The Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern is massive, possibly the biggest indoor display area in Britain. You forget quite how big the cavern is until you walk through the door. There’s something reverential about the space, the floor sloping away under your feet, the metal beams strapping the walls into place like industrial crucifixes, but today we’re not here to admire the architecture.
Each year an artist is set the challenge of transforming the hall. We’ve had an alien sun set, a curved eardrum filling the entire chamber, an invisible soundscape. This year’s installation is Embankment by Rachel Whiteread. It waits just beyond the viewing bridge, all 1400 white polyurethane cubes; casts of real boxes which are stacked, slumped, piled up high or heaped on each other, all of which will be ground up and recycled into bottles at the end of the show.
The sloped floor hurries you towards the first of the blocks, a dull yellowish colour in the shadow of the viewing bridge; winter sludge three to five blocks high. Walking around them you enter the main space. It’s impressive. The cubes rise in different forms, sometimes stacked in pristine white banks or as a 12 meter mountain of boxes. You are forced to look up, encouraged to walk around and are free to touch the blocks (although you’ll be wrestled to the ground if you try to climb them).
As one of Britain’s top sculptors, Rachel Whiteread is well known for exposing unseen interiors – the inside of a condemned East London house, a Jewish library – and in this, her newest work, she explores another inner world, our own. The form of a cardboard box represents our private things, the secrets which we contain and conceal. The concept came to her while she was cleaning out her Mother’s house. It’s a neat trick, an arctic wonderland housed in four walls, the building blocks symbolising the stuff we store away in our mental cupboards.
But despite this, there is something impersonal about the cloned cubes. Maybe it’s because we are allowed to touch them and discover they’re hollow. Two assistants arrive to clean the boxes with baby wipes, rubbing at their six sides to remove the greasy fingerprints. The initial impact has worn off and Embankment doesn't feel like a polar ice cap anymore. It reminds you of your local packing warehouse.
Trudging back up the slope towards the main doors, a thought hits. Perhaps this is all part of the experience? Like finding the box of prized possessions in the attic - the black and white photos, the love letters, the postcards, and the memories wrapped in tissue paper - which on reflection is really a pile of old junk. There is always a sense of loss with nostalgia, the memories not living up to closer inspection. Reality gets in the way.
And suddenly Embankment feels less like decoration imposed on the great Turbine Hall, and more like a work of art.
Embankment, by Rachel Whiteread, at Tate Modern until 2 April 2006. Entry is free.