The Home According to Rachel Whiteread

Double Doors II (A+B), Rachel Whiteread. Plasticized plaster with interior aluminum framework, two panels. Accession Number: 2008.643.1-2. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A series of posts inspired by pieces in the collections of Boston area museums.

As of last week, I spotted these doors at the MFA which were part of Whiteread’s show Place/Village. Today, the MFA online collections catalog says these are not on display.

For Rachel Whiteread, a house is only a skeleton draped in a beautiful fabric. For a house to become a home, this fabric must be covered in bits of history from its past inhabitants. What makes a home for Whiteread are the empty and often neglected spaces that are ever present in our lives. These spaces convey a sense of a history, a journey into our past.

Place/Village, Rachel Whiteread. Image:

In Village (Place/Village 2008, was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2008) Whiteread has assembled vintage doll houses on top of wooden crates to resemble “communities” similar to those in any city or town on earth. The houses projected a feeling of emptiness and solitude, lacking the human interaction and emotions associated with a home. Individually, these dolls houses appeared ghostly and eerie, however when seen in context to the larger exhibit, they projected a sense of warmth, the same feeling that transforms a house into a home. Placed in a dark room, these houses illuminated the empty and forgotten spaces in a house, visually peeling away those layers rich in history that make a house a home.

Domesticity for Whiteread is found within the house. Traces of human interaction are the core of a house, they are the organs that breathe life to it and transform it into a home. Doors, windows, packing boxes, stairs are for Whiteread, the objects of domesticity that complete a home. Usage, in other words, an old door full of marks convey the same message a home conveys. The doors in Whiteread’s exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts are executed with crisply defined lines and geometric shapes, further conveying the feeling of harshness and emotional emptiness found in a house. At close inspection, these doors tell a different story through scrapes and discolorations as well as missing hardware.

The materials Whiteread employs in her work are industrious, cold and unglamorous. The solitude and desolation felt in Village is softened only by golden shimmering lights coming from within the doll houses. Whiteread’s work employs very minimal use of color, further emphasizing the emptiness and solitude that a house conveys.  

Rachel Whiteread has said that her work produces a remarkable awareness of our enduring “presence through absence.” Her drawings are all executed on graph paper suggesting order upon all the chaos that exists in the world and in our lives.  The world, like a house for Whiteread is a void that can only be filled and molded by leaving one’s “fingerprints” upon its surfaces. 

For Whiteread, a house must undergo multiple transformations and stages for it to become a home. For a house to become a home one must also undergo the same physical and emotional transformations. Whiteread’s work reminds us all to unpack our lives physically and emotionally to live in the moment. Living in the moment requires us to leave our fingerprint on one’s path to turning a house into a home. The world constantly places one inside this void creating moments that present challenges and opportunities which further allows one to transform one’s life. Rachel Whiteread attempts to shrink the distance between herself and this empty box by breaking away from the crisp lines of the graphing paper which she draws on or the smoothness of the plaster and rubber which she sculpts with. The works of Rachel Whiteread speak to the insincerity and emptiness found in this world. At close inspection they exhibit many impurities that allow one to break away from the rigidity of every day life.

The impurities in Whiteread’s works best capture this “presence through absence” that transforms a house into a home.  For a house to be a home and a place to be a community there needs to be an emotional connection between the present and the past. For Whiteread, it is this emotional connection that breathes a “presence through absence” in a home, a connection that must be cultivated through time.

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