22 November 2013 - 16 February 2014.

The british artist Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963) is presented in the Vigeland Museum with the sculpture Ether (1990).

The work of art belongs to the Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo.

Exhibited in room 7.

Rachel Whiteread

Written by Elin-Therese Aarseth

As the first female winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993, British artist Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963) has positioned herself as a significant artist within the contemporary art scene. In this room the Vigeland Museum presents Ether (1990) – one of Whiteread’s most prominent works from her early period.

Ether is a plaster cast of the otherwise intangible space around a Victorian bathtub. The making of the sculpture starts with the bathtub, but ends with the traces of it. Rather than displaying the object itself, Whiteread materializes the void around it, making a point of mummifying the air surrounding the bathtub. This way of drawing attention to what is usually not seen is typical of Whiteread’s oeuvre.

Whiteread uses everyday objects such as tables, chairs and wardrobes to explore their so-called negative space. Her first exhibited work was Closet (1988), a plaster cast simply of the inside of a closet. However, it was with the monumental outdoor-sculpture House (1993) that Whiteread’s art literally reached the public eye. House was Whiteread’s first site-specific work – representing the interior of a house at London’s East End. For this, Whiteread was announced both the best and the worst sculptor in Great Britain. Casted in concrete, House could indeed resist hardships, but was actually demolished (this being the artist’s wish and intension) the same year that it was made. Despite its short presence, the sculpture also sparked a debate about what art is and should be, eventually also including social demographic topics, such as poverty, homelessness and class distinction. House, with its uninviting and unavailable form, might serve as a comment to a capitol that in the beginning of the 1990s experienced a serious growth in the number of homeless people. A statement written on one side of the cast demonstrated that the issue of race was also present in the debate: HOMES FOR ALL, BLACK + WHITE

Clearly, Whiteread shares some aesthetic strategies with the Minimalism of the 1960s. However, this only accounts for the formal qualities. As opposed to the minimalists, Whiteread’s artworks offer a range of possibilities in how they can be interpreted. Artists like Donald Judd (1920-1994) and Dan Flavin (1933-1996) were concerned with reducing metaphorical readings of art. This was reflected in their choice of materials, like steel and iron in Judd’s case, or like fluorescent lights in Flavin’s. The materials have in common that they are industrially made, thus removing the artists touch from the artwork, aiming to strip it from emotional qualities.
Rachel Whiteread does not seek this detachment. Ether might seem mute, simple and trivial, and indeed minimalistic in form. But despite this, Whiteread’s art involves an emotional and deeply human element that occurs in the meeting with the spectator. By defining and capturing the negative space of objects, Whiteread invites the audience to construct visions and thoughts about what is not visible. She is creating an interaction between what we see and what we know. By following the shape that the cast creates, one can picture this old Victorian bathtub that no longer exists. In this way, the sculpture, and the stories it may contain, comes to life.

Whiteread has in her later years been assigned to several public art projects, in 2010 also in Norway.  The Gran Boathouse in Røykenvik, Hadeland, is a monumental concrete cast of the inside of a boathouse. Deserted boathouses that barely stand is a known sight for many, but by ”mummifying the air inside it”, as Whiteread puts is, it eternalizes. The discussion about the artists’ works of art often deals with topics like loss and lack of something, but also about memories and the way we preserve things in our minds. A dualism, and at the same time interaction, between negative and positive elements is typical; an absence is always present in Whiteread’s art.

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