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by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Rachel Whiteread at Ingleby Gallery

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In the run-up to its tenth an­n­iver­sary, Ingleby Gallery is playing host to a rather hectic year-long programme of twenty-six in­stal­l­a­tions, each one pairing a con­tem­por­ary artist with something they have chosen, be it another artist’s work, an object or a concept.

The third in­stall­ment of this inventive cur­at­or­i­al conceit, and the first of four that coincide with the Edinburgh Art Festival, consists of three works by Rachel Whiteread and Robert Burns’ breakfast table.

At first glance, it’s an odd pairing - what on earth does this curiously low folding table once used by Scotland’s favourite son have to do with the work of Rachel Whiteread? - but the more time one spends with Whiteread’s work and the piece of furniture she has chosen as a coun­ter­point, the more con­nec­tions between the object and the art appear.

First, there is the matter of absences. Whiteread’s work is, on a simple level, all about that which is not there. Her sculp­tures, from the Turner Prize-winning House to Em­bank­ment, the 14,000 polythene boxes that filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2004, are all solid casts of spaces where something isn’t, so to speak.

Here, to match Burns’ table, Whiteread is showing Cushion, a plaster casting of the interior of the titular object set upon a steel chair frame. It is a sagging, soggy and soft thing, though it is made of a brittle substance, and it is at­tract­ive too, almost demanding to be pinched or squeezed, a fact re­co­g­n­ised by the rather terse note on the ex­hib­i­tion handout for­bid­d­ing any such contact.

In this context, sitting beside Whiteread’s tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion, Burns’ little table is an eloquent object, one that tells of a series of absences. The first absence is, of course, Burns himself, but his work is also absent - this is not his writing table, after all - and so, too, are its owners, some of whom are listed on an engraved metal plaque set in the table’s top. That Burns and those who owned the table after him are as absent as is possible, all of them long dead, points to the morbid aspect of Whiteread’s work. This is most obvious in her series of casts of mortuary slabs, but equally present in her casts of domestic interiors, which com­me­m­or­ate the lives lived in them as much as they solidify negative space, and in early works, which had a dis­t­inc­tly nostalgic bent, with casts of the furniture that sur­roun­ded her as a child, and the space beneath her bed.

Even the fact that the table can be folded away seems apt: unfolded, it is solid like a Whiteread cast, but when folded it occupies one space, and offers the potential to occupy another, like the space a Whiteread cast describes.

The table might, too, be a med­it­a­tion on fame, selected as a sort of auto­bi­o­graphy by proxy. Unlike her fellow YBAs, Whiteread is famously un­com­fort­able with the fame her work has brought her, and, given her status, it is not in­con­ceiv­able that, one day, someone will pay good money for some ephemeral, ir­re­l­ev­ant object from Whiteread’s own home or studio. If so, the choice of Burns’ breakfast table can be seen as a pithy, even acid com­ment­ary on the es­sen­ti­ally ludicrous im­port­ance attached to un­im­port­ant objects like this one, that bear the patina of celebrity, and are revered by as­so­ci­a­tion at the expense of the famous artist’s work.

In short, it seems as if Whiteread is using Burns’ breakfast table as a sort of critical object, a means to provoke a con­ver­sa­tion about her practice as a whole, not just the works shown alongside it.

And so, if there is a problem with this ex­hib­i­tion, it is that Burns’ breakfast table is too eloquent and too loud, its silent com­ment­ary on Whiteread’s work threat­en­ing to overwhelm the work itself. The pair of works on paper in par­t­ic­u­lar are coloured by the table’s presence. Both consist of pho­to­graphs of interiors with sections removed, sometimes replaced by pencil lines. In Books, a teetering pile of volumes rests on a chair, while Open Door shows a door and its frame, the space between them removed. Here, thanks to the table, they feel more like pre­par­at­ory sketches or new routes to un­der­stand­ing Whiteread’s sculp­tur­al work than complete pieces, as if the excised portions of the pho­to­graphed rooms might exist elsewhere or in the future, as casts made of plaster, resin or concrete.

In the end, this is a re­mark­able show, much more than the sum of its parts. Just as Whiteread uses a seemingly simple tactic - the casting of objects and spaces - to make works that are, more often than not, awe-inspiring, so this quiet little col­lec­tion speaks volumes.

This review was first published in The Herald on August 3rd, 2007.