Pat Whiteread: critically shifting horizons

I saw Pat Whiteread’s installation at the Camden Arts Centre in November, and I was truly moved by it.

Zero Survivability Situations (subtitled Nuclear Winter) was fronted by aspects of the military, and had at its core, a private space–the sphere of domesticity, where families and friends might share food and gossip: warm and secure, but for the greyness of its ‘nature morte’ ghosted by a shimmer from the slides projected at the rear. It was the third installation in the series (the others are No Plant is Safe and Brooding Monument to Nuclear Miscalculation); its title refers to the jargonese of a helicopter pilot as he was plunging to his death. It is a very intentional title, and not only refers to Whiteread’s concerns with nuclear issues, but to her private concerns as well. As she is to be quoted, ‘The private is political’; and in this case the imminence of death is the issue.

Death is used symbolically in varying degrees: that of the pilot’s, that envisaged by a nuclear holocaust, and that of Whiteread’s husband, who was to die after a long illness just before completion of the work. It was the first overt assimilation of family and environment: the slides, primed to overlap and overlay each other, included family snapshots, industrial and rural landscapes, and vivid symbols of elemental fires and faceless, modern horseless knights-in-shining-armour, threatening anti-heroes, silent apocalyptic harbingers.


It was a complex and ambitious marriage, synchronised to haunting musical excerpts, including party political speeches by Kinnock and Thatcher, bird and whalesong, and the voice of her granddaughter, ‘Oh, for God’s sake’, as a finale.

Whatever naivety is contained within the work is selectively used to bring the audience back to a reality with which they can identify. The work is such a dense voyage through allegorical and symbolic landscapes that the pinpricks of images lifted straight from a very ‘normal’ family album, raise these from mere sentimental memory lanes. Here naivety is an anchor.

Despite the threat of impending death, the work ceases to be bleak by the use of the motifs of seasonal changes, presaging rejuvenation–backed by the hope of change through regeneration.

Pat Whiteread worked primarily as a painter until she became interested in photography whilst teaching basic design to photography students. Her paintings have shifted in intention, although her main preoccupation with landscape has spanned her long career of almost three decades. Whereas earlier work, often very lyrical, represented traditional painterly concerns of handling light and colour, recent work also tackles issues not usually attempted by women artists–those of technology and our modern industrial inheritance.

These issues require bravery, and I believe they have not been tackled by enough artists before, simply because they are so very difficult to portray without the danger of being attacked on many fronts–least of which might be the criticism of failing to entertain, an overriding contemporary obsession if one is to look at recent exhibition choices. A pertinent comparison might be the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition ‘Plane Space’ or David Godbold’s ‘The Fall Guy’, both on at the same time as Whiteread’s. This formal ‘post-modernist’ approach to technology and photography, a theme echoed in recent ICA shows, and so on, are all in direct opposition to Whiteread’s passionate and involving scenarios.

To compare Whiteread with artists who tackle concerns related to her themes would also point out the precise nature of her isolation. The work of better known artists such as Helen Chadwick, Jo Spence, Susan Hiller, who use the personal to contextualise (respectively) mutability, health, or certain archetypal traces of death, reveals that which is missing: a topicality grounded firmly in the day to day, and sometimes headline-making news items, preoccupations of universal threats to our immediate surroundings. Perhaps a fairer but much more difficult parallel can be drawn with the work of Philippa Goodall. (2) Goodall’s photographs are actually quite close to Whiteread’s: industrial landscapes, homely jam jars, evocative words. But they have a base in intellectual discourses, which in no way lessens their validity, rather it heightens it. Whiteread’s mixtures of superlative colour over traces of visual messages are intuitive, which is not to say that they haven’t been very carefully and painstakingly put together. And in both cases, Goodall and Whiteread have taken on the rather awesome responsibility of universal spokesperson, to nudge us all into confronting recent history, today’s concerns. Whiteread’s graphic motif of the troubadour in the series of paintings entitled ‘Isn’t it Absurd?’ directly refers to the way news was conveyed from village to village by the travelling troupe.


‘Conversation Pieces’, subtitled ‘Isn’t it Absurd?’, are mixed media works which have animals as their heroes and man, in absentia usually, as the anti-hero–as these animals are all endangered, hunted almost to extinction. Wryly, Aphrodite, for whom man’s lust knows no bounds, looks on as the Rhinoceros is killed for the fabled and entirely fictitious amorous properties of its horn. Icon to the Whale is more topical. Some of Tyger, Tyger is used on slide in another slide/tape piece, Rigormortis–Pollution Piece B which was Arts Council funded. Made in 1981/2, this piece is uncannily prescient of Piper Alpha, water pollution: still the ‘scattered Nimbus’ wreaking vengeance.

When this work was exhibited at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, Pat Whiteread read out a long list, deadpan, of disasters related to man’s greed of the environment. It is with some tongue-in-cheek humour that I add that Whiteread’s work has been influenced by the Dadaists and Surrealists, especially Duchamp. And I trust she will continue to fight our notions of ‘C’est la vie’.

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