The artist Rachel Whiteread makes sculptures out of the spaces between, under, or around things so that these spaces between, under, or around become the thing expressed. You might say her sculptures—cast in resin, plaster, or concrete—are made out of silence. She has cast, for example, the inside of a water bottle, the spaces beneath chairs and well-traveled staircases, and the interior of a closet. Shortly after the death of her father, she made Shallow Breath, a plaster cast of the space between a mattress and the floor beneath it. If we are lucky enough to have a mattress, we spend a lot of time on them. We sleep on them—deeply, fitfully, not at all, catnapping, napping with cats; we dream on them; we have sex on them; some of us are born on them; some of us die on them. Even if you don’t know the circumstances surrounding the piece, there is the feeling of accumulation: of time, experience, memory, and imagination.
My favorite of Whiteread’s sculptures, Ghost, radiates that sense of accumulation, that tension of movement and stillness, contained in silence—something happening and the expectation of something about to happen. For a while, Ghost was the first thing you saw when you walked into the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where I live. Ghost is a nine feet high, eleven-and-a-half feet wide, and ten feet deep plaster of Paris sculpture of the interior of a living room. Whiteread has captured the space in which you might find a water bottle, a chair, a closet, a staircase, and many of the other ephemeral, invisible things that add up to that mysterious phenomenon, a life.
With Ghost, Whiteread said, she wanted to “mummify the air in the room,” and this is what she has done. Think of a room in your home in which you spend a lot of time, and then consider everything that’s ever happened in that room. All the invisible traces—time, experience, memory, imagination—preserved, then given weight and extension. As with so much of her work, Ghost is a study of the interior space of an interior space, an archaeology of silence, its strata layered with the atmosphere of unremarkable hours and days and weeks and months and years pierced with love, lust, longing, rage, and grief.