Whitechapel Gallery Rachel Whiteread Commission: 'Tree of Life', 2012. Photo: Guy Montagu-Pollock @ Arcaid. Twenty years have passed since London-born Rachel Whiteread’s masterpiece House (1993), her full-scale cast of the negative space within an East End Victorian terrace
– a work that critic Andrew Graham-Dixon described at the time as ‘one of the most extraordinary and imaginative public sculptures created by an English artist this century’.
House was demolished the following year and, although Whiteread has subsequently been asked to make significant monuments in New York and Vienna, it has taken the Cultural Olympiad for Britain to commission the Turner Prize-winner to produce a permanent piece – a frieze installed on the façade of London’s Whitechapel Gallery. The work was unveiled last week.
Whiteread’s key contribution to the making of sculpture – casting negative spaces and replicating elements of buildings and objects – has remained constant in the last two decades, and the artist characteristically uses the Whitechapel’s existing turn-of-the-century ornamentation as her inspiration.
The glazed terracotta façade has two towers at its top that feature tangles of leaves: a Tree of Life motif, popular in the Arts & Crafts period and relevant to the gallery’s educational purpose today in its evocation of growth and renewal. Whiteread has replicated some of these leaves in bronze, covered the casts in gold leaf and distributed them unevenly and exuberantly across the upper area of the façade. Some of the original Arts & Crafts leaves have also been gilded, to unify the old with the new frieze.
Whitechapel Gallery Rachel Whiteread Commission: 'Tree of Life', 2012. Photo: Marcus Dawes.
The artist has also cast four of the façade’s window spaces, mounting them side-by-side in the centre of the upper area and scattering her leaf casts around them. This is the most decorative and jubilant work I have seen of Whiteread’s. Yesterday morning, as the sky momentarily became blue before the regulation grey returned, the flurry of golden forms reflecting the sun could not help but lift the spirits.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine