A highly anticipated retrospective of sculptor Rachel Whiteread recently opened at Tate Britain. It’s a bold, exciting exhibition that features the breadth of Whiteread’s works from her first ever solo show up to the present day. We caught up with Linsey Young, Curator of Contemporary British Art at Tate Britain, to discuss the curatorial vision for the show.
RRJ Editorial: Why did this year of 2017 feel like an appropriate time to revisit and re-evaluate Rachel Whiteread’s work?
Linsey Young: She’s one of the most significant British sculptors working today, and this exhibition covers 30 years of her practice. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1988 at the Carlyle Gallery, and we’ve brought together everything that was in that exhibition. These four works are the first thing you see when you come in, and then the show runs right up to the present day, to works made in 2017. It just felt like the right time to be showing her work. Of course, she was the first woman to have won the Turner Prize, and she’s someone who’s constantly been an influence and who’s constantly been innovating in her practice, and we wanted to showcase that achievement.
RRJ: What are the logistical challenges of putting together an exhibition like this?
LY: It involves a lot of collaborative work with colleagues, and months and months of organising the shipping. One of these works will take perhaps two massive trucks to get it from the storage to Tate Britain, so you have to know where to put those crates when they come in. They also can’t be around when you’re putting together the exhibition because they take up too much room, so there’s a huge amount of cooperation between the conservators and the technicians, and our registrars. So logistically, it is quite complex, but once it starts to go up everything is very well documented so it’s quite smooth.
The works aren’t so epic that they can’t get into the building. Even the biggest work here, Room 101, still fits quite comfortably in our galleries, so our curatorial decisions weren’t really affected by logistical issues. We were really led by Rachel and what she wanted to show and by Ann Gallagher and her interests.
RRJ: Significant resources are required to produce, store, transport and conserve larger works of art, such as some of Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures. What role do you think institutions can play in supporting artists who are making these very ambitious pieces?
LY: I think it’s very important that the curators see as much new art as possible, and it’s very important that the curators who are working within a gallery are seeing shows by young artists, so that they are able to know when it’s the right time to offer an opportunity. For example, for things like Art Now, the exhibition space for contemporary art we have here at Tate Britain, it’s very important that my colleagues and I are out going to studio visits and seeing shows, because then we’re able to jump in and say when we think an artist is ready to show their work with us. Also, when we buy a work, we have to care for it and loan it as much as possible to make sure that it’s accessible.
RRJ: It’s so nice that in this show very few of the works are encased in Perspex and there are simply light ropes or markings on the floor to keep viewers at a safe distance from the work. Was that a very conscious curatorial decision?
LY: Absolutely. It’s a tricky thing, because obviously we have a duty of care towards the work and to the public, as well as towards the lenders and the artist, so we have to make sure that the balance is right. But it was very important to us and to Rachel that people could get as close as possible to the works; we’re just trusting them not to cross the lines! But it is really important that you see the materiality of the works and that you see the lines and the cracks that have been created by these cast objects.
RRJ: Clearly another decision that you’ve taken is to present the works in a big open space, rather than walling them off into individual rooms.
LY: We’re using the same space as the recent Hockney show, if you came to that, and we’ve taken out every single wall except for a couple of small supporting walls. It’s the first time that’s really been done. It’s about doing the best for the artist, and this is the best way to show Rachel Whiteread’s work: to exhibit it in one big open space so you can have as much light and as much air around it as possible. And it was also important to us that you can see works from different stages of the artist’s career at the same time. So if you stand in the corner where you come in, you can see some of the first work she ever made and you can also see much more recent work that she made in 2009, for example, and that’s a wonderful juxtaposition we’ve been able to achieve.
Rachel Whiteread is on at Tate Britain until 21 January 2018. Read more and buy tickets here.
Below: Watch a snippet of Frances Morris and Rachel Whiteread in conversation (via Association of Women in the Arts)