One can plainly see why Ashton mentions the “caresses and attacks of passers-by.” A work like this would command a great deal of attention from people of all classes, out of curiosity and respect for the magnitude of the creation. A prevailing trope in this treatise is tying the technique of casting to processes, both emotional and physical, mentioned throughout. The skin we wear, photography, our psychological “skins” all receive this treatment. As someone who has been lucky enough to work in shops, on houses, and overall in more “mundane” applications of art and artisanship, this rang true with me. It’s not only the size, location, and skills involved in the making of House that render it so memorable to people, it’s also the vulnerability of a piece placed as such, out in the elements, available to the public. Ashton mentions the world of ‘Do Not Touch,’ a world which I largely appreciate for the preservation of objects for other people. However, that very world is what makes accessible work like this so valuable, so memorable, and so important and impactful.
I’ll admit that the author largely lost me in Symbol, Site and Structure. It wasn’t just that it failed to hold my attention due to content that doesn’t interest me, but also that I disagreed with a lot of the prescribed intention and consumption. Again, this is the work of an artist who is alive and still creating--I find this kind of forceful language on “this is what the art means” without the simple, humble addition of “this is what this art means to me” to be off-putting. Yet, Ashton is clearly a well-read and -referenced professional, and some of the paths she goes down in this section are fascinating. All of the writers and artists throughout are extremely worth a look, from Bachelard, to Barthes, to Bourgeois (I’m getting the feeling there’s something about B’s here), and beyond throughout the piece, she’s given us a ton of research to do on wonderful bits of contemporary art and thought. This includes the work of sociologists Sarah Holloway and Gill Valentine in a much-appreciated inclusion of the sciences. The points extrapolated from that inclusion feel a bit broad at this point, but it’s still clearly the work of a strong researcher.
This does heat up a bit in the offerings of Don Slater on women and children being “restricted in belief and practice to the private world of the family which is subordinate to and ruled (through the male breadwinner) by the public sphere.” I don’t know how much these directly relate to the piece, but it is a fascinating point to bring into play. The Victorian stylings of the structure itself must call into mind that “cloying sentimentality” mentioned here. Ashton ties this all together very well with Simon Watney’s Ordinary Boys, but I was slightly troubled with the lack of a direct challenge to the Victorian ideal of sexuality as a negative, or as a threat to children. It may be that the subtlety of the argument was lost on me, but since I come from America, where many of the Puritanical and Victorian ideals still hold horrible sway on our ideas of sexuality and gender, a little more directness would be appreciated.
In Photography and Scultpure we have (to me) the beginning of more interesting arguments for the remainder, starting off with questions on the relationship between a short-lived sculpture and the photographs not only bearing witness to it, but becoming valuable artwork in their own right. This is followed directly by History of a House: An East End Sculpture wherein we get to the effects a profound work like this have on its public environment. As ever, when polarized political groups are presented with something to be used, they will use it with vigor. The writer gets deep into the theories on house, home, and the psyche, citing some fantastic researchers here, expertly bringing Doreen Massey’s writing on the ‘politics of location’ into play. This is where the text has some real teeth: in exploring the very real and very difficult realities that House was constructed in. Ashton’s clever discussion on the different definitions of “nostalgia” and our memories allude to one of the objects House most looked like to me upon first viewing: a gravestone.
Wrestling with the ideas of recording and “memory-work” is compelling, as ever, here. The notion of a cast interior as documentation is what was so enthralling about the piece to me in the first place, a recreation that is, but isn’t, what it sought to document. Like a 3D blueprint, it gives you a good idea of what was there without imparting any of the emotions, textures, or memories associated with that place. Davies’ images are then a further removal from the original copy, but no less valuable. As mentioned in the text, they add the theatrical setting indicative of “street photography,” but with some addition-by-subraction included--House is rendered lonely in these images, absent the populated and messy environment of 193 Grove Road. After getting a look at Davies’ other work, thanks to the well-written, concise history in the text, it makes sense why Whiteread would seek him out for this project. So much of his work mirrored the original piece, with “a deliberate framing of a space through classical detachment and an allusion to a mystical landscape.” Going further than just appreciating his work on this piece, Ashton brings into play a challenge to photography (and Whiteread’s casts) as evidence of personal history in general, by asking the question, “what was not photographed”?