I've always loved her work, the fact that it's based on doing casts of the interiors of objects from houses and bookshelves to children's toys.
It seems to me to be about ghosts and absences, memories and inside-outness. It's a really uncanny form of communication, which I find extraordinarily moving.
I went there to meet up for a few hours with Lisa, who was in London for an international bloggers' conference, and who I hadn't met before.
But bits of the installation like this reminded me that yesterday was also a special anniversary for me:
It was ten years to the day since I moved into my present house. I'd moved from a huge three storey five bedroomed house into a much smaller three bedroomed one. I tend to be the sort of person who hoards stuff for years, and finds it very difficult to throw things out. And so when it came to moving out, I'd had to resort to filling three huge skips with stuff that I should have got rid of years previously.
By time the removal vans had got to the new house, it was late. I kept sending out for deliveries of pizza to keep the removal men sweet. They soon filled the attic with packing boxes. Then they filled the spare room with boxes.
And the back of the removal van was still stacked high with boxes. I had a lot of books. I'd had a huge room at my old house with shelves from floor to ceiling full of them.
Where shall we put them? asked the removal men. And I had to gulp and say, stack them in the living room. By the time they'd gone, my beautiful new living room was piled floor to ceiling with packing cases. And I was due to go off the very next day to Israel, taking my daughter for her very first visit. It was my first visit for thirty-three years. The last time I'd been there, I was an eighteen year old fresh out of school.
So off we went the next day, leaving the house to be looked after by Irena, my then cleaner and her husband. I didn't think about it much while we were in Israel, but whenever I did, my heart sank at the thought of how difficult I would find it to get all those boxes unpacked and make the house look as beautiful and inviting as when I first saw it.
Rachel Whiteread's piles of casts of boxes evoked that feeling of hopelessness I'd had about those stacks of packing cases in my living room. It was so poignant, because I knew that she'd been moved to work on this project by the death of her mother, and the traumatic experience of having to clear out her house and pack everything up.
Her mother was a feminist artist, Pat Whiteread. Her best known project was an exhibition called "Women's Images of Men" back in 1972. The weird thing was that I'd been to that exhibition at the time, and had even bought the catalogue, because I was impressed by how different the images were from those you'd usually see in galleries. It seems that Rachel Whiteread was then a teenager, who had been deeply influenced towards becoming an artist by the experience of seeing slides for the exhibition constantly projected as her mother worked on preparing it. I'd no idea of that connection.
Lisa and I sat upstairs afterwards in front of a beautiful view of St Paul's Cathedral and the Thames and contemplated some of the boxes still stacked in the lumber rooms of our memories. We have more in common than we realised, despite more than a couple of decades and a good few thousand miles apart in our experience. And we enjoyed swapping blogger stories and finding unexpected connections. Meetings between bloggers anyway seem rather like the last stage in the back-to-frontness of this version of online communication. Like you might have been reading or commenting on each others' posts over quite a time. Then you might have exchanged some emails. And finally you get to meet face to face. And there I am talking about this as if I'd been blogging for years, instead of for just the last few months.
That evening, my cousin Kate and my friends Colin and Jean were my guests for Erev Shabbos dinner. We talked about the sedra (Torah portion) for this week, which is all about making journeys to escape troubles at home, find love and make a new life. And it's about encountering angels too, because the sedra starts with Jacob's ladder, which seems to me like a particularly beautiful and also comical metaphor of how inadequate are our attempts to understand how communication between the Almighty and ourselves works.
The Jewish version of angels anyway seems to me to represent this mystery much better than the traditional Christian one, which sees angels as being equipped with large sets of wings. If you look at any of the accounts of meetings between angels and people in the Jewish bible, the angels are just messengers. And you can never tell who they are. They just seem to be strangers who appear unexpectedly out of nowhere. They could be anyone.
And I remembered very gratefully that when I got back from Israel, I found that Irena and her husband had unpacked all the boxes in the living room and the spare room, put up all the mirrors and pictures, and the house looked perfect and beautiful. I've hardly changed anything since then.
Like I said, it was a very special day.
UPDATE: I thought I'd actually lost the catalogue of "Women's Images of Men", the exhibition which Pat Whiteread, Rachel's late mother, had helped to put together. Turns out the exhibition was at the ICA in 1980, not 1972. My daughter had found the catalogue in my art books bookcase and been fascinated by it. So as usual in these cases, it had migrated to one of the bookshelves in her bedroom. After reading this post she emailed, "I never picked up onthe fact that that catalogue was from Pat Whiteread! I read that so many times, I really liked its idea and conception. It was fascinating too, the different perceptions of 'men' as a group. Some of those female artists were SO angry!"