of social demographics. In the early 1990s, surveys indicated that homelessness had risen dramatically throughout Britain, and the problem in London was especially acute. A report issued in 1992 by the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless ranked Britain as "one of the worst countries in Europe for the homeless." A timely comment on the state of homelessness in London, House was inert and impenetrable. It refused entrance to the living and instead breast-fed the dead.
Whiteread's decision to cast House at 193 Grove Road must also be construed as a comment on urban redevelopment gone awry, particularly in reference to the stunted growth of the Docklands area. Situated in East London on the edge of the River Thames, a mile from Grove Road and the site of House, Docklands was supposed to have been the grand reinvention of an historic dock area; London's most extensive redevelopment scheme since World War Two. However, over a decade after its launch, the Docklands project has still yet to reach its projected potential. This is a sorry state of affairs for the East End, an area that holds historical and cultural significance not just for London, but for the whole of Britain. As far back as the sixteenth century these London docks were the home of major international trading companies, and through the centuries, these docks witnessed the growth and decline of the British Empire.
Whiteread's memories about the city where she grew up and still lives must be recognized as strong factors that led to the conception and creation of House. Her work has often been characterized as peculiarly English and location specific. Indeed she. . . describes London as her "sketchbook" and it is the intensive dialogue with her surroundings, with the city where she lives and grew up, and with the customs andtraditions of her native country that give her art a distinctly "English" character . . .Whiteread's sculptures are the expression of a specifically English fascination witharchitecture and domestic life and an obsession with natural heritage.
Whiteread's style and her success seem to reflect a certain preoccupation with sculpture in the British art world that has been in evidence since World War II. In an examination of the "Britishness of Post-War British sculpture" Paul Overy suggests that the decline of Britain's economic and imperial power has led to a promotion of British heritage and therefore an assertion of its cultural power. For example, sculpture, such as the work of Henry Moore, when seen the international arena, is understood as a docile image of postwar colonial Britain; maternal and all embracing. In contrast, Whiteread's image of Britain is not so cosy.
When writing about the location of House in East London many writers considered this element of the relationship between sculpture and cultural heritage. The roles that nostalgia and memory play in the way the general public popularly conceived of the location of Whiteread's cast is important to bear in mind. Famous and infamous figures in British history are associated with this neighborhood. The 18th century artist, poet and philosopher, William Blake was known to have wandered through this part of the city, probably musing upon "Albion's" fate. In the late 1800s, a much more sinister character haunted these East End streets: Jack the Ripper, the notorious Whitechapel Murderer. In the 1930s, in a time of recession, dockers rioted in opposition to immigration, and took to the streets in force. During World War II, the East End was persistently bombed by Hitler's Luftwaffe, and when the blitz finally ended, the spirit of survival as seen in the character of people of the East End was regarded with national pride.
In accordance with Robert Hewison, who describes Britain as a country obsessed with its past and unable to face its future, the urban landscape surrounding House can be read as a repository of symbolic messages that were understood by a wider populace. It would appear that House was the site of memory for a nation. Its silent staying power reflected the resilient character of not just the East Ender, but of the entire Bulldog nation. According to Doreen Massey, House triggered a sense of nostalgia in the public arena because it disrupted the time and space of the present. As a site of memory that revolved around collective heritage, House was inaccessible and therefore did not allow retrieval of the past. In this respect, the cast was uncomfortably subversive. Traditionally at a site of memory buildings are retained and nostalgia is very often commodified. An American observer need only spend an afternoon at Jefferson's beloved Monticello to grasp this process. As the inverted ghost of 193 Grove Road, House the "lost form" retained the memories of the original structure and in a way became the living dead. With the destruction of the "mold" of 193 Grove Road came the haunting birth of House, the cast, emphasizing the temporality of our existence on this earth and entombing memory. Narrative features of the life of 193 Grove Road were interred in concrete as House became a monument to memory; a souvenir of daydreams inscribed with the cultural significance.
When graffiti was spray painted across this domestic monument, the question of whose memory and tradition was being activated was explicitly brought to bear. The slogan read "HOMES FOR ALL - BLACK + WHITE" and was understood as a comment on discriminatory government housing policy. Did House hold memory for generations of white East Enders, or the newer generations of African, West Indian or Asian descent? Citing Homi Bhabha and Hanif Kureishi, Doreen Massey indicates that the act of defining "British Identity" through memory is by no means an easy task. Rather, it is a much more complex issue in what are now post-colonial days in Britain.
House was potentially disputable in that it could be construed as a celebration of a mythical "white" past and continued racial hegemony. It is important to bring comtemporary context into this discussion by referring to council elections held in the area at the time House was cast:
Housing was at the centre of the battle over who was, and was not, part of the local community. It was a crucial organizing issue for the increasingly vocal racisms. The British National Party in the East End uses a mythic version of the past of the place as white, as pure English. It refers to a non-existent past "before immigration." And Bow, where House stood is, and is seen as, a relatively white enclave within that East End. It was one of the first places where the housing strategy "for Locals" was tried. The fact of the work being a house, and in this precise location, was therefore potentially highly symbolic."
Indeed it seems that Rachel Whiteread never imagined the associative relationship between place and memory could be quite so profoundly evoked by House. In the end the importance of the cast was that it offered many levels of meaning and was a reflection of the complexity of postmodern British society. Against the backdrop of an urban landscape, bound by the heritage of Imperialism and patriarchy, House went beyond being an investigation of three-dimensional space and concerns of homelessness and urban redevelopment house, or family and domesticity. It compelled a wider scrutiny of memory that surrounded ideas of national identity. As a lost form, House must surely be recognized as a place where dreams and memory were synthesized, or more specifically, a microcosm that comments on the experience of living in Britain at the end of the twentieth century. In light of all the attention garnered by House in its short life, it will be interesting to see how Rachel Whiteread's latest public monument to memory will be received. Already embroiled in controversy and public debate, Whiteread's cast of the space of an imaginary library, commissioned to memorialize the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust, is scheduled to be unveiled in Vienna in November 1999.
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