Whiteread’s previous print project with Paragon, Demolished, was published in 1996, more than a decade before. It was the artist’s first portfolio of prints, containing screenprints of photographs she had taken of buildings being demolished in the London borough of Hackney. Charles Booth-Clibborn was keen to work with Whiteread again, but a succession of large-scale commissions had put heavy demands on her time. It was only in the autumn of 2009, while working on an exhibition of her drawings at Tate Britain, that Whiteread found a suitable subject for her next portfolio. As part of the exhibition she curated an installation of objects, displayed in a wall cabinet in the last room of the show. This contained a selection she had either made herself or gathered over the years and which are a vital part of her practice. The artist’s studio, where these items are usually kept, is something of a contemporary curiosity cabinet of everyday abandoned objects salvaged by Whiteread. It is a highly personal repository, from which she draws her inspiration, and normally not shared with the wider public. Whiteread allowed the objects to leave the confines of her studio for the first time, to be displayed alongside her drawings. The exhibition catalogue included a visual essay by Whiteread put together from her collection. For this she had the objects photographed, either individually, or grouped together by scale, material or theme, and then further carefully arranged the group photographs. Some recall Vanitas still lifes of the seventeenth century, while others bring to mind specimen displays in natural history museums. Together, the essay and vitrine revealed the breath and depth of her collection.
For her new print project she selected 12 items that were to be issued in a portfolio of photogravure etchings. To that end, Whiteread provided Mike Taylor of Paupers Press with digital files of photographs of the objects, which were transferred to film needed to make the photogravure plates. Mike Bruce of Gate Studios, London, had originally shot all objects against a neutral white background. The colouration of the etchings was achieved through additional colour plates, using aquatint, often in combination with additional chine collé. At the initial stage of the project, Whiteread spent three days with Paupers Press determining the colour palette.
She stipulated a range of pastel tones to be used for the colour proofing, and a combination of different colours, sometimes on chiné colle, for each object was printed in trial runs. From these proofs Whiteread selected a group that, she felt, best achieved the harmonies she sought to create. Further tweaking was required and for some prints this involved adding a second aquatint plate to strengthen the background tones of the objects or to add an additional tone to highlight certain areas. The order of printing was by and large the following: first the plate with flat aquatint for the background hue, second the aquatint supporting and strengthening the object and last the photogravure plate of the object itself.
The portfolio of 12 Objects, 12 Etchings functions like a permanent index to Whiteread’s collection. The mixture of objects ranges from instantly recognizable and mundane items, such as a jelly mould and a light switch, to the weird, wonderful and outright unidentifiable. Untitled 01 shows one the artist’s very early casts, of a swimming cap, that she had made during a bronze-casting course. The vantage point, texture and colour evoke ancient excavated vessels rather than rubbery headgear, obfuscating our reading of the object.
Using delicate and subtle tints, Whiteread has softened the solidity of her objects, thereby placing them in a realm somewhere between photography and drawing. 12 Objects, 12 Etchings is a collection of objects, each with its own history waiting to be told. Some of it is known: Untitled 11 depicts a cast of the artist’s own ear, and its emotional resonance can be felt once this identity is revealed. Others are anonymous; summoned as witnesses, they stir up memories of other peoples’ lives. Seizing the space between reality and imagination, Whiteread creates poetry with the overlooked details of human life.
The objects used for the portfolio were:
01: a resin cast of the inside of a milk-bottle
02: a life-size model of a brain
03: a cast of a swimming cap
04: a wooden branch shaped like a gun
05: a ceramic jelly mould
06: a piece of string
07: a cluster of rusted molten iron
08: an ashtray
09: ceramic insulator
10: transparent glass paperweights and a glass ball
11: a bakelite light switch
12: a bronze cast of the artist’s ear