In False Door Rachel Whiteread tends to the overlooked: ‘I wanted to give certain spaces an authority they’d never had.’  A workaday door, extracted from its supporting walls, is made to stand up for itself. False Door is freestanding, it commands our sympathy. The rear, a bald façade in six blocks, could pass for an upright Carl Andre. Conversely, the other side of a foot of plaster is a negative impression of the door, a rather homely conjunction of two halves. Whiteread practises a kind of reverse archaeology: filling in to find out. Usually a mould is negative, but she has cast a positive thing, so the recessed panels become protrusions and the handle fixture becomes a cavity. The hole where the handle should be provides spooky punctuation: the handle is not for turning. Whiteread also drilled holes in a cast of a bath from the same year, its taps leaving orange rusty marks in the plaster. She explains that she wanted to create ‘an airflow like nostrils. I felt that it was too claustrophobic, like suggesting my own death.’  In the case of False Door, the hole does not pierce all the way through, reinforcing the sense of claustrophobia. It is a one-way view, as if from inside the body of the door, invoking the ancient Egyptian belief that dead Pharaohs would exit their tombs via false doors painted or carved on the inside of the sarcophagus. 
Whiteread uses the chalky inertness of plaster, connoting broken bones and death masks, to take on the weight of the vanitas tradition. Resolutely monochrome, it rescues the door from the obscurity of everyday life, fixing its minute textural variations as they are at a particular moment in time. It is a blockade of detail, discreetly forthcoming, from smooth, pocked and scumbled patches, to wrinkles in the lips of the panels, chipped corners and splintery grazes. David Batchelor distinguishes Whiteread’s ‘direct, clear and literal’ work from contemporary sculpture because it ‘leaves a sense of something being held back’, because this is ‘slow sculpture’.  (Tellingly, Whiteread studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic (1982–85) before her MA in sculpture at the Slade.)
False Door is a clue to bigger projects Ghost (1990)  and most famously House (1993) , which won Whiteread the Turner Prize, cementing her place on the international stage. (She would go on to win the Premio Duemila at the XLVII Venice Biennale in 1997.) She took her own cue, however, from Bruce Nauman’s A Cast of the Space under my Chair (1965–68).  Where Nauman ribs the weighty seriousness of Minimalism by insinuating context and allusion, Whiteread makes context and allusion her essentials. Patrick Elliott remarks, ‘Instead of being abstract and emotionally aloof, Whiteread’s work is grounded in the faithful description – copying even – of specific objects, and through this implies some sort of narrative.’ The concrete yields an alluring mixture of narratives. Besides the sepulchral, False Door is loaded with a heritage of fictional escapades. It summons up the secret panelling in a ‘Famous Five’ book, or the other worlds promised in The Chronicles of Narnia or The Secret Garden, where doorways are rites of passage, the thresholds to grown-up life, through which there is no return.
© Dorothy Feaver 2009
1 Whiteread in conversation with Iwona Blazwick, in Rachel Whiteread, exh. cat. (Eindhoven: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1992), 11.
2 Ibid., 12.
3 Charlotte Mullins, Rachel Whiteread (London: Tate, 2004), 120.
4 David Batchelor, Rachel Whiteread: Plaster Sculptures, exh. cat. (New York: Luhring Augustine, 1993), 5.
5 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
6 Commissioned by Artangel Trust and Beck’s, and destroyed in 1994.
7 Visser, Geertjan, Retie, Belgium.