Originally published on December 12, 2008
Rachel Whiteread, who lives and works in London, has created a new politically charged piece titled Place (Village) on view now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In an interview, she explained “she has been making the same work since college, which involves working with objects and histories and time.” In this exhibit, she deviates from using her stock materials such as polyurethane, resins, plaster and rubber, but still creates the perception of something that is no longer vital but was once connected with human life.
Rachel Whiteread was born in London in 1963. She studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic (1982-85) and sculpture at the Slade School of Art, University College, London (1985-87). Whiteread’s first solo exhibition was held at the Carlyle Gallery, London, in 1988, the year after she graduated. The first monumental sculpture that brought her recognition was Ghost (1990), a plaster cast of the interior space of an ordinary room, shown at the Chisenhale Gallery, London. She was the first woman to win the Turner Prize and is widely known for her public monuments, including Water Tower (1998) in New York and Holocaust Memorial (1995/2000) in Vienna.
Instead of creating a single structure, Whiteread gives viewers an entire village containing over two-hundred vintage dollhouses lit from within and arranged on their shipping crates. The dollhouses are empty and are stacked on one another in a darkened room. Their only inhabitants are the tiny bulbs that produce a soft, amber light. That the gallery isn’t lit contributes to Whiteread’s intention for the piece to be “poetic and dark” and for viewers “to experience it in a different way.” The variety of architecture represented in the installation ranges from Georgian mansions to Tudor cottages to Modernist fortresses. Some of the houses are handmade, others manufactured. All were acquired secondhand in antique shops or online over the last two decades.
Entering the gallery reminds one of a romanticized cityscape at night worthy of a Thomas Kinkade painting; houses arranged as if on hillsides, warmly lit from inside. The comparison to Kinkade seems apt. There is a sort of high kitsch aesthetic at work that functions to create a surrealistic environment that, unlike a Kinkade, is full of irony. The houses are pilled up near the margins of the room creating what amounts to three discrete islands and a channel in-between, allowing viewers to walk to through the installation. The shiny concrete floor that the houses sit above resembles water in which a mirror image of the village reflects. However, any suggestion of nature or resemblance to landscape quickly disappears on closer inspection. Instead, the houses are presented in an almost casual way as if to say this is not about illusion. It appears to be a town without the context of location, simultaneously narrowing its conceptual focus and widening its range of interpretation. In addition, the installation is conspicuously temporary. The houses are displayed on their shipping crates giving the impression that they were just plunked down in the room and could be packed up and moved just as easily. Nothing is allowed to distract from the fact that what one is looking at are toys, formally part of some anonymous child’s fantasy world. Perhaps there is some kind of psychological weight inherent in these structures as a result of their history. But the tone of the Place (Village) denies it. Instead, what is implied is a sense of impermanence. The city is all facade. Viewers do not belong to this environment. There is no place for them. The overall feeling evoked by the piece is one of alienation and dislocation. There is nothing human in the cityscape in spite of the promise made by the glowing interiors. The houses are inhospitable to the imagination because they lack the familiar objects of daily life.
Some houses face the wall, making their interiors easily visible, while other houses face outward forcing you to look in through the windows. As I peered into each house, hoping to find some kind of life, all that I found was empty rooms. The way Whiteread has set up this installation, I feel like a peeping tom, looking through windows at night hoping to obtain gratification by observing others secretly. But after peering into over fifty houses, I was disappointed to find nothing but empty homes and began my search with more determination to find evidence of life. Many of the houses are unreachable – due to their distance from the ground, they are removed and their privacy is physical. The gallery’s security guards probably would not appreciate a guest climbing on the crates to see if Whiteread has hidden something exciting in a house.
Architecture has always included an element of anthropomorphism. Human beings like to see themselves in what they build. A home’s facade is a face complete with eyes and a mouth. Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village) certainly taps into this phenomenon in what might be the real surprise of the exhibit, which is the sensation of being gawked at by a gloomy mob. The viewer becomes a voyeur and the object of voyeurism. However creepy and novel this effect might be, it does not answer the problem posed by her piece: what can we understand about the concept of home from her dollhouses? What does seem clear is that Whiteread is engaged in an on going investigation of what a home is or what a home does.
The Artist has been collecting these dollhouses for over twenty years, from second hand shops and online, “with no particular objective or real understanding.” It’s ironic that she exhibits these empty houses now as Washington policymakers struggle to keep the United States out of recession and the housing market is collapsing under its own weight. In recent years, the house (a traditional symbol of security and belonging) has been given new stature in the collective American imagination. Home equity is a way for middle class people to have real wealth. Home ownership has become a symbol for a strong economy and by association a competent and benign government. The installation’s association with current social and political issues, while inevitable, is not directly referenced by the artist. But while Whiteread leaves interpretations to viewers, when seen through the prism of contemporary American values, the pieces dim lighting and derelict houses seem bleak and foreboding. Another possible interpretation is that these homes haven’t been lived in. Perhaps they were built on speculation, and they reflect a sort of tragic optimism, which, in the end turns out to be destructive illusion.
Ultimately, Whiteread’s piece seems to speak more directly to an exploration of human psychology. During an interview at the MFA, Whiteread explains, “Whether proudly crafted by hand or manufactured, the houses all allude to the complex and universal emotions associated with home and which together reflect the complicated and individual qualities that make up any “where”.” Although Place (Village) might resonate with current events in America, visa vi economic recession and a dislocated middle class, Whiteread’s concept is more universal as indicated by her own statement. For her, the house itself is the star of the show but from a viewer’s perspective, apparently it’s a group of houses that is important to her. If one reads the range of architecture as a cross section of social class, then the installation begins to resemble a social hierarchy where distinctions in architecture represent diversity within a social order. If the houses represent a stand in for society or a social order defined by private property then the viewer is an outsider. If Place (Village) is a society that defines itself by what it lives in, then a close inspection of how that translates into social values is important. Houses are partly conceptual. We invest them with meaning and to some extent, give them power. In the end even real houses are just sticks and cardboard.
Four drawings for Place (Village) are included in the exhibition. Each study has been made with correction fluid, pencil, watercolor, gouache and photographs she has taken of homes. The drawings seem disconnected from the installation due to their sparseness and arrangement. If I take her literally the words vacant, neglected, and fake come to mind. Place (Village) is nonetheless a child’s dream collection and kitschy departure from her previous work.