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Gagosian Quarterly

Summer 2018 Issue

Becoming Home

Rachel Whiteread’s US Embassy (Flat pack house) was unveiled in its permanent home at the new American embassy in Nine Elms, London, earlier this year. Virginia Shore, the curator for the London embassy project who worked with Whiteread to realize this site-specific commission, reflects on the history of prefabricated housing, the power of “home,” and the connecting force of art.

Rachel Whiteread, US Embassy (Flat pack house), 2013–15, installation at the US Embassy, London © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Mike Bruce

Rachel Whiteread, US Embassy (Flat pack house), 2013–15, installation at the US Embassy, London © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Mike Bruce

Virginia Shore

Virginia Shore is an art curator, advisor, and advocate living in Washington, DC. She is currently collaborating with the Emerson Collective, Halcyon Arts Lab, and the Hall Group on public art projects. Previously, Ms. Shore was the Chief Curator of the US Department of State’s Art in Embassies (AIE) program.

The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.
—Confucius, Analects, sixth–fifth century BC

Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
—Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man,” 1905/1906

Rachel Whiteread’s monumental new work US Embassy (Flat pack house) (2013–15) is first encountered in the approach to the new American embassy in Nine Elms, South London. The work begins outdoors under the building’s covered consular entrance, pauses with its glass wall, and continues inside, where visitors are greeted and directed into the building. Here Whiteread has installed casts of the complete interior of a two-story prefabricated house, in thirty-one unique elements spanning the entire height and length of these soaring walls.

The vertical mounting wraps the visitor in the familiar constituents of home; we recognize the outlines of staircases, windows, architraves, outlets, roofing, wall decor, flooring, and tiling. Yet the inverted presentation unsettles. Cast in a light-gray concrete that augments the details and surfaces, the panels bestow presence on the absent interior of the house, breathing life into features often overlooked. As the light changes and moves along the surface of each element, varying depths teach a lesson in geometry, illuminating and obscuring shapes, lines (vertical and horizontal), cut-out spaces, diagonals, rectangles, squares within rectangles, and triangles embedded within horizontal reveals, all in a poetic play of shadow and rhythm.

Becoming Home

The US Embassy in London stood for many years in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair. State-of-the-art security needs and inevitable expansion were the driving force for the move to the Nine Elms site, which President George W. Bush signed a conditional agreement to acquire in 2008 (despite the recent claims by President Donald Trump that the decision had been one of the mistakes of his more direct predecessor, Barack Obama). As plans developed, the London embassy became the most ambitious commission to date for the State Department’s Art in Embassies program (AIE), which has created more than seventy-five permanent collections for new American embassies and consulates around the world since 2005, and thousands of temporary exhibitions in ambassadorial residences since 1963. Thematically, the curatorial focus of the commissions for these new embassies and consulates has orbited around ideas of national identity, and on the exploration, through art and culture, of critical connections and juxtapositions between the host country and the United States. In addition to Whiteread’s installation, the London embassy demonstrates that inquiry with works by a mix of host-country and American artists: Mark Bradford, Cerith Wyn Evans, Ryan and Hays Holladay, Jenny Holzer, Idris Khan, Richard Long, Catherine Opie, Eva Rothschild, Sean Scully, Barbara Walker, and Alison Watt.

As the site of a country’s diplomatic representation in another country, an embassy has many roles, one of which is to promote its home culture, science, and economy in the hearts of its host. Although embassies are often considered “foreign soil,” they actually remain part of the territory of the receiving state, but they are protected with significant privileges that make them effectively inviolable. As such, they hold a peculiar status as places in which two countries play the roles of both host and home. Regardless, for many the real significance of an embassy is the link and lifeline it provides to one’s home when abroad. US Embassy (Flat pack house) greets all who come to the embassy to deal with consular affairs and issues that typically have a personal impact: birth, death, marriage, adoption, child custody, citizenship, movement among countries. This public place is where intensely private matters are addressed—where the refuge of home is longed for and missed.

In 2012, with the design for the new US Embassy well underway, I approached Gagosian Gallery requesting a meeting with Rachel Whiteread about a potential commission there. My hope in engaging her was spurred by her demonstrated commitment to public artworks, which has led her to make four exceptional memorial sculptures in London and Vienna over the past twenty years. Her work has been described as a form of social renewal, responding to and conveying the complexity of history and memory. Inspired by her stature as the first woman to win Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize, I was also aware that Whiteread has acknowledged the influence of American artists such as Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, and Gordon Matta-Clark, and has spoken of her sympathy for the American Romantics Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I felt certain that her contribution would be powerful and consequential. We met a few months later and discussed the broad parameters of the commission, the physical site, and the cultural-diplomacy objective of demonstrating similarities or productive differences between our two countries and cultures.

Becoming Home

Whiteread’s inspired and compelling response was to create a transcendent work referencing affordable and transitional housing in both the United States and Britain. The theme has deep historical resonance in the two countries, recalling our shared trajectories and intertwined histories. Prefabricated buildings served as dwellings throughout Britain’s colonial expansion. They provided critical accommodation for military and civilian personnel during and following both world wars. To replace homes destroyed by bombing during the second of these wars, Winston Churchill sponsored a government program to provide temporary prefabricated homes developed in consultation with American engineers. Prototypes were erected outside the Tate in Millbank to demonstrate their ease and speed of construction, raising public enthusiasm for the initiative. Over 156,000 of these houses—many of them proving not so temporary, for they are still standing today—sprang up throughout Britain to give refuge to those made homeless by the wreckage of war.

In the United States, meanwhile, prefabricated buildings sheltered hopeful miners in the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and ’50s. As in the United Kingdom, military personnel lived in prefabricated buildings through both world wars, and some of these structures were later adapted to house families during peacetime. The American dream of home ownership meanwhile propelled the popularity of the flat pack, the home delivered in a kit. Between 1908 and 1940, the catalogue company Sears, Roebuck produced over 70,000 models of such homes, bearing picturesque names such as Alhambra, Rosita, Savoy, Cinderella, Windsor, Hollywood, and Betsy Ross to feed the fantasies and aspirations of middle-class Americans. These havens could be customized with features both basic and ornate, and were available on advantageous borrowing terms. As materials were developed and adapted to reduce building costs and the need for skilled labor, home ownership became an achievable ambition.

US Embassy (Flat pack house) embraces these histories of renewal, optimism, and striving, and similar creative adaptations were necessary to realize the work itself. Whiteread, AIE, and the embassy’s architects struggled for months, for example, with the formula for the concrete, which had to be light enough for the buildings structure to bear its weight. The solution ultimately proved to be concrete reinforced with glass, a material that is lightweight but strong and allows for finer detail than traditional concrete generally does.

Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

Robert Frost

The symbolism of the home as cultural connector is profound. Here Whiteread responded to the site, acknowledging the complex significance of home for travelers abroad. Her sculpture is a still life, showing no obvious residue of human presence, yet its quiet bulk elicits a vast range of visual, cognitive, and emotional responses. The work emphasizes the solemn, the stoic, and the heroic. Human ambition and promise are dignified and memorialized by its silent spaces. “Home” conjures up ideas of warmth, family, love, security, and harmony, but also the threat and reality of their loss.

“Home” also signifies origin, place, and belonging; its meanings inevitably provoke social comment and question, underscoring the critical state of the world today, with its large forced movements of refugees and migrants. Prefabricated buildings currently provide refuge for many of the 65 million displaced people around the globe, while upward of 1.6 billion people struggle without adequate shelter. US Embassy (Flat pack house) honors those lives and admonishes our complacency. We are sheltered by the work, comforted by its familiar forms, and disquieted by its ambiguity. While the notion of home may transport viewers to their own personal space, their own idea of domesticity, this archetypal flat-pack house is disorienting and mysterious. It is a cast of space, made inside a home that was or that may be, invoking memory and hope. It embodies paradox, home away from home, absence and presence together. Consciously and unconsciously, US Embassy (Flat pack house) will connect all who pass through it with a human aspiration as basic as breath: the longing for home. As we face the piece, the electrical outlets also remind that this particular home is distinctly American.

On January 12, 2017, Whiteread was awarded the State Department’s Medal of Arts, acknowledging her work and her enduring commitment to cultural diplomacy through the visual arts and international cultural exchange. She is recognized as defining a generation through her artistic excellence and her belief in the underlying premise of art as a potential unifier. US Embassy (Flat pack house) humanizes and energizes the new embassy, creating an environment that opens dialogue and forges cultural links. As Whiteread has said, “I don’t think art changes the world in terms of stopping people dying of AIDS or of starvation or being homeless. But for an individual, seeing a great piece of art can take you from one place to another—it can enhance daily life, reflect our times, and, in that sense, change the way you think and are.”

Artwork © Rachel Whiteread; photos: Mike Bruce

Solid Recollections: Rachel Whiteread

Solid Recollections: Rachel Whiteread

James Lawrence explores the quiet power and critical role of memory in Rachel Whiteread’s public works.

Rachel Whiteread, Nissen Hut, 2018.

Shy Sculpture: Nissen Hut

Rachel Whiteread’s public sculpture Nissen Hut was unveiled in October 2018 in Yorkshire’s Dalby Forest. Curator Tamsin Dillon explores the dynamic history of these structures and provides a firsthand account of the steps leading up to the work’s premiere.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Notre-Dame), 2019.

For Notre-Dame

An exhibition at Gagosian, Paris, is raising funds to aid in the reconstruction of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris following the devastating fire of April 2019. Gagosian directors Serena Cattaneo Adorno and Jean-Olivier Després spoke to Jennifer Knox White about the generous response of artists and others, and what the restoration of this iconic structure means across the world.

Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

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Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.

Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2019

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Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2019

The Spring 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Red Pot with Lute Player #2 by Jonas Wood on its cover.

Edmund de Waal and Jan Dalley, FT Weekend Festival, London, September 7, 2019

In Conversation
Edmund de Waal and Jan Dalley

At the FT Weekend Festival 2019 in London, Edmund de Waal sat down for a conversation with Financial Times arts editor Jan Dalley. They spoke about the relationship between words and sculpture in his practice, and about two recent projects: the two-part exhibition psalm, in Venice, and Elective Affinities, at the Frick Collection, New York.

Artist Nam June Paik writing on his typewriter in black and white photo.

Reading Nam June Paik

Earlier this year, MIT Press released We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik. Here Gregory Zinman, coeditor of the book along with John Hanhardt and Edith Decker-Phillips, writes about his first exposure to the artist’s archives, the discoveries made there, and the relationship between Paik’s writings and his larger practice.

Before the Smoke Has Cleared

Before the Smoke Has Cleared

Angela Brown provides a glimpse into the charged ecologies of recent drawings and sculptures by Tatiana Trouvé. These works will be included in On the Eve of Never Leaving, Trouvé’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, opening in November 2019.

Richard Serra, Hands Scraping, 1968, film still.

The Art of Perception: Richard Serra’s Films

For eleven years, from 1968 to 1979, Richard Serra created a collection of films and videos that felt out the uncharted phenomenological boundaries of the medium. Carlos Valladares explores a selection of these works.

Piero Golia.

Myth-Maker

Alexander Wolf explores the economic, social, and methodological concerns of Piero Golia’s art practice, revealing the real-world implications of the artist’s experiments with form and process.

Helen Frankenthaler, Riverhead, 1963 (detail).

Frankenthaler

On the occasion of the exhibition Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992, at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani in Venice, Italy, art historians John Elderfield and Pepe Karmel discuss the concept of the panorama in relation to the artist’s work. Their conversation traces developments in Frankenthaler’s approach to composition, the boundaries and conventions of abstraction, and how, in many ways, her career continually challenged established theories of art history.

Sarah Sze, Dews Drew (Half-life), 2018.

Sarah Sze: Infinite Generation

Louise Neri talks with Sarah Sze about the new primacy of the image in her explorations between and across mediums. They spoke on the occasion of an exhibition of Sze’s work at Gagosian, Rome, comprising collaged panel paintings, a large-scale video installation, and an outdoor sculpture fashioned from a natural boulder.