Rachel Whiteread Tree Of Life Adorns Whitechapel Gallery

Rachel Whiteread

Last week Rachel Whiteread’s golden sculptural frieze for the Whitechapel Gallery was unveiled.  This project is one of the permanent public art projects commissioned for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

One of the best-known London galleries, the Whitechapel Gallery stands stately though formidably just outside the exit of Aldgate East tube station.  This small patch of London is a bit dreary, and particularly on a cool, cloudy spring day, there is little to speak for the culture and elegance the city has to offer.  The asymmetrical façade features pale stone and a tree of life motif in terra cotta sculpture panels, though this is not readily apparent to passers-by.  Funded by the Art Fun and the Henry Moore Foundation, The Tree of Life is part of the cultural programme reshaping London’s East End for the Olympics.

Whiteread has enjoyed an illustrious career thus far and was even the first woman to win the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993.  She is known for creating a cast of a Victorian property in 1993, a 1998 Water Tower in New York, the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna of 2000, and a Fourth Plinth statue in Trafalgar Square in 2001.  Last year an exhibition of Whiteread’s drawings was on display at Tate Britain.

The Tree of Life sculpture, as the frieze is called, is the first permanent public work in the UK by the artist and is inspired by the existing building and London’s already impressive, and almost exclusively historical, collection of architectural gild sculptures.  Placed on the upper level of the façade, passers-by and gallery visitors are encouraged to look up instead of at their feet and to see something beautiful rather than litter and debris.  Gallery director Iwona Blazwick states with regards to the tradition of high-level sculptures in London: “I think we should have a campaign to get people to look up a bit more and see these hidden treasures.”  Whiteread’s contemporary addition to the tradition is elegant and beautiful, a promising start to Blazwick’s proposed campaign.

Perhaps the best quality of the work is the combination of its deliberateness and appearance of impermanence.   Hundreds of leaves seem weightless as if fluttering in the wind, but the cast bronze and gold gilded pieces are weighted and stationary.

Rachel Whiteread is one of Britain’s leading contemporary sculptors. Born in London in 1963 she studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic and sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. She came to public attention in 1993 with her sculpture, House, a life-sized cast of the interior of a condemned terraced house in east London which was eventually demolished in 1994. She realised one of the Unilever Commissions for Tate Modern’s turbine hall, as well as being commissioned to make a sculpture for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.  She is now a leading international artist, creating major public works in both Europe and the United States, including the Holocaust memorial at the Judenplatz in Vienna, one of the most prestigious sculptural commissions in Europe.

Words/Photo Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012