Rachel Whiteread: Tree of Life @ Whitechapel Gallery

British sculptor and Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread has recently been commissioned by Whitechapel Gallery (and with the support of the Art Fund) to transform with her visual language an empty section of the gallery’s historic façade. The permanent work incorporated the already existing architectural theme of the ‘Tree of Life’ and the presence of buddleia, a type of plant growing in the area. The new installation ephasises on the cultural background and idiosyncrasy of the particular East London area.

Whiteread installed bronze cast flowers and branches -all plated in gold leaf- into the 8m x 15m space situated directly above the building’s main entrance. The addition of four terracotta panels, negative casts of the gallery’s windows, to the middle of the rectangular panel underlines Whiteread’s deep interest in space and its properties as one detects in her previous works.

Whitechapel Gallery accompanied the launch of the new artwork with four videos; three of them are filmed at the foundry, the terracotta factory and the gilder’s studio accordingly. They narrate and highlight each step of the backstage preparation process. The fourth video includes an interview with the artist herself talking about her work and inspirations.

Whitechapel Gallery art curator, Emily Butler, talked to REVma -/+ about Whiteread’s installation:

REVma -/+: What led to the decision to incorporate Rachel Whiteread’s work into the façade of Whitechapel Gallery?
E.B.: Rachel Whiteread is one of the most important artists working in Britain today and the Whitechapel Gallery Trustees approached her following her long collaborative involvement with the Gallery. The way she has worked with existing architectural forms in a subtle yet significant way on a number of iconic temporary as well as permanent projects were seen as very appropriate for this commission. She has lived and in east London for the past 25 years so has a very personal connection to the area.

REVma -/+: The ‘behind the scenes’ videos available on your website demonstrate the hard work and skill put into this installation. What were the challenges during this process and how long did it take for the transformation of the frieze?
E.B.: The commission began with Rachel coming to the Gallery on a freezing winter morning to take imprints of the relieved ‘Tree of Life’ tiles high up on the building façade. She created moulds back at her studio which were used to produce a large number of wax leaves and then worked out the design on a 1:1 mock up of the façade, working with clusters of the leaves and branches. This formed the basis for the initial design. The real challenge for the project was actually obtaining the necessary authorizations to get the go ahead for the project. It took nearly a year of negotiation before permission was granted, so the production itself seemed to happen all very quickly this spring. As you can see from the videos we worked with real experts on the bronze and terracotta casting as well as the gold leafing, so we were very confident they would turn it around beautifully and on time. The installation of the work itself began mid-April and the work was unveiled to the public on 15 June.

REVma -/+: The subject matter of Whiteread’s installation is the ‘Tree of Life’ with its symbolisms of social renewal through the arts. Were there any other concepts or other forms of visual language proposed before this project was finally commissioned?
E.B.: The concept for the new frieze came from Rachel Whiteread, who took the existing ‘Tree of Life’ motif on the terracotta façade of the building as a starting point for her commission. The motif can be seen in Charles Harrison Townsend’s other major London buildings. The negative casts of windows are also very characteristic of her work, however, there was a moment when Rachel was not sure to include them in the final design. We are pleased she decided to as they make for such a beautiful link between the Gallery’s original architectural intentions and her mapping of its physical features. At the time of the Gallery’s foundation, being one of the first public buildings lit by electricity, the illuminated windows were very important as they acted as a real draw for East End workers to visit after hours. The terracotta windows also reference a set of windows that had been installed on the facade during the 1970s, and they also highlight the materiality of the Victorian building itself since they are also made in beautifully crafted terracotta. So there are many subtle layers of architectural references that Rachel pulls out in the mapping of the windows physical features. Kostas Prapoglou