Rachel Whiteread: Breaking the Chains of Form and Content
In his essay “The Present Body, the Absent Body, and the Formless,”1 Uros Cvoro provides us with a compelling analysis of Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 public sculpture House. Although it was destroyed only three months after it was constructed, Cvoro argues for its persisting relevance: “The questions that House raised about the articulation of memory as a displacement of past into present, the tracing of absence, and the dialogue between the viewer's body and the materiality of the object remain as pertinent as ever for any serious study of sculpture and memory.”2 Since we take a real interest in both sculpture (as students of art) and memory (as human beings), it would seem dangerously negligent to overlook this landmark work.
Cvoro begins by rightly criticizing “the unquestioned assumption that House either acted as a symbolic substitute for the body of the viewer--an inverted, disrupted body--or represented the absence of the domestic body.”3 As he keenly observes, “the result of such an approach to the work overlooks… the conceptual potential of House to dislocate the oppositions of work/beholder, text/reader, and object/subject.”4 In order to bring the discussion back to the realm of reasonable analysis, Cvoro sets out to “link Whiteread's work to a material operation of sign deferral that contests its very materiality as fixed location and show how it has the capacity to decompose the very coherence of form on which the materiality of House has been thought to depend.”5
Now, Cvoro draws on the work of Bois and Krauss in order to introduce the important notion of the formless, a notion without which we might be left groping in our encounter with more recent approaches to art. As Cvoro explains, “Bois and Krauss detach the trace of the formless from the visual form, thus undermining the proximity of the trace to the form and the possibility of the trace being absorbed by the form. Their point is that if the trace of the formless is independent of the visual form, it will eschew the binary logic of form and content.”6 As my readers are well aware, this binary logic of form and content has tyrannized art theory for far too long. But in introducing the essential notion of the formless, we find ourselves in the happy position of moving beyond this relic of ancient speculation.
But Cvoro is here concerned with House, and he makes skillful use of the previous considerations to open our understanding of the work. Cvoro suggests that
“by using the operations of the trace and the formless as models for our reading of House, we will open the interpretative possibilities of the work to more democratic ways of reading. More specifically, we will be able to eschew the confounding absent/present binary of the body. In short, I will suggest that just as the trace is without a past, and the formless is without a form, House is without a body.”7
With this move, Cvoro can finally declare checkmate against “the reductive humanist perspective” that has hitherto been “brought to bear on House” and that “always returns into the symbolic economy of the body.”8 If House is in fact without a body, then any debate over its status as either inverted body or absent domestic body is rendered meaningless, no matter how well entrenched it may be.
I suggest that my readers review their own past modes of thinking and see if they are not equally infected with the form/content prejudices so prevalent even in this new millennium. I expect that you will be surprised and greatly benefited by the realization that there is indeed a way out of this binary straightjacket, a way that can lead us closer to our elusive quarry, artistic truth.
1-8: Cvoro, Uros, Art Journal, Winter 2002, Vol. 61 Issue 4, pp. 54-64.