Rachel Whiteread’s radiant new show is timed to perfection, as the galleries start to reopen. Most of these sculptures were made during lockdown, when everyone was trying to think what to do, how to live, how to endure the confinement, eking something from little or nothing. Old newspapers, household paints, drawing pins, the rings of coffee cups and the imprint of tin cans all carry their own quiet poetry in these works. Even the Amazon boxes that silted our hallways become monuments to the way we have lived, through Whiteread’s deep and sustained attention.
What greets you, in the first room, is a lifesize construction that might be exactly the retreat you have yearned for all through the pandemic. That notional shed at the bottom of the garden: a place of peace, of planting, reading and possibly writing, a room of your own (as it seems to me). But this vision is entirely white, casting its light all around the gallery, like the platonic ideal of shed. And what’s more, nature has taken over.
Branches have forced their way in through the windows, trees have grown up and round the walls. The glass has gone, the roof is no more than rickety rafters and the corrugated panels that once held it all together are lifting off like the wings of a flighty pagoda. Time and life have entered the premises.
This new work is called Poltergeist, recalling one of Whiteread’s earliest masterpieces, Ghost (1990), the solid plaster cast of an abandoned Victorian living room on London’s Archway Road. And the affinities are obvious, even if the technique has changed. Making the absent feel present, turning the spectral into tangible form: this is Whiteread’s forte. And so it is with this shed, summoning invisible people, and whatever has made mischief with their sanctuary.
Yet the structure still stands, and the door is open to all-comers to see inside this light and airy world. A ruined pavilion, it is both poignant and beautifully uplifting – which sets the whole tenor of this show.
A pinboard – or the shallow space before it – has been cast in translucent resin. Here are the little discs of drawing pins, the shapes of postcards, photographs and possibly drawings. But all are blank, an array of rectangles, circles and squares dimly visible yet entirely beyond grasp through the ethereal lilac substance. Whatever might have been seen has become invisible, as if the images had turned their faces to the wall, leaving only a ghostly memory.
Corrugated iron panels ripple across the gallery walls in iridescent blue and pink. Battered and pocked, they have the strange allure of car parts gleaming somewhere across a field. Yet they are fashioned out of old newspapers turned into papier-mache, then laid with coloured silver leaf; the mundane recycled into a kind of fluttering beauty.
Whiteread has spoken about a complete reversal of method: constructing forms, instead of casting the interior spaces of houses, wardrobes, hot-water bottles and so on. And Poltergeist has a double – Doppelgänger is its punning title – in a later gallery, except that this wooden shed has its windows blown clean out and the whole structure has been trashed, laid low as if by one of last year’s devastating storms. You may think of Cornelia Parker’s famous exploded shed. You may think of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, especially since a leafless tree rises from the shattered planks like a mast. This structure is falling apart, all holes and shards and broken beams: the safety we imagined altogether gone. Yet the sight is almost angelic in its pure white pallor, and the wood seems to revert to the trees from which it once came.
It is the epitome of both commemoration and disaster. Yet it is also the repetition of a stronger work, in Poltergeist. More affecting is the singular sight of a cardboard box flattened out – as if for bin day – cast in bronze and painted in shimmering pinks and yellows that send their glow out into the gallery. You can see the trace of what was in the box in the imprint of two dozen circles; but what was in those cans? Common curiosity prevails. This is reality abstracted, late minimalism updated: sculpture at its simplest yet most fetchingly mysterious.
And those rings reappear, now like haloes or planets on a black painted surface that turns out to be another expanse of papier-mache. The painted sculptures in this show are exquisite, more like drawings materialising on floating substrates, flecked with delicate lines and particles of light. Whiteread uses foil, watercolour, ink, cardboard, all the ill-considered trifles we’ve had at home this past year, to make these visions of outer darkness, the constellations and the twinkling night sky. The whole show feels like an inspiration to keep going, and learn to work with what we’ve got.
The German super-photographer Thomas Demand has also been hard at work during lockdown. At Sprüth Magers, he is showing two images of “nature”, characteristically outsized, and several interiors which are at first very hard to parse.
Pond is almost overwhelmingly beautiful – an array of lily pads burnished by the evening sun, lying on water so impossibly still that they look like giant gold coins in exquisitely regular formations. Nursery shows a bright pink laboratory in which rows of identical boxes, containing some kind of unrecognisable plants, are fed by cables, pipes and lights. This is apparently a hydroponic cannabis factory. The plants look entirely artificial.
Which, of course, they are: cardboard models. The eerie perfection of Demand’s photographs trips you up every time; or at least it’s supposed to. Everything you see is artificial, modelled, specially contrived. Only the photograph (and perhaps not even that, given digital enhancement) involves reality. Subject matter is deliberately overdetermined.
Demand can be as boring as he wants to be. The many photographs of actual patterns made by the late fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa keep making the same point: that paper patterns can look like elements of modernist collage. And who could care about the cannabis lab, which looks just as sci-fi as all the weed factories in thrillers.
But in the 2020 photograph of a block of flats in some nameless European city, every window is perfectly regular, and every balcony identical; life lived according to an architectural model. Except that one balcony is different.
Here the canopy is drawn down as low as possible, as if to shelter the resident from the outside pandemic (and perhaps even from the neighbours). It strikes like a sign of the times.
Star ratings (out of five)
Rachel Whiteread ★★★★
Thomas Demand ★★★