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White Boxes, Louie Louie and an Icelandic Rope Trick

Woyzeck, alive and well in London. Whiteread, never less so...

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by Lake, Editor, London for outsideleft.com
originally published: October, 2005
Whiteread's career is like a night of Louie Louie when every version is by the Kingsmen.
by Lake, Editor, London for outsideleft.com
originally published: October, 2005
Whiteread's career is like a night of Louie Louie when every version is by the Kingsmen.

There's the new Rachel Whiteread at the Tate Modern. The insides of 14000 cardboard boxes injection moulded in white plastic and piled up high. You can see it in the picture up there. If you are in the UK then you'll have probably seen it on the news over and over.

Every six months or so there's a new installation in the Turbine Hall and it's a big media event. Literally, a giant, continuing series of adverts for one of London's most popular tourist attractions.

Aside from the Nauman (as featured in Outsideleft outsideleft:ID50 ) they are much more about the size and aesthetics than the art. This is lucky because these boxes look so much more impressive on the TV or in print than they do in the flesh.

Whiteread is the ultimate one-trick art pony and she's been working on solidifying space and turning objects inside out since the early 1990s. I get the feeling that if her landmark work House (in which she made a concrete cast of a terraced house) had been allowed to stand instead of being demolished in 1994 then she might have been able to move on and develop. Instead she is best known for her Holocaust memorial, the Nameless Library, a work which, thanks to a certain amount of inside knowledge on the artist's wholesale methods of selection of books to be cast, has always struck me as being as intellectually hollow as it is emotionally burdened.

Maybe this is the final dead end. Whiteread's ideas once resonated because they realized the invisible. They were like remembering being a child and hiding under the table or of feeling safe under the bed. Critics have made much about these boxes symbolizing the packaging up of memories like the boxed up contents of a dead parent's home. But this seems to be blank intellectualizing. The very casting of the insides of these boxes shows that they are empty. And I see nothing more than the spectacle.

I don't mind repetition. I like variations on a theme. I could listen to Louie Louie for hours as long as different artists were banging out the chords. Whiteread's career is like a night of Louie Louie when every version is by the Kingsmen.

As if to prove the point to myself later the same day and I am at the Barbican for another production of Woyzeck, Georg Buchner's delirious tale of derangement, debasement and death left unfinished by the author's own death in 1837. The fragmentary nature of Buchner's text allows almost limitless scope for experimentation. I must have seen it played out more than a dozen times in the past twenty years.

This current production by the Vesturport Theatre of Iceland is astonishing. With music and songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and performers who both swing above the heads of the audience and swim across the stage in water troughs it's an exhilarating interpretation that is both darkly funny and spectacular.

When Bjorn Hylnur Haraldsson, as the Drum Major, appears from the rafters singing, whilst hanging upside down on a trapeze, he sounds so much like Cave that for a while I thought he was miming.

It's refreshing to see a Woyzeck production that is not afraid to occasionally move away from the psychosexual fever that's usually so emphatically branded on the text. That's not to say that this is perfect way to handle the material,just that it's brave to bring in something new.

Any failures in the staging (even I must admit to being slightly confused by the frequent appearances of a mute army of Leningrad Cowboys minus their giant winklepickers) can be forgiven for the sheer exuberance of the treatment and the vitality of the cast.

If only Whiteread was prepared to take such risks.

Rachel Whiteread's Embankment is at Tate Modern until April (Tate: Whiteread)

Woyzeck is at the Barbican until Oct 22 (Barbican: Woyzeck)

see more stories from outsideleft's Culture archive »»

Lake
Editor, London

the first journalism Lake ever had published was a history of Johnny Thunders for Record Collector magazine, since then he has written for publications including the Guardian, Dazed and Confused, the Idler and more recently, outsideleft.com as you have just seen.

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