On the way​ into the Rachel Whiteread retrospective at Tate Britain (until 21 January), in the long Duveen Galleries, you come across one hundred translucent coloured blocks, squatting on the floor. They look like giant cubes of jelly in blue, violet, yellow, orange, green. Each piece represents the underside of a chair, cast in resin. One hundred objects, moulded from one hundred different chairs: they are the absence beneath each, the space it leaves behind. Whiteread made them in 1995 for the Carnegie International triennial in Pittsburgh; I remember them as a showstopper – calm, ordered, sane, unsensational – at Charles Saatchi’s triumphalist celebration of his YBAs, Sensation, two years later. At the Tate, when the sun comes out over the long glass roof of the gallery, the coloured blocks glow like boiled sweets, or like jewels. When the sun goes in they grow duller, mute. I visited on a bright sunny-cloudy day and they lit up and grew dim over and over again. The absence-filled stage is set for the rest of the show.

‘Untitled (One Hundred Spaces)’ (1995)

‘Untitled (One Hundred Spaces)’ (1995)

It took her a while to work out how to do it. After a lot of trial and error and some dramatically exploding resin, the chairs were cast in plaster and then a mould was made from silicone rubber and fibreglass. To prevent further explosions, just 2.5 cm of resin was poured into each mould every day. She spent time figuring out how to make the pour lines invisible, to produce solid coloured blocks. After Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) was shown in Pittsburgh, American critics were quick to point out her apparent debt to Bruce Nauman, whose A Cast of the Space under My Chair (1965-68), done in concrete, was, the New York Times once suggested, ‘the inspiration for Ms Whiteread’s entire career’.

She saw it differently. She told one interviewer that she must have seen Nauman’s concrete chair-imprint when it was exhibited by Nicholas Serota at the Whitechapel, but she hadn’t really noticed it – and she was clearly frustrated by the critics’ insistence that everything she had done was derived from an early work by Nauman, who soon moved on from casting. His chair, she said, was ‘conceptual’; hers were more ‘physiological … very much connected with the body and with the human touch. Whether it’s my touch, or someone else’s, or a whole family’s touch, they’re about a piece of furniture that’s been used.’ But this is a distinction that’s hard to see when you look at the objects themselves. His concrete block, with its rough discoloured surfaces, doesn’t look like a concept, so much as a thing you could actually sit on; her hundred multicoloured sculptures could be chairs or they could be ziggurats – but they’re abstract, formal, ethereal. It’s true that the translucent resin makes you want to touch it in a way that concrete doesn’t – it’s a tactile medium – but the most striking difference between Nauman’s work of the late 1960s and Whiteread’s over the last two decades is that she has been concerned to perfect an idea and a process. It’s women’s work: doing the same thing again and again, refining the technique, taking care that nothing explodes. He made a concrete cast of his chair; she has repeated an effort to preserve the spaces inside and behind things – or, as she’s put it a number of times, to ‘mummify the air’.

But she did mean something when she talked about the idea of ‘a piece of furniture that’s been used’, the notion that her work suggests the absent people who once touched the now missing object, even if her chairs specifically do nothing to conjure the people who may once have sat on them. At the entrance to the exhibition, in an anteroom dedicated to Whiteread’s various public commissions (plans for her inverted resin cast of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, a model of her Holocaust memorial in Vienna), there’s a video diary. It’s her record of making her most famous sculpture, House (1993), which involved casting the innards of a Victorian house in the East End in concrete. It took more than two years to find the right house: it had to be a building that was scheduled for demolition, in an area of London she was familiar with, and she wanted it to be possible to walk right round it, which meant it couldn’t be part of a terrace.

The house that came up on Grove Road in Bow – the last in a demolished row – was exactly what she’d been looking for. She was born in Ilford, grew up in a Victorian terrace and now had a studio in Stratford, a mile to the east. The film shows the interior of the house when Whiteread took it on: floral wallpaper, patterned lino, boarded-up fireplaces, ancient fuse box. To make the cast, the interior had to be stripped right back: she removed the sinks and cupboards, filled in all the cracks. It was, she said, like embalming a body. A team of builders dug new foundations and erected a metal cage to support the concrete. Then the concrete-spraying men arrived in their protective suits and blasted the interior with a skin of white LokCrete – a material that had been used to repair the white cliffs of Dover. Once the concreting was done, Whiteread and her team had to escape through a hole in the roof. Then the ‘cast’ – the original Victorian house – had to be torn down with diggers, to reveal its concrete ghost to the world. The innards of a bay window jutted out at the front; to the sides were the insides of old fireplaces, some still covered in soot. The house stood for eighty days only, a melancholy sight that came to represent the hollowing out of a rapidly gentrifying part of London – the loss of working-class lives and families. More than 250 articles were written about it in the press and it won Whiteread the Turner Prize in 1993 – she was the first woman to win it.

The loss of the monumental, tomb-like house hangs over the rest of the show. Once inside the gallery there’s a moment of readjustment: the usual partition walls have been removed to make one 1500 m2 open-plan space – a dismantling of the architecture of the Tate itself, with the concrete ceiling seeming like part of the installation. Two sculptures dominate the exhibition. Untitled (Room 101), first shown at the V&A in 2003, is a cast of the room at Broadcasting House that was supposedly the model for Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four: it replicates the insides of two box windows and a door with its handle removed, adding to the sinister air. But it becomes clear that it’s a material bit of the BBC as much as the representation of an Orwellian idea: on the rough, white walls there’s an empty square where a light switch used to be; ghostly rectangles stand in for plug sockets. Lumps of plaster cling to the surface, inviting you to look closely at the texture. Next to it, Untitled (Stairs), another architectural work, is initially disorienting. Out in the middle of the gallery space, you find yourself walking round it, trying to make sense of this unclimbable visual puzzle, until you realise that the staircase with its three half-landings has been rotated onto what would have been an end wall. For all its austere abstraction, this work too is a record of a place with a history: it is the cast she made in 2001 of a staircase in the former synagogue in Shoreditch she bought to turn into a home and studio. She has said that she is drawn to stairs and floors because they are the parts of buildings that show most signs of use, with their ‘worn patches, scratches and chips’ the evidence of daily comings and goings.

In this vast gallery, among all the casts of doors and windows and corridors of absent plaster books, not everything is architectural and monumental. And whatever people like to say, it really isn’t all the same. There are ten pieces from her ‘torso’ series: the spaces inside hot-water bottles, in white and pink plaster and various coloured resins. They are small, disembodied, delicate – with necks that could be taken from classical busts. There are early works, like Closet, which Whiteread calls her first proper sculpture: the cast of a cupboard, covered in dense, dark felt – to suggest, she insists, the comfort of hiding in a dark little place as a child. Shallow Breath, the space under a bed, made of plaster and polystyrene, leans wearily against one wall; there are other mattresses too, but there’s something different about this one’s attitude – it was made not long after her father died, and cast from the bed she was born on. Closet and Shallow Breath, along with the first Torso, appeared in her first solo show, in 1988, but she’s spent her whole career collecting and casting abandoned or discarded things, including the toilet roll tubes that led to the minimalist, designerish Line Up (2007-8), the colourful resin cylinders resting on an elegant white shelf. Not on show is Place (Village), an installation constructed from the hundreds of dolls’ houses she has collected over the years, all lit up from within, proving she can do kitsch as well: after its appearances in Naples, Málaga, Boston and the Hayward’s 2008 Psycho Buildings exhibition, she gave it to the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. She’s recently returned to working in papier-mâché, as she did early on; the flat papier-mâché casts she made this year – Wall (Three Windows), Wall (Apex), Roof (Beams I) and Roof (Beams II) – aren’t the most impressive things in the show, though from a distance the grey panels flecked with coloured shreds look appealingly like splatter paintings. Outside Tate Britain, next to the front entrance, is another piece made this year: Chicken Shed – one of a series of what she calls ‘shy sculptures’, works you’re supposed to encounter accidentally in out of the way places (there’s one by a fjord in Norway and one in the Mojave Desert) – has landed on the manicured lawn. It’s the concrete cast of the inside of a friend’s very ordinary shed in Norfolk, and it seems to be making a joke at the expense of the grand façade of the sugar-funded gallery. She can be funny too.

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