Rachel Whiteread at the Whitechapel Gallery

It’s been 110 years in the making for the facade at the Whitechapel Gallery in London to be completed. Finally, with the help of British artist Rachel Whiteread, the Gallery has decorated the recessed plaque between the two terracotta towers on Whitechapel High Street with golden leaves cast in bronze. The original Charles Harrison Townsend designed building was left blank for almost a century after a mosaic frieze by Victorian artist and illustrator Walter Crane was never realised.

The resolution of this missing link marks Rachel Whiteread’s first ever permanent public commission in the UK. Whiteread who has been living on Whitechapel’s doorstep for the past 25 years expresses, ‘a deep connection with the area and its cultural depths and diversity’. Her entire cast of a Victorian house from 1993 (the same year she was the first woman to win the Turner Prize), was just around the corner, until it got unceremoniously demolished by the same Tower Hamlets council which have allowed this new permanent addition on the Gallery frontage.

Whitechapel Gallery first collaborated with Whiteread back in 2006, when she became an artist advisor with the architect Robbrecht en Daem for the Whitechapel Gallery’s extension to its neighbouring Passmore Edwards library. This year, Whiteread was co-commissioned with the London 2012 Festival and High Street 2012 programmes, funded by The Art Fund, to renew the focus of one of London’s principle street arteries and Olympic route. The High Street 2012 campaign is part of Boris Johnson’s London’s Great Outdoors initiative to improve public spaces across the capital.

Artist Rachel Whiteread

Whiteread appeared to be the perfect candidate to Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘We thought, here’s an artist who throughout all her practice, adds very little, in a sense, but what she adds is profound and monumental’. Renowned for her casts of existing objects, be it a familiar London vernacular or the water towers of New York, Whiteread has covered the frieze with leaves and branches in gold leaf. The piece can be recognised as a Whiteread by the four subtle reliefs of the 36 windows on the original facade, replacing the familiar Whitechapel Gallery sign permanently.

Following trips to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, Whiteread became inspired by the rooftop gilded angels and heraldic weathervanes of London’s skyline. The tangled gold leaves and branches were also influenced by the way urban nature sprouts tenaciously in undesired places such as pavement cracks and street gutters. These hidden treasures, buddlleia or ‘Hackney weed’ as Whiteread likes to call it, become celebrated as part of the city as much as the gilded rooftop furniture seen from St Paul’s, ‘This is a way of bringing something that is a rogue bit of nature, that we’re busy tearing out, and actually, celebrating it and giving in the longevity of bronze, and the beauty and glister that the east end sorely need’.

The new addition celebrates the original terracotta architecture of the Whitechapel Gallery by casting the historical Tree of Life motifs on the base of the towers. A legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Tree of Life symbolises social renewal through the arts, an apt emblem for the current London 2012 Festival and the Cultural Olympiad. This is not just a pretty face, but portrays the Gallery’s historic mission to bring contemporary art to the east end. It is hoped the gilded leaves will become a golden legacy long after the London 2012 Olympics this summer, acting as a hallmark for the Gallery in the place of the Whitechapel font, achieving the same purpose as the original Tree of Life nearly a century ago.

Four casts of the original windows, alongside the golden leaves

Whiteread’s approach is to make us think about how her sculptures relate to our daily lives, both in our subjective experience of space and in our sense of memory. The commission at Whitechapel is both subtle and thought provoking. Although ostentatious in the sense that it is made of gold-leaf and bronze, the delicacy of the leaves is profoundly quiet and inconspicuous. The height of the commission means that you may suddenly come across it as you go about your daily life on the street, or you may, unfortunately, blindly pass it by. It may not be shouting from the rooftop, but perhaps we should take care to look up from the ‘Hackney weed’ ridden cracks in the pavement more often. Whiteread humorously poked fun at the urban life of pigeons, litter and Hackney weeds, concluding, ‘I’m looking forward to actually, the first blue plastic bag attaching itself to the leaves’.

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