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Dec 2005 Journal

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Rachel Whiteread's Embankment (art review)

Recent natural disasters, from the Boxing Day tsunami to earthquakes and hurricanes, take our thoughts seamlessly to the world of nature. December, too, evokes the silent contemplation of a white sky. Thus contemporary sculptor Rachel Whiteread's Embankment fills the east end of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with a towering installation of 14,000 white polyethylene boxes, some rising 12 metres high, some resembling more intimate pathways. A bland, empty cityscape? The fragile peaks of the Arctic?

Whiteread was only partly influenced by her Arctic trip, since the installation, inspired by clearing boxes at her late mother's house, invites the association of the box with collective memory, loss, familiarity, sentimentality. Imaginative, resourceful, emotional, certainly - but does it work? Whiteread, who won the European commission to create a Holocaust memorial for the Judenplatz in Vienna, clearly laid the groundwork for this type of interior conception. Five years ago, she placed in the centre of the Judenplatz the cast interior of a library, books and all, to create a telling monument to man's inhumanity and to man's enduring desire for self-development.

You could read something of conflicted man in this new installation, especially since it gives resonance to political controversy over greenhouse emissions and our need to address the health of the planet. To that extent her sculpture is a poignant evocation of an earth turned ash-white, of melting icecaps, of the silence of a deadly city. But, like so much of conceptual art, it works better on an intellectual than a visual level. And here place is as important as substance. Restrictions of the view sadly diminish the sculpture's impact. The exhibition continues until April next year.

It's a far cry from Simon Starling's shed-boat-shed, one of the four Turner Prize contenders at Tate Britain, or Darren Almond's sonic experience with shoes sliding on a ballroom floor, but the National Portrait Gallery's Self Portrait Exhibition, until January 2006, offers a more accessible tribute to self-expression which tells you much about the artists themselves. There is the handsome Gustave Courbet, apparently dying of a broken heart - an earlier inclusion of his mistress is replaced by a red wound - the fractured Doppelganger of Francis Bacon, and the penetrating stare of the red-haired Vincent van Gogh.

While many artists portrayed themselves with the palettes and tools of the trade, others affected the attire of the nobility. Sir Joshua Reynolds shades his eyes while gazing into the distance and many women artists, lacking a painterly tradition, present themselves as beauties decked out in tight bodices and flowered hats. But one, Anna Dorothea Therbusch-Lisiewska, has the courage to present herself as the older woman with a monocle. Like that of Pierre Bonnard, James McNeill Whistler's face has an evanescent quality, giving the sense of a fugitive Old Master; Frieda Khalo's striking, heavy-browed looks are framed with all the Mexican iconography of birds and flowers. But the massive rear view of Jenny Savile is a tactile presentation of sheer pink flesh, dappled, creased, the profile squashed into the side. Pretty it isn't. Brave, cynical and brutally honest it is.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Making a New Life: Educational opportunities
next article:Silent survival (book review)