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Home > Media

Embankment: An Art Student Writes

14 October 2005

If you've yet to experience Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment', now in situ at the Tate Modern, I urge you wholeheartedly to go with a friend who already has. Then you can be led blindfolded into the unimpeachable Narnia of the artist's polyethylene soul and, once the blindfold is removed, learn firsthand what it is to be reborn, what it is to walk through life in the expensive shoes of another person's eyes. The fact is, you have not seen anything like this before. This is the New.

If you arrive at 'Embankment' conventionally, without the transpositional effect of temporary blindness, it is like approaching a site of great natural beauty from afar - the phallic fairy towers of Cappadocia are brought to mind. The anticipation, the mounting glee, the desire once arrived to strip off your clothes and throw yourself into the mix. 'Embankment' offers all this. A sign before you enter reads: 'Please do not climb. Danger of falling.' However, even without climbing, there is still a danger of falling. With 'Embankment', what Whiteread offers is an alternate vision of what life could actually be, were it not for the artifice of our own limitations. Take off your mask, she says. Live. Breathe.

Breath is important in this work. The stillness, the rigidity, the timelessness - all are deceptive. In reality the boxes inhabit the space of the Turbine Hall like something seething and out of control, beyond our need to identify, to empathise, to vocabulate. They cock a classless snook at our expectations of what art should be, sneaking deep, deep breath as we blink in shameful dismay, multiplying slyly in our peripherals. But part of you wonders, unable to stop itself, is this the cellular colonisation of benevolent cultures in a Petri dish? Or of the dry icy hand of cancer, tightening its grip on our collective psyche, twisting our perception of what art is, of what life is, and slowly devouring the human soul? It is both of course; and it is neither.

Whiteread knows, as Duchamp, or indeed Rachel Stevens could have told her, that art need never bend over backwards to suckle the pseuds and assorted Sewells of a purposefully dwarven zeitgeist. All art needs to do is to draw the human eye. And 'Embankment' does this without even thinking. The boxes conglomerate in awkward, unnatural clumps, climbing the walls clumsily, like bleached mould as seen through the Etch-a-Sketch of God. You want to climb too, to delve beyond the surface, to a place in which the secrets of the universe are hidden, enshrined, encrypted in the adhesive that holds each sleeping cell in place.

What Whiteread has created - and indeed crated - is a psycho-semantic subspace in which what you think you think you know becomes what you actually are; a meta-space where positive and negative copulate in a spiral of ineffable beauty, and the beholder simply is. The truth is, I have probably spent more time in Rachel Whiteread's eyes this week than I have in my own, and I feel both broader and ultimately more grounded for it. I have also spoken to a great many of the other visitors to the Turbine Hall, and apart from one or two for whom the work held neither multipart awe nor joy (their own eyes part confused alarm, part shame), 'Embankment' is overwhelming. All future art will be judged in the shadow of this piece. All future life will be lived in its glare.

Miss it at your peril. See it and your eyes will never be the same again.


Rachel Whiteread: Embankment
The Tate Modern
11 October 2005 - 2 April 2006

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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