The Legacy of Minimalism

Rachel Whiteread
Tate Britain, London
12.09.17 – 24.01.18

Translated by Bridget Noetzel

A woman said quietly to her companion, ‘It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?’, as they examined a resin door flashing with emerald light, leaning against the wall. Not far from them, I was facing another resin window hung on the wall and inwardly replied, ‘Yes, it’s really beautiful.’

Like the other YBAs ( Young British Artists ), Rachel Whiteread made a name for herself at a young age, and controversy has followed her eventful artistic career. In 1993 she became the first woman to win the Turner Prize with House, but she was also named ‘Worst Artist of the Year’ by the K Foundation. In 2000 her Holocaust Monument ( also known as Nameless Library ) in Vienna drew praise from the art world, but touched off angry protests by local residents. Nevertheless, in contrast to the rock-star bravado of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, Whiteread does not like the spotlight. She prefers to stay in the studio, quietly and persistently moving between various materials. The works are left for the viewer to judge. Whiteread’s artworks are taken from everyday life, from hot-water bottles to boxes, from doors and windows to stairs, to an entire house. Using a range of industrial materials, she replicates objects that are often ignored yet are everywhere in our lives, cast in monumental sculptures. The intimacy of the forms of these everyday objects and the strangeness of their replication in new materials create connections and divergences, just as the artist’s reserve and the straightforwardness of her work do. This ambivalence is also reflected in her relationship to the ‘minimalist’ label.

The signs of minimalism are immediately visible in her work: repetition and extremely simple geometric forms. The ghosts of Donald Judd’s metal boxes and Carl Andre’s bricks hover in the exhibition space, wandering among Whiteread’s concrete and resin. This would have been a waking nightmare for Michael Fried: light softly filters down from Tate Britain’s high ceilings; the curator has lightly placed the artist’s pieces in resin, plaster and concrete, displaying them against gleaming marble flagstones, scattering them on clean wooden floors, or gently leaning them against clean white walls. A neat taped square surrounds every object, announcing its status as a valuable work of art. Visitors walk quietly through the exhibition as if a sacred ceremony were taking place in an elegant theatre. This theatre of ceremony undoubtedly persists in the exhibition halls of contemporary art museums. The noble ideals closely tied to modernism cited by Fried have since dissolved into the sheer variety and novelty of postmodern art and contemporary art. The rebellious and avant-garde ideas of performance art, conceptual art, audience intervention and relational aesthetics have engulfed every form in the art world since minimalism, pushing the theatricality that Fried so derided to its ultimate point. Compared to the novelty-chasing celebrities of the avant-garde, Whiteread’s exhibition surprisingly seems a bit nostalgic, and the Tate tactfully defined it as a retrospective, looking back to the classics to avoid cutting-edge works, like those shown in biennials.

After the utopian ideals of modernism and the showiness and cynicism of postmodern art, contemporary art has once again undertaken the political mission of practising a social critique, intervening in society through body, gender, race and region, and concerning itself with social issues in all corners of the globe. In contrast to this varied mode of contemporary art, Whiteread has not made any radical, passionate declarations or expressed political ambitions. She quietly and constantly explores, applying various materials and media to the remaking of everyday objects. In the process of casting the artworks, she carefully retains the traces of their use; these traces of everyday life are imprinted as properties of the objects. In this way, she strips art of the heavy burden of theme, while also retaining a shred of human warmth. Rendering them in unfamiliar materials removes the practicality from these doors, windows, mattresses and hot-water bottles. In a consumer society engulfed by the fetishisation of products, these objects receive a pardon, avoiding being seen as objects of consumption. After removing the symbolic imprints, as Jean Baudrillard conceived them, all that is left is the object itself, magnifying its materiality.

Whiteread has not returned to the arrogance of modernist elitism, and in contrast to the nearly religious quality of the works of her minimalist predecessors, the intimacy of the forms of everyday objects dissolves their sense of mystery, and the philosophical fog of the pure form is dispelled. When viewers confront these familiar objects, they no longer have to worry about whether they can play the intellectual game of identification. The Tate as a site of authority and the tickets in their hands ensure that the objects before them are genuine works of art. Therefore, viewers can temporarily set down their intellectual burdens, and situate themselves within this specific site to appreciate the dim light refracted through and from the translucent resin, the sturdy, full volumes of the rubber, and the solid, grainy surfaces of the concrete. The reproductions in the catalogue could never communicate the characteristics of the materials used in the works, even if they were in higher resolution than is actually the case; minimalist artworks, like the vast majority of contemporary art, need the viewer to be present in the space, experiencing the works. It is only in an exhibition space in a specific location that viewers can obtain this sense of ceremony and theatre.

Of course, the legacy of minimalism is theatricality, but it is also materiality itself. In contemporary society we are experiencing what David Harvey called ‘time-space compression’. Our sense of time and space is gradually disappearing with the increased acceleration of the movement of goods and the pace of life. Driven by instrumental rationality and hedonism, our sense of the material is gradually being lost. People focus on the functionality or fashionability of objects, and it is hard to find the energy to pay attention to their material properties. Man-made industrial materials, such as acrylic resin, rubber, plaster and concrete, are used extensively in our surroundings, but no one, apart from a builder, is likely to show a concern for their textures. However, Whiteread discovered them, and in the name of art, these familiar forms can once again showcase their materiality. Whiteread’s talent and effort allows their materiality to shine with beautiful radiance in a form that people find exceedingly intimate.

The pursuit of beauty has long been abandoned in modern and contemporary art. It has been renounced for so long that it is only remembered occasionally. As a result, we always hear calls for a return to beauty, but it’s hard to avoid being carelessly labelled as outmoded or lacking insight; even using the word ‘beautiful’ to evaluate a work of modern or contemporary art seems rather inappropriate. However, in a time enamoured of images and spectacles, a time in which consciousness and attention seem to have been dissolved or suspended, people should have the opportunity to avert their eyes from their screens, if only for a while, and take a break from trying to encrypt and decode the flickering imagery in front of their eyes. In the almost puritanically clean space that the curator has carefully created, viewers can once again appreciate materiality. At this moment, they put aside all accumulated knowledge and emotional baggage, pulled out of a complex world moving at full speed. Viewers find themselves in a visual vacuum in a cultural and social sense, once again facing the objects with new eyes. This materiality is, as Emmanuel Levinas said, ‘naked elements, simple and absolute, swellings or abscesses of being’. Viewers allow themselves to fall into a trap of materiality carefully laid out before their eyes by the artist, discovering the objects themselves while also discovering their own bodies and their own existences.

The temptation of materiality is always there, but this time an art exhibition gives it value. Pulling that fine thread means that the viewer can only repress the rising urge to touch the works, and quietly sigh, ‘It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?’


2017 年9 月12 日—2018 年1 月24 日


与其他“yBa”( 英国青年艺术家 ) 成员一样,雷切尔·怀特瑞德成名甚早,争议也一直伴随着名誉贯穿她的艺术生涯:1993 年的《房屋》使她成为第一位女性“透纳奖”获得者,但也让她被K 基金会评为“年度最差英国艺术家”;2000 年建成于维也纳的《大屠杀纪念碑》让她备受艺术圈的赞誉,也令她遭受当地民众的愤怒抗议。但与翠西·艾敏和达米安·赫斯特等如摇滚明星般的张扬不同,怀特瑞德并不喜欢将自己暴露在聚光灯下。她更倾向于躲在工作室里,安静而坚持不懈地摆弄各种材料。至于作品,就留给观众自己去评判。怀特瑞德的艺术作品基本上都取材于日常生活,从暖水袋到盒子,从门窗到楼梯再到一整栋房子。她通过选择各种工业材料,将这些生活中随处可见却又常被忽视的物,通过浇筑的方法完成纪念碑式的雕塑呈现。日常器物的形式带来的亲近感,与用新材料重制的异质感,如同艺术家自身的内敛与其艺术品的粗豪一样,形成一种关联和偏离。这种若即若离的关系也体现在她与极简主义的标签之间。

毫无疑问,人们可一眼从她的作品中看到极简主义的标记: 至简的几何形式与重复的阵列。贾德的金属块与安德烈的方砖鬼魅般的影子,在怀特瑞德的混凝土与树脂中穿行,萦绕着整个展厅。这正是迈克尔·弗雷德的梦魇: 灯光从泰特不列颠美术馆高耸的屋顶轻柔泄下; 艺术家的树脂、石膏和混凝土制品被策展人精心安排布置,或列阵于光亮的大理石地砖,或稀疏躺在洁净的实木地板,又或轻轻倚着明净的灰白墙; 一条条细线框在各个物件的四周,宣告着其价值不菲的艺术品身份; 观众轻轻穿行在展厅中,犹如在一个精美的剧场进行某种圣洁的仪式。这种仪式性的剧场无疑存在于各个当代艺术馆的展厅里。弗雷德紧紧拽住现代主义高洁理想而发出的呼喊,早已消散在后现代艺术与当代艺术形形色色的新奇花样中。表演艺术、观念艺术、观众介入、关系美学,这些自极简主义以来带着反叛与先锋的帽子席卷整个艺术界的种种艺术形式,都在极力地将弗雷德嗤之以鼻的剧场性发挥至极致。与那些新奇酷炫的前卫明星相比,怀特瑞德的展览竟然显得有些复古了,泰特也知趣地将之定义为回顾展,用“回溯经典”的名号,避开各种双年展作品们毕露的锋芒。

经过了现代主义的乌托邦理想和后现代艺术的浮华与犬儒, 当代艺术再次肩负起社会批判的政治使命,以身体、性别、种族、地域的姿态重新介入社会,关切发生在全球各个角落的社会问题。和形态各异的当代艺术不同,怀特瑞德并没有那么激进的激情宣言和政治野心。她只是在默默地不断探索,将各种材质和媒介应用到对日常事物的重新塑造上。在艺术品的铸造过程中,她刻意保留各种使用痕迹,将日常生活的印记铭刻在物本身的属性之上, 通过这种方法,为艺术卸下了主题的沉重负载,同时也保留了一丝人情的温度。并且,与异质性材料的结合,使得这些门窗、床垫和暖水壶被抹去了实用性的标签。在被商品拜物教席卷的消费社会中,这些物件得以被赦免,避免被认为是要被消耗的对象。


Rachel Whiteread, installation view, Tate Britain, London, 2018. Courtesy the artist. “雷切尔·怀特瑞德”展览现场 泰特美术馆 作者自摄

在褪掉了鲍德里亚意味上的符号印记之后,剩下的便只是物本身, 物性由此凸显出来。

但怀特瑞德并未返回现代主义精英主义的高傲姿态,不同于极简主义前辈们近乎宗教性的作品气息,日常用品的样态所带来的亲密感让物自体的神秘感消失了,单纯形状的哲思迷雾被消解了。观众面对种种熟悉的物件,不再担心自己是否能应付思辨的智力游戏。泰特美术馆的权威场域与手中门票也在向他们保证, 眼前的物件是货真价实的艺术品。于是观众得以暂且卸下思想包袱,置身于这个特定场域的现场之中,去感受半透明的树脂朦朦地反射微光,感受橡胶充实而饱满的体量,感受混凝土的厚重与颗粒感的面表。分辨率再高的图片也无法传导出物性的特质,极简主义风格的艺术作品与绝大多数当代艺术一样,需要观众现场性的临场体验。也只有在特定地点的展览现场,观众才能获得这种剧场性的仪式感。

当然,极简主义的遗产,并非只有剧场性,还有物性本身。在现代社会,我们经历着大卫·哈维所言的“时空压缩”体验, 时间感和空间感随着物品流通的飞速运转和生活节奏的不断加速而渐渐消失。在工具理性与享乐主义的驱使下,我们的物感也逐渐丧失了。人们关注物的功能性,关注物的时尚感,再难有精力去关注物的材质特性本身。特别是如聚乙烯树脂、橡胶、石膏、混凝土等被大量使用在我们生活周遭的人造工业材料,大概除了材料商,没有人会去关心它们的质地。但怀特瑞德发现了它们, 以艺术的名义,以人们熟悉的样态,使它们的物性得以重新被展现。怀特瑞德作为艺术家的天赋和努力,让这些物性以人们最亲近的形式,闪耀出美的光芒。


Rachel Whiteread, installation view, Tate Britain, London, 2018. Courtesy the artist. “雷切尔·怀特瑞德”展览现场 泰特美术馆 作者自摄

对美的追求,似乎早被现当代艺术抛弃了。抛弃得太久,以至于偶尔生发出想念,于是总能听见对审美回归的呼唤,但难免又会被草草贴上陈旧迂腐、不思进取庸俗的标签,乃至于用“漂亮” 去评价一件现当代艺术品竟显得有些不妥。但是,在这个普遍迷恋图像和奇观的时代,在这个知觉与注意力被消散悬置的时代, 人们应该得到这样一种机会,能暂时摆脱编码解码的图像游戏, 避开令人眼花缭乱的影像屏幕,在策展人精心构造的清教徒式的简洁空间中,再次感受物性。这一刻,人们抛掉所有知识积累和情感负累,从飞速运转的繁杂世界中抽离,在一个文化和社会意义上的“视域”真空里,再一次以童真之眼直面物本身,这种物性是列维纳斯所说的赤裸、单纯、绝对的元素,是“存在之脓肿”。观众任由自己陷入眼前这个艺术家精心布下的物性陷阱,发现物本身的同时也发现了我们自己的身体,发现自己的存在。

物性的诱惑依然就在那里,只是这次,在艺术展场中它显得珍贵。拉起的细线使得观众只能抑制住内心涌起的触觉冲动,于是只得轻轻地感叹: 这真漂亮,不是吗?