Reading List

Friday 24 December 2010

Rachel Whiteread

I've been challenged by my tutor, John Reardon, to use my collection of messages in ways that don't simply rely on nostalgia

I know what he's getting at. It's all too tempting to romanticise the messages, to separate them completely from the present. 

To get me going, I've been thinking about the work of artist Rachel Whiteread

A few weeks ago I went to see the Tate exhibition of her drawings. As well as her sketches, the show included some of her collections of objects - from Russian postcards to hotel keys, squashed cans to a cast of Peter Sellers' nose

Whiteread (of the plinth on the plinth in Trafalgar Square, of concrete casts of a terraced house, and of a winding village of old dolls' houses) appears interested in our ambiguous relationship with memory. 

In conversation with Bice Curiger, Whiteread likened drawing to writing a diary. This fits with the feeling you get as you walk round the rooms at the Tate. Peering into the vitrines feels very much like looking into Whiteread's mind. Or her memory.

But in the interview, I was puzzled by her attitude towards collecting. Here are two quotes, one about her collection of dolls' houses and the other on how she regards postcards:
"I started collecting dolls’ houses about 22 years ago, by chance. I bought maybe three or four, and then people started buying them for me. I didn’t really know what to do with them, but I kept buying them, and the more dishevelled and unloved they were, the more I wanted to look after them.... I had wanted to make something that wasn’t sentimental, but would make children gasp when they saw it."
"Explorers took photographers with them, and would make postcards [from their pictures]. Postcards were a way in which people first saw the world. However, I do not want to be nostalgic…"
For both the dolls' houses and postcards, Whiteread is keen to avoid nostalgic sentimentality. But her attitudes to the dolls' houses and to the cards differ substantially.

Of the dolls' houses she says she "look[s] after them". And you can see this in her artwork. Her village brings the collection to life. She resuscitates the "unloved" houses. 

But with her postcards, things are different. Rather than preserving, she has irreversibly changed them. Punched holes into them. Created something new - see the photo below. Whereas she's fallen in love with the dolls' houses as they are or how they've been, the postcards offer potential for what they might become.

I think my interest in old postcards is most similar to Whiteread's love of her houses. My urge is to preserve and breathe new life into them. 

Or to put it another way, I won't be introducing them to any hole punchers.