Rachel Whiteread, via a missing museum

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Rachel Whiteread Untitled (Pink Torso), 1995

Last week’s holiday-at-home outings all ended up being art-focused, though I didn’t quite plan for it to be like that. And before I ended up at the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Tate Britain, I made a couple of discoveries.

I was looking for something to do in town with a friend that might not necessarily be women-focused, but would still fit the parameters of this new project. I flicked through a few books but couldn’t find anything that really grabbed me, and it wasn’t the weather for a wander, so in the end I thought I’d see if London does actually have a museum that relates specifically to women – or even has a relevant exhibition on at the moment, like Poster Girls. This is what you see when you type ‘London museums women’ into Google:

London museums women

Hold on… can that be right? I couldn’t quite believe it at first, thinking I must have typed something wrong. What sort of black magic metadata could have done this? I was stunned.

Scrolling down, of course, the plot thickened. Somehow it passed me by, but in 2015 what had been promised (including on the planning application) as London’s first museum of women’s history opened as… a Jack the Ripper museum. The Guardian tells the story here. In a nice link back to those search results, it turns out that the man behind this used to be… a ‘diversity chief’ at Google. With diversity like this, who needs a monoculture?

Happily, when you scroll down the first actual search result not linked to the map is the East End Women’s Museum. As they say on their site: ‘When a proposed women’s history museum on Cable Street in East London turned out to be an excuse to cash in on the popularity of a misogynist serial killer, we decided to make the missing museum a reality.’ They don’t yet have a permanent home – though they’re working on that, and you can support them here – but at the moment it’s an online public history project dedicating to telling women’s stories, in particular those of the East End. I’m looking forward to reading up on (and getting hold of her poetry) Phyllis Wheatley, the first known African American woman to see her poetry in print.

But back to last week’s expedition. My lovely friend Elizabeth had reminded me that there’s a big Rachel Whiteread exhibition on at Tate Britain at the moment, so I decided to give Jack the Ripper a miss and go to that instead.

What a fantastic exhibition. Rachel Whiteread’s incredibly well known of course, but I’ve never seen a whole retrospective of hers like this before. I thought it was brilliantly curated: just one large room, which felt somehow both spacious and enticing, taking in the breadth of her work, from the small and intimate – the series of ‘torsos’, cast hot waterbottles – to the imposing: Room 101, and Stairs. The whole thing was a delight, and in the giddiness of my new Advent challenge seemed to resonate beautifully: the sheer boldness of such large, uncompromising sculpture, and the unassuming nature of the smaller pieces, too, intimate, domestic and poignant. I was thinking too about how what Whiteread does is really make you look at ordinary everyday objects in a completely different way, because (in some pieces) she’s made a negative of what’s a positive, so you’re looking at what had been empty space, but made visible. Which is, in a way, what I’m trying to do this year: notice the default, notice the empty spaces of all the women I haven’t been reading, listening to, noticing. Looking again to see what’s already always been there – the way Whiteread’s doors and windows make you really examine them as objects – but that we don’t look at properly. (It’s why I write poetry, too: that attempt to look again, to reimagine things, to get a different view.)

I loved this, from the notes for the exhibition, on Untitled (Stairs) 2001:

‘Whiteread was particularly drawn to the stairs and floors of the building, the spaces that experience the hardest use and which, in their worn patches, scratches and chips, bear witness to the comings and goings of everyday life.’

Bearing witness to the places that bear the hardest use, and are often overlooked. Amen.

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Rachel Whiteread Due Porte, 2016

Tate Britain, Millbank, Rachel Whiteread, until 21st January 2018, £15.

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Poster Girls

I kicked off Advent and my new year-long project while on holiday last week, but at home in London – so doing that lovely thing of being a tourist in your own city, with the chance to do all your favourite things. Which for me, at the moment, seems to be looking at pictures.

I can’t remember who tipped me off but the very wonderful London Transport Museum currently has a fantastic exhibition that fits right into this project: Poster Girls – A Century of Art & Design. As the title sort of suggests (though ‘poster girls’ isn’t that helpful) it’s a century of poster design, all by female designers, right from the 1900s to today.

I don’t use the tube to commute so it still retains a kind of magic for me (I once even wrote a children’s book about mice who live on the tube, alas, never published), and like a lot of people find the design associated with it completely entrancing, so this was a real treat of an exhibition. I had no idea how big it would be so was glad I allowed myself plenty of time – there are two decent-sized rooms, both absolutely packed. Apparently London Underground was fairly forward-thinking in terms of commissioning female artists, right from the start, and also in giving them commissions for subjects traditionally seen as masculine.

I thought the first room would be my favourite, as it includes that golden era of poster design, all vintage-feeling and nostalgic. But the second room, downstairs, was a delight too, journeying along the tube to the present day and, finally, beginning to recognise some of the designs. I was pleased to discover that one of my favourites – because it was on the cover of an old fold-out tube map I had when I was at that age of just beginning to come into London on my own, as a teenager – was painted by a woman.

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Lazy Days by Sandra Fisher, 1991

And it was fascinating to learn about how Art on the Underground came into being (apparently it was when advertising was at an all-time low, so they took the opportunity to put art on the platforms and tubes instead).

So it’s a big recommend, if you’re in London and have any kind of fondness for the tube, and the way it’s been imagined and reimagined over the years.

London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, Poster Girls, until January 2019 (so you’ve got some time). £17.50 on the door (cheaper if you book online in advance), but that gets you access to the whole museum, and your ticket is valid for a year.