Will Alsop: frozen mass that reduces you to a mere penguin

November 25, 2005

Embankment by Rachel Whiteread
Tate Modern, London, until April 2, 2006

As you descend the ramp toward the depths of the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern, Rachel Whiteread's Embankment is revealed as a mass of whiteness. Akin to a broken ice floe, it is set, surprisingly enough, on an axial line along the 150m length of this citadel to annual installations.

At first sight, the apparent randomness of the ice floe is formalised by geometry. But on entering this frozen terrain, the geometry disappears and you are lost in a white maze created on such a scale that you are reduced to a mere penguin by comparison.

At this point you notice that all the towering forms are made up of the same module - polyethylene boxes, some of which are arranged in haphazard heaps and others in more rectilinear blocks. The counterpoint between geometry and the indeterminate continues in the detail.

Amid this misty mass, the ambience changes. Is this place a pallid reminiscence of a classical ruin that has been tidied up to allow passage and safety to tourists? Or is it a part of a large, somewhat badly organised distribution centre? Both could be true, but that does not reflect any intent by the artist. Intent was not a part of the process and meaning is meaningless. Each plastic module is made from a plaster cast of a cardboard box. But Whiteread's story about the discovery of the box as some carrier of a deeper-seated resonance is unnecessary and unbelievable.

The process of casting the inside of a box echoes her previous works, which include, for example, casting the insides of a house. In that earlier piece, the combination of a large manifestation, a view of the house and the imagined history of what it might have once contained, is an invitation to the viewer to indulge their own imagined history. But while the house is recognisable, the box is not immediately apparent until the artist's description is read.

In reality, we are not looking at 41,000 cast voids of boxes because the building blocks of the work are not solid - they are boxes in themselves.

This denies the magic that other Whiteread pieces possess, where the void is made solid. Furthermore, the lightness of Embankment denies the very presence that it should possess. From a distance it looks heavy, but once "inside" it is reduced to being a full-size maquette of itself.

Other works by Whiteread, such as the Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz in Vienna or House , are genuine works that touch the soul. But here in the Tate Modern there is a lack of confidence that immediately characterises the work as an interesting experiment.

As such, I like Embankment and I particularly enjoy the fact that the Tate has the confidence to allow interesting failure to exist - most museums would not. I also feel that there are few artists that could rise to the opportunity of failure.

In a way, Whiteread's stature as an artist is enhanced. I am sure that, from this use of the Turbine Hall as a studio, we will see future work of hers benefiting from this installation.

Will Alsop is an architect and the founder of Alsop Design. His buildings include the Stirling prize-winning Peckham Library, the new School of Medicine at Queen Mary, University of London, and the Ben Pimlott Building, Goldsmiths, University of London.

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