This essay will discuss some of the key ideas around one of the most famous sculptures made by an English artist Rachel Whiteread – the subjects of traces and memory. It is generally known that people define memory as a complex process which involves encoding, storing and retrieving various kinds of information Memory is a system of processes that stores immense amounts of information as well as supports the ability to both preserve and recover information we have learned or experienced. In his treatise On the Soul (c. 350 BC), Aristotle compared memory to making impressions in wax, sometimes referred to as the storehouse metaphor, a theory of memory which held sway for many centuries. In addition, both memory and trace can influence people’s mind by causing various impressions, emotions and perceptions. Thus, the further paragraph will analyze both traces and memory from different points of view.
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It could be argued that there are various beliefs about memory. Some people believe that memories are reconstructive and are narratives which are based on emotions, feelings and experiences. For the others, memory is not a storage of previous experiences but a system which provides consistency of one’s identity. It is generally known that people have always considered memories to be important parts of their lives and they have always tended to preserve the memories which make up their life story in order to share them with the future generations. Memories are able to make up each person’s identity, allow people to recall emotions, feelings and observations as well as help them to look into the future. Keeping memories is quite significant as it tells the story where we all come from and it is an opportunity for people to look back in order to find out more about the past. Another thing about memory is that it allows people to recall the information they have learned and the experience that they previously have had. It should also be mentioned that the subject of memory could not be underestimated in Art. Many artists used art in order to document and depict the scenes, events, and objects from their life to let the next generations see them. An important example related to that theme can be Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), which raised the question ‘...about articulation of memory as a displacement of past into present, the tracing of absence, and the dialogue between the viewer’s body and the materiality of the object...’ (Cvoro, 2002: 55). What is considered to be unique about this work is the fact that Rachel Whiteread evolved the general perception of casting: ‘The way Whiteread creates objects tests the spatiality of casts and produces antigestures that challenge our perception of space, solidarity, and objects.’ (Cvoro, 2002:56). Indeed, the signature casting technique which Rachel used is quite exceptional as she mainly uses industrial materials to cast architectural space. In order to create the sculpture, Whiteread decided to work with a Victorian terraced house in northeast London that was planned to be demolished. The artist made a concrete cast of the inside of the interior of the whole three-story house. In his book After Modern Art, David Hopkins mentioned that House (see fig. 1) ‘...spoke eloquently of the erasure of human and social memory and aroused mixed but intense public controversy before its removal by the local council.’ (Hopkins, 2000:157).
Figure 1: Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993
Despite the fact that the art work was destroyed, there are still memories, publications and photographs which make us understand the value of the sculpture: ‘House was an impossible ”lost” object of memory, a trace of a trace.’ (Cvoro, 2002:62).
What should also be mentioned is the inner space of the House which is unusual for the spatial dislocation that lets the body of the viewer to feel frustrated. In addition, there is the idea of the house which is a place where a person feels the cosiness and feels like home but at the same time it pushes the body of the viewer away to not feel comfortable inside of it. As it was suggested by Susan Best in her work The Trace and the Body – ‘House shows the importance of the body in aesthetic experience and demonstrates a quite extraordinary play between the body and it’s surroundings, between its inner sensations and the outer world.’
(Best, 1999:174). Moreover, the work influences the perception of home. For most people, home means a place where they are loved and respected, a place where they feel free and safe. It can be argued that home is also a specific place where memories are made during a certain period of time. It’s also important to mention that home is a place where memories are kept, so it’s deeply connected to the past. To paraphrase Best, the work evokes bodily discomfort which does not make the people feel like they are home, so it rather brings the feeling of anxiety, disturbance and provides the lack of intimacy and warmth. (Best, 1999:175). Indeed, House was an art piece that was quite blank and empty and which did not welcome any visitors, so that the audience couldn’t feel nostalgic for its inner domestic vibe.
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The thing that should also be taken into consideration is the materiality of the work which fluctuated between the subject of absence and presence as well as the processes of historical and memorial. Memory acts as an influential subject of the art work as the memories were recorded through traces of the process. To paraphrase Cvoro, House evoked various experiences such as public and private, home, materiality, and the body which were then intersected. (Cvoro, 2002: 60). It was also suggested by Best that traces are still felt, even though they are not that visible and just like memories they are imperceptible markings which have a power to turn themselves into the present. (Best, 1999: 172).
According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the trace, there is the body and the world which interact between each other, thus providing an experience from the external world. In addition, viewer’s of House experienced an attack both on body orientation and perception system which resulted in an apparent absence. (Best, 1999: 173). Cvoro suggests that: ‘House became a nonhuman of the corporeal’. (Cvoro, 2002: 61). It was also an attack on the body without an affirmation, where the humanist body was denied, excluded, and turned into the formals. House disappeared without any leftovers except for the traces which still exist and provide us with information about the art work. It was a site of disappearance, a piece of art influenced by time: ‘...it was a mark of a past that never was, a present that never quite added up and a future that never came.’ (Cvoro, 2002: 62). It should be mentioned that there is also a play between presence and absence which appeared due to the casting process. After the erasure of the sculpture, the cast served as a reminder of the past, of something that is no longer present which confirms the idea that ‘a cast is a connection to the past...’ (Cvoro, 2002: 57).
In conclusion, House was an erased art object which raised questions about memory and traces. The discomfort caused by the peculiar architecture, evoked various feelings and opinions. Besides, the sculpture broke down the concept of ‘home’ which leads to the muddled feelings about familiarity and unfamiliarity. The traces of the sculpture were influenced by the memories of the site of the art work. Moreover, memories have also influenced traces which became the interaction between the body, mind and the world. The monument became a mark of absence which was caused by the absence of the domestic body and the absence of materiality. Whiteread’s monument was the object which raised numerous subjects about the social and human memory. Unlike many other works of art, Rachel Whiteread’s House evokes an impression of disappearance. Nothing of the sculpture remains till this day, however there is a great number of written texts, records and recordings that provide us with the information and the details about the art work. After the initial house was demolished, the sculpture became a monument of memories.
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- Figure1: Rachel Whiteread. Untitled (House). 1993. Commissioned by Artangel, sponsored by Becks. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Sue Ormerod, 1993. [Online] Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibitionseries/unilever-series/unilever-series-rachel-whiteread-embankment-1 [Accessed:12/11/2019].
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