My Favourite Things: A Word in Your Shell-like

Aporrhais Pespelecani is a marine snail, the thing that lives inside a seashell, a little mollusk that can be found from the Norwegian coast to the shores of the Mediterranean. It has a very pleasing shape, which seems designed to fit into the human hand – a deep bowl, and 3 or 4 spiny ‘fingers’, radiating out like the struts in the webbed foot of – well, a pelican, which is how the snail gained its name.

 

It can also be found in Gallery 156 of the Metropolitan Museum.

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About 500 years BCE, a workshop somewhere in Greece or in its islands began sculpting these shells in marble. We have no idea how many were made, but only a very few have survived (the British Museum has one; so has the Getty), and given how complex and delicate the shape would have been to sculpt, maybe all of them were the work of one single workshop, maybe of one single mind that saw the natural original, washed up on a beach somewhere, and was inspired, and worked at the design, and then worked at it some more, until they had perfected it. They made it bigger than the shell is in life, so this one, if you were to hold it, would project either end of your palm, with the tips of your fingers fitting between the spines.

 

This is far and away the finest of the survivors. The marble it is carved from is snow-white, and has tiny sparkles of quartz in it, like snow again. As you crane your head to see all the way around it, held upright in its  display case, you begin to realize how magically put-together is the shape – the soft round of the bowl, the delicate spines, the tiny whorl at one end (a separate piece, like the stopper to a bottle), the flat lip at the other. The way all these shapes fit together is half the enchantment of the piece. The other half is what it tells us of us, that human impulse to take something from nature, and recreate it, give it new form, give it rebirth as art, and how that defines us and has propelled us forward from all those centuries ago to what we are today.

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Its surface tells of a final chapter in its history. The marble has been eroded by the action of water and sand. This shell that is not a shell was returned to the ocean at some point, which took the bright paint that would once have covered it (there’s a tiny trace left, on the whorl), and gave it its foamy whiteness, and wore at its spines, just as it would have done a real Aporrhais. In other words, it is so beautiful, it fooled even the sea.

Real Pelican’s Foot shells, with that suggestive, hand-friendly shape, were used as libation vessels, and then maybe cast back into the sea. Their carved marble cousins were probably made for the same purpose. Perfected, painted, used – and cast back into the element that inspired it. Everything about this is as perfect and organic a whole as it is possible for a work of art to be.

JCH

 

Objects from the inside out: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

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Pink ‘Torso’

It’s not often that one gets to see the inside of a hot water bottle, but there are plenty of opportunities to do so at the major new exhibition of Rachel Whiteread’s work at Tate Britain. She calls these ‘Torsos’ and describes them as “headless, limbless babies”. Cast in a variety of materials – plaster, resin, wax, concrete – they are plump and tactile and look easy to cuddle.

In 1993 Whiteread was the first female winner of the Turner Prize and this exhibition celebrates the legacy of that: 25 years of sculpture that is distinctively hers and instantly recognisable. Her sculptures focus on “negative space”, the interior volume that fills objects and buildings (she first came to prominence with her ‘House’ (1993), a concrete cast of the interior of an entire terrace house in East London), an approach which reveals hitherto unseen and often minute details and textures of buildings, doors, walls, the underside of a bed and other every day objects which provide the inspiration for her work. From her witty response to the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square (simply a clear resin cast of the actual plinth, placed upside down on the original) to her resonant and deeply poignant Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, her work is strikingly powerful with its spare, minimalist monumentalism.

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Line Up, 2007-8 (copyright Rachel Whiteread)

To best appreciate this Tate Britain has removed the walls of the exhibition space (which earlier this year hosted the David Hockney show) which gives visitors the opportunity to take in the scale of Whiteread’s pieces, including the Untitled (Room 101), the room at the BBC where George Orwell worked during the war and said to be the inspiration for Room 101 in his dystopian novel ‘1984’, and Untitled (Stairs), two staircases from her studio (a former synagogue) turned inside out via her personal artistic process to create a large yet curiously airy sculpture which inhabits the space. The nature of her work gives it an ancient feel – a bathtub becomes a sarcophagus, the apex of a house roof, made from papier maché, is redolent of a Grecian temple freize. There are smaller works too – Line Up, a series of cast coloured cylinders looks like Edinburgh Rock and good enough to eat. And out in the light-filled Duveen galleries her Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 installation of 100 resin casts of the underside of chairs is a delicious arrangement of giant cuboid fruit jellies.

Recommended

FW

Until 21 January 2018 tate.org.uk

 

(header image: Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 © Rachel Whiteread)