The Gentrified Village and the Memorial Residue of Being

“The bomb which destroys my house also damages my body in so far as the house was already an indication of my body.” — Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

The object of the monument conveys a particular hierarchical embodiment of historical class and power, making visible a distinct disciplinary apparatus which tempts the collective social into believing in a mythological re-telling of the nation state. On account of this, I am interested in this essay at re-imagining what the monument is, and asking if there is any possibility of subverting the idea of the monument from what is already seen into what is hardly seen. In this way making an attempt at problematizing the mode of history-making itself, questioning who is shown as spectacle in the public realm as “art” and who’s private existence becomes invisible and thus erased altogether. Within this paradigm of memory there exists a power relations that signifies dominance by the placement and enduring legacy of the monument, placing a watchful eye over the everyday, discipling and enclosing the individual in the process. Because of this the discourse of the body and space/time are also essential to the reading of our relationship to the monument; making use of the theorization around the urban city and the constant flux of  transformation to the body within the arrangement of place and city will be an essential part of my mode of looking at the monument and its possibility.  

It’s difficult for us to talk about the temporality of place, the visible everyday in London’s East End, and the contemporary moment without first mentioning the process of gentrification. We frequently hear the term gentrification being utilized in everyday discourse, many times as a surrogate for ideas around what is termed “regeneration” or “redevelopment,” but it will be useful here to expound on its genuine meaning. Gentrification, a term first coined by Ruth Glass in 1964 was meant to describe a process of movement, where what she observed was an arrival of what she called a “new urban gentry,” “and [with that influx of a new population of people came with it] an accompanying social transition of [economic status in] several districts [with]in central London.” Why this becomes important for us in thinking about the representation of the working-class within the public monument is not in narrating what the process is, but why gentrification takes shape the way it does and the consequential effect of erasure that follows in its path. Along with deindustrialization and the capital’s abandonment of the urban worker we can say that gentrification’s rationale is rooted in three sources: 1) the “commodification of space,” 2) “polarized power relations,” 3) “and a dominance over sight.” In this way gentrification can be aligned with colonization on a local level, “as a process of conquest,” fulfilling a new vision “through the economic exploitation of potentials, destroying the actual in the process; renamed as “regeneration.” Antagonistic to this shifting populace is the historical   matter fixed at the site of regional status, “a distinctive habitus,” and monument performs as signifier and documents experience quite explicitly, although representation of that communities identity unaccompanied by mythology is another obstacle for the prospects of the monument.

Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 work, The House, is an interesting case study dealing with the ideas of the private as public monument, while at the same time buttressing itself against what we might be accustomed to see as spectacle in the public space. It also makes significant the ongoing changing landscape within London, the process of gentrification, and the impending destruction of 193 Grove Road. Giving a compelling reflection for us on the importance of the act of geographic intervention, government policy, and the outcomes it might bring about for a community’s psychic and physical futurity. The way in which it does this as an art-object I will examine further, but at the moment there is a bit of a problem which occurs with the placement of any aesthetic artifact within the public space, and explicitly within this space. For if we as spectator, are perceiving House as solely a form for an aesthetic looking, and displace the historical making that has brought upon the conditionality of the space which that object now dwells, we are merely acting as interlopers, and thus exploiting a material reality for some particular succession of elitist culture. 

Subsequently we can therefore attribute the temporarily of this work and an unwillingness to extend its temporality on account of the risk it might have of memorializing not solely the working-class community contained within the space of London’s East End, and the political cost of the council’s policy of eviction of the tenement’s occupiers, but the exchange of power that might come along with the transition and reversal in the aesthetics of the monument. We can espouse “That [this] is the nature of riparian London with its layers of deletions, resurrections. [And] [w]e are forced to become mediums for the lives and the buildings that have vanished. House, through its elimination, joins the company: remembered as an archetype when it is forgotten as artwork.” Therefore the state’s iconoclasm of this work becomes a danger in that it gets underway an erasure of the tenements, the lives and relations that took place within those domestic housings, and instead what occurs is a wallpapering over of those memories with that of a residual nostalgia for a half-remembered controversy involving an artist and an art object, and nothing more. This is even more crucial to think about in this situation considering that when the Gale family moved from Grove Road it didn’t become upscale housing for the middle classes, but became an uninhabited green space connected to Thatcher’s want for a green corridor around Canary Wharf.

Prior to furthering our exploration of these questions. I believe it to be paramount that we take a short look at the historical context surrounding the object of the monument; its consciousness as an aesthetic product, its connectivity with state ideology, and its ongoing project of nationalist mythology. This is significant if we place the potential of the monument in relationship to empire, therefore evoking “the traditional double meaning of the (monument; sign of remembrance)…[along] with all of [the] primacy of intellectual reflection [that] eschew[s] triumphalist context inherent in the concept.” Together with this set of historical norms there exists enclosed within its essence an exclusionary apparatus, that becomes a contradiction if we aspire to look upon the monument as a stand-in for the everyday, since the monument’s canonical past has been one that is set up to perform an elicit visual construction of  an essentialist meaning centered around the notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’. Some exemplars of this can be seen in Confederate monuments scattered throughout the U.S. or the Mother Armenia statue in Yerevan. 

If we think about Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, she defines sculpture initially in a quite specific way, and admits that the “historically bounded category [of sculpture]…is not a universal,” although nevertheless is inscribed with its own logic and conventions. Despite having an authority and its own autonomy, she states that this logic is complicated in that the sculptural object has an inability to be distanced from “commemorative representation” and the historical significance of the monument. One instrument we might use in order to decouple the work of sculpture and that of monument is to look at the reproducibility of the object and its movability, this refers to what Krauss calls the sculpture’s “negative condition,” which is defined as “a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, and absolute loss of place.” This is significant in that it brings House out of the context of sculpture and into the monumental form, and hence would be a project of absurdity to imagine House outside of the East End and by its re-location there would be a dismantling of any reference to its original intent in all entirety. Moreover, an undertaking involved with the movement of an artwork from one place to another also “means addressing the differences of adjacencies and distances between one thing, one person, one place, one thought, one fragment next to another, rather than invoking equivalencies via one thing after another.”

In Henri Lefebvre’s text The Production of Space, he makes clear that the monument is not exclusively that of simply the object, but it implicates the space as well in its existence, wherein the “Monumental space offer[s] each member of a society an image of that membership, an image of his or her social visage.” His argument, which proceeds to describe the relations of monumental space as one of order, where “everyone partook, and partook fully”, even if what was accepted was a presumed structure of the ruling class and an unequal power relations, there existed a ‘consensus’, “rendering [this relations] practical and concrete.” But what is of primary importance in Lefebve’s re-telling of the idea of monument as experience, which includes: the individual, the monumental space, and the object of the monument itself, is the greater problematics which comes into being with the implementation of the monumental structure in communal space. Here he tells us that what exists is an “element of repression and an element of exaltation” that has the inability to be “disentangled,” making it a laborious or even impossible task to imagine a politics of emancipation emanating out of the monumental structure whilst it remains trapped inside its canonical aura.

Also what is critical to be mindful of, is the fact that what is being laid upon all the affectations of everyday life like a natural deposit of morning dew is the relations of capital, which creates a damaging mutant-like arrangement between the individual and their environment, brought about by a continuity of alienated wage labour and the conditional and limited freedom participation in that system provides. Thinking about this construct in terms of social reproduction, there is a predicament that comes along with the manner in which capital is distributed, for along with capital’s “penchant for fragmentation” there is a desire to “find a stable mythology expressive of its inherent values and meanings…invok[ing] certain myths and push[ing] for certain spatial and temporal representations as part and parcel of their drive to implant and reinforce their hold on society” This is where the monument becomes important, converting the real into a mythological fiction in order to subvert an interest in building up something new, but the question for us here is, does Whiteread’s House become a counter-monument by way of its materialization and retainment of a now decimated community. Of course capital’s intent is not to allow for a transferal of ideological power to the laboring classes, but occasionally a welcoming fissure presents a momentary opportunity.  

Johnathan Raban’s idea of the “soft city” is interesting in this regard, thereby holding up a possible effectiveness of not only that of an urban collectivity but a situation wherein conventional activity of the working-classes becoming revolutionary. In the introduction of his book Soft City he writes:

For better or worse, [the city] invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a map fixed by triangulation. Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in a city is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relation between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography architecture.

This becomes important for to think about not only in how we construct the urban space, but also in how we place public artwork, more specifically that of the monument, in and through the configuration of our public/private lives. 

According to [Michel] de Certeau, [in his text The Practice of Everyday Life,] our mode of being in this world, that is, our ability to insert ourselves into the present and to make the meaning of our time memorable and affirmative, is like the practice of renting an apartment. The space is borrowed, the structures are given, and the possibility of dwelling is thus not in nite. However, the practice of living is neither closed nor predetermined by the architecture of the building. We enter the apartment with our baggage, furnish it with our memories and hopes, and make changes which give form to our needs and desires. The orders in which our belongings are arranged are like the fingerprints of our social identity.

Here I think we have to be critical in what de Certeau is saying, and yes it is true that we inform the makeup of our living quarters much like the theorization revolving around the “soft city,” but what is different in the context of the interior is the existence of state power, while still existing, it is not as domineering in its methods. However, does the exteriorization of the private, the universalizing of the individual refashion our thinking between the public and private and therefore make what de Certeau is saying legitimate in thinking about history, space, and the formation of Whiteread’s House

The question for us is in reference to Whiteread’s work, by changing the appearance and materiality of this particular domestic space in the East End of London, does it then bring about a re-telling of that space as historical signifier and therein work to subvert what is seen as the traditional mode of monument making. Is it then of consequence to have a consideration of dislike or even distaste of Whiteread’s work if our interest here is in disrupting what is seen as the acceptable representation of the public monument? Positing a proximity to the established order is inescapable it seems, but what remains evident is the seemingly apprehension of the spectator to divest from aesthetic experience in totality, despite the fact that we have made it known that the monument cannot be “apprehended solely [through the act of] looking.” Take for example Whiteread’s previous work, Ghost (1990), which was exhibited in the nearby windowless Chisenhale Gallery, where it acted out its forgotten past within an ex-industrial space with its own forgotten past. The propensity of the object’s own nature to carry with it an abandonment of its own historical memory communicates that what is provoked in this work is not simply a restitution of a once used space, but the tracing of a once-lived domesticity. What is more is that when Whiteread’s casting is framed by a supplemental interior, outside of its original context, unlike her work House, the object becomes a dead artifact, situated as an icon of British colonial theft, rather than a mode of nostalgic remembering; placement in this way performs the labour of it’s reading rather than simply its appearance as object. 

Making use of the medium of plaster and concrete alongside the technique of casting declares a distancing of traditional norms of not just monument making, but also that of sculpture. Additionally the manner in which Whiteread’s casts are made participate in the destruction of the subject used to make the cast, which remaining material or lack of material produces its own memory. This in itself conjures up thoughts about the representation of the missing mold, what was taken and what is found, these dilemmas conjure up a need for more reference to the past, not of nostalgia but a resurrection of the real. 

Whiteread’s arrangement of location, wherein a residual domesticity is placed inside a larger architectural form is not a new occurrence if we take notice at Louise Bourgeois’ work involving her “installations,” most notably her series of cells  and her work The Red Rooms. Furthermore, we can locate a likeness in concern with both Bourgeois and Whiteread in the attribution of memory and emotion to the inanimate object, whereas instead there is a “need to make the viewer more than passive spectator…[instead] absorb[ing] those memories…beyond the specific…translat[ed] [from] the individual to the universal.” What is more is that Bourgeois has spoken directly about the structure of the house, stating that its status as iconography is nothing…. more than a “storage place of memories,” making reference to Gaston Bachelard’s text The Poetics of Space, in which he asserts that the house acts as container, “hold[ing] childhood motionless in its arms.”

The hardened impenetrability of the concrete house of Rachel Whiteread asks of us as spectators to imagine what events transpired between the four walls of its current status as artifact, its temporality, its past, “excavated…encased like a fossil in limestone, its once dynamic spaces now smothered.” Although much of the response to this work has been what has become absent in the house, as much as the body itself is nonexistent or at least unseen, what is left becomes more important, as the body now exists in the form of a residual memoriam, now establishing itself as part of the stand-in for the everyman/everywoman found in the East End of London, and thus provides for a new emerging inclusive manifestation of the monument. This can be elucidated by establishing the symbolism that is brought along with Whiteread’s titling maneuver, to name it house and not home, for in using the iconography of the House she posits a totality of experience which everyone can partake in, rather than an individualized and alienated one. Much like “Ghost recreat[ed] the living room at 486 Archway Road…revealing the shape of the walls, fireplace, window, door, skirting and cornice[,]” House remakes the private space, solidifying the banality of home-life, operating for the now absent walls of what once was. As “[w]ith architecture’s walls, on its floors and stairs, events may be played out, but the marks it acquires over time are incidental; dents in the floor from dropped toys; chips in doorframe from clumsy collisions; layers of different paints and wallpapers tracing changes in fashion.” What is more is that because of its isolated existence (previous to its demolition and as far as its existence lasts in the form of documents and photographs), there is something to be said of how that isolation and the emptiness that surrounded it stands as a monument for what once was, a remembrance of the families whom once called this place home.  

The choice of the house is a powerful representation of working-class life, not because of some bourgeoise idea of the right to private property or the inclusion of home ownership, but it acts as a proxy for what takes place in the banal day-to-day. During the short period of its existence (25/8/1993-11/2/1994) there was a critical looking at Whiteread’s House, describing it in the context of death and absence, as “half monument and half tomb,” as a death mask of a forgotten life, but I want to contradict that analysis and put forward an alternative assessment of the work, displacing the understanding of House as some sort of spatial violation. As I said previously Gaston Bachelard is quite convincing in his assertion that the architectural form of the house cannot be seen simply as object, but is inherently coded as a dwelling place for the specter of memory. This memory and “the psychopathology the lies beneath the everyday; the repressed fears, desires, prohibitions, and transgressions that lurk within social routines as the uncanny stalks the familiar, and the inanimate threatens to come alive” is absent when we approach the moment as casual observer. This normalization of absence is a declaration of why the monument often is seen as invisible, wherein “attention seems to be deflected from them just as drops of water are, when sprinkled on an oily surface — it turns away from their very surface in a smooth but continuous way,” and this disappearance acts out the ineffectiveness of the image, it displays nothing of consequence to the material reality of life.

What I have attempted to assert throughout this essay is the many problems connected to the object of the monument, and to make clear that the monument is not merely the monument itself but its production is compelled by a multitude of particularities manifested by the social body; those being space, history, politics, and capital. Yet what underlies the importance invested in the monument and its display as a mode of visible performativity is to ask, what does it announce? What are the connotations with such an object? I say this because there is an explicit predicament that comes along with monument culture that is distinctly separate from those I have already laid out, which includes an implicit danger in the embrace of the nostalgic monument because of its entanglement with the nationalist project. Several writers have even gone so far as writing that “white British culture and society are undergoing serious anxiety about the nature of Tradition and their relationship to it” and that “the  burgeoning industry of ‘heritage culture’ has been in part about the attempts to construct, to respond to the felt need for, ‘protective illusions’ in the midst of all this anxiety.” With the rise of a far-right identitarian politics in the West, marked by racial exclusion and localization of borders, there is a  great responsibility to strongly posit an organized collectivity built on an inclusionary relation, centered on the display of everyday life and the histories we tell. My question is, will the monument be a part of this new  cultural relation or is it also, a lost cause?



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Daniel ArcandComment