Sunday, 15 October 2017

Rachel Whiteread's Shy Sheds

Another enjoyable visit with Mrs Shedman to the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Tate Britain.

Of special interest is the way Whiteread has memorialised and commemorated vernacular buildings like sheds, huts and shacks.

She makes a concrete cast of a building and positions it somewhere unexpected, perhaps difficult to reach. Here they appear from a distance to be actual buildings, only to 'confound expectations' on closer approach.

She calls these 'shy sculptures'.

I like her work and find it very thought provoking. Yet I was slightly disappointed with this exhibition on leaving, feeling I hadn't had enough of the Whiteread magic. But that impression quickly faded as I found myself thinking about the work over the following days.

In Five Things to Know about Rachel Whiteread it's pointed out that whilst the buildings and cast shapes of her sculptures seem familiar, 'more often than not, Whiteread’s casts are of negative space, or the space between, under, or otherwise around things. The space that surrounds and defines an object is what we see in her sculptures...It’s the invisible spaces around us that Whiteread has turned our focus to.'

When we visited the exhibition space was quiet, almost reverential, church- or cathedral-like. The blocks of sculpture and leaning, sometimes ghostly, verticals create the feeling of a mausoleum or graveyard. That's partly due to the atmosphere of the Tate spaces themselves, curiously used as an example in the OED's definition of a mausoleum: 'a cultural mausoleum such as the Tate'!

Her vocabulary rewards study. The origin of the word 'shy' lies in the Old English scēoh '(of a horse) easily frightened', of Germanic origin; related to German scheuen 'shun', scheuchen 'scare'; compare with eschew. The word 'confound' (cause surprise or confusion, prove wrong, defeat a plan, overthrow) stems from the Latin word confundere meaning 'to pour together, mix up,' which is exactly the process Whiteread goes through to make her casts.

I realised as I read more about her work that these shy works hide a tremendous technical skill and proficiency. Whiteread pushed the boundaries of the casting technologies she uses. Yet this remarkable expertise is hidden in each work, like a piece of beautifully written code hidden from view in the simple useability of an app.

Her work appeals to my Shedman instincts in particular, not just because she creates shed-shaped sculptures, but also because one aspect of my own work that itself tends to be hidden is my exploration of the negative spaces left by men. The spaces men shed as they confront challenges in their lives, as they try to move on from a life-changing event or try to be a better person, tackling deeply embedded attitudes, regretted actions, innate reactions. The spaces left when men shed skins or old attitudes, change jobs or, ultimately, cease to be. When people ask me what Shedman is all about, that is the best answer I can give.

As Shedman at festivals and events, I encourage people to write, often in poetry, to express these changes, these sheds, their burn and turn; to write about the shape of their loss and grief, and often, though not always, their pride in trying and often succeeding in creating a new environment of hope, openness and positive action.

The Idol House

An enjoyable trip to Hever Castle and Gardens with Mrs Shedman to see the autumn colours. This childhood home of Anne Boleyn, formerly owned by Sir John Fastolf (the Falstaff of Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts I and II and The Merry Wives of Windsor) isn't a National Trust property as you might expect. It's now owned by a private group Broadland Properties, chaired by John Guthrie, who purchased the Hever estate from the Astor family in 1983.

William Waldorf Astor purchased Hever Castle in 1903. Upon the death of his father in early 1890, Astor inherited a personal fortune that made him the richest man in America. He grew increasingly disenchanted with America announcing that it was ‘no longer a fit place for a gentleman to live’ and in 1891 moved to England with a reputed $100 million. Between 1903 and 1908 Astor set about the restoration of the Castle, construction of the Astor Wing and creation of the lake and gardens. 

The gardens were laid out between 1904 and 1908 by Joseph Cheal & Son. Over 1,000 men worked on the grand design that was the brainchild of William Waldorf Astor. The lake was excavated and constructed by 800 men who were contracted in December 1904 to “carry on the works regularly and continuously by day and night (except on Sundays) when so ordered” and complete the work in two years! The lake was filled in July 1906.

Astor spent 15 years collecting statues, urns, sarcophagi, well-heads and columns when he was American Ambassador to Italy during the late 1800s. 

In 1905 Pickfords Removals brought the collection from Rome by sea to Chatham, and then transported it by road to Hever. A tin shed was temporarily erected to store the antiquities while the Italian Garden was under construction.

Cheal’s men referred to this as Astor’s 'Idol House’ because he went in daily to check his statues of classical gods.

1905-07: Astor’s ‘Idol House’ - the tin shed where the statues and
sculptures were kept while the Italian Garden was under construction.
(Text from the interpretation panels in the Garden Exhibition at Hever and from the Hever Castle website.)