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Sunday 28 December 2013
Ron Brownson

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I've long been a fan of Rachel Whiteread’s artwork. Ever since I encountered during 1993 the many news images showing the three story concrete cast she had made of an abandoned Victorian terrace house sited at 193 Grove Road East in London. That cast may well have been the largest one ever made in Britain.

That project deservedly earned Rachel the Turner Prize. Yet, the Tower Hamlets London Borough Council demolished this massive urban sculpture in January 1994 – arguably destroying what's become known as a key item of contemporary sculpture.

The Independent hit the mark when it printed that House was simply "A strange and fantastical object which also amounts to one of the most extraordinary and imaginative sculptures created by an English artist this century."

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Another of Rachel’s powerful architectural creations is Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial from 2000, which is also known familiarly as the "Nameless Library".

Commentators have frequently noted that her art conjures absence and death but I feel that it is always more about the presence and loss of people. The Judenplatz is notable as a memorial because it has an innate stillness while expressing a welling energy about so many lives being lost. It celebrates life while facing Austria's role in the death of countless Jews during World War II. That it is placed centrally in Vienna has made it a much visited monument. 

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The Gallery recently received on loan from Aucklanders Erika and Robin Congreve the remarkable pair of Rachel Whiteread sculptures that are now sited on the terrace overlooking Albert Park.

Visitors are often surprised to learn that the forms are made from cast bronze, coated with a seamless patina of white automotive lacquer. We have displayed them very close together which encourages people to walk around the sculptures rather than between them.

Rachel Whiteread frequently creates such life-sized casts of objects with a diverse range of both precious and everyday materials. Untitled (Pair) dating from 1999 are beguiling and enigmatic objects. I thought I might shudder in knowing that I would recognise the object that this sculpture was cast from. Rachel gives us a clue with in the residual impression of the negative channel shape making a hollowed channel that runs to one end. The second piece is a direct cast made from this object.

The sculpture is uncanny because its feel like a sleeping couple without the couple being present. Each mirrors the other and they would fit together if placed one on top of the other. While Rachel evokes the close relations between physical objects and the human body, she makes us think about love and tenderness.

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The title of the sculpture – Untitled (Pair) – references an irrevocable partnership, as with male and female companions, while allowing the shapes to evoke ambiguity and what is inexplicable. In fact, the two elements are cast directly from one mortuary slab. You know this when you see the slightly hollowed surface made for collecting bodily fluids and channeling them towards the foot.

Like partners, they rest side by side like a knight and lady from some medieval tomb. Principal Curator Zara Stanhope noted this sculpture refers to death and companionship. The artwork dates from a point in the artist's career, just after her Venice Biennale representation and the exhibition of her work at the New York's Museum of Modern Art.

These sculptures appear intimate and majestic at day and night. They have the candor of an Emily Dickinson poem where you feel close and scared, cherished and frightened, delighted and terrified by the honesty of one's encounter with art which is really about life.

They look light but are massively heavy in their own physical reality. They remind me of Emily Dickinson's lines:

As this phantasm steel 
Whose features day and night 
Are present to us as our own 
And as escapeless quite.


Image credit: 

Rachel Whiteread
Untitled (Pair) 1999 
Cast Bronze and cellulose paint 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki 
on long term loan from Erika and Robin Congreve