Whiteread creates plaster casts from objects and spaces, evoking physical memories of them. Untitled (Paperbacks) is the negative cast of the interior of a library, turned inward; a room filled with the spectral marks of books whose contents and titles appear to be lost. The plaster surfaces are a visible manifestation of the room—the books' binding colors, their widths, and even the texture of their pages are still "readable." Whiteread's sculpture creates tension between the haunting and the poetic, the monumental and the fragile, and the ephemeral and the eternal.
Untitled (Paperbacks) is a room-sized installation that feels empty but isn't quite: on all four walls hang rows of long white objects that look like shelves but are not, for they are plaster, not wood, and their surfaces are uneven, and vacant. These regularly spaced tiers suggest a library without books, yet books were here, and their traces remain. Whiteread made these objects by casting shelves of paperbacks, whose slightly differing sizes account for the plaster's uneven surfaces. Look closely, too, and you may see a residue of paper embedded in the casts, the edges of the pages caught as the plaster dried.
Whiteread specializes in the sculptural reversal that makes a solid object speak less of its own material presence than of objects that are no longer present, yet maintain a ghostly presence in their absence. The early work of this British artist comprised castings of everyday furniture mattress, table, bathtub in mediums from resin to concrete. She next addressed architecture, as in Untitled (Room) (1993), a plaster work also in the Museum's collection: here empty space becomes an opaque cube marked on its outside by the lines of a room's windows and door. Her more recent outdoor Holocaust memorial in Vienna is another room, once lined with books, which left their marks on the outside of a sealed block, symbolizing the lives and the culture lost to Nazi persecution. Untitled (Paperbacks), by contrast, is a library you can enter. Although there is nothing to read in it, it is filled with the knowledge, ideas, and memories contained in books, even if you must bring those associations with you into this serene, but haunted, place.
The piece, Untitled (Paperbacks) was made about four years ago. I was thinking about trying to make something that was a combination of units that were nearly the same, but not quite. What I wanted to do was to make an impression of a room that was potentially full of books, but also read as a kind of very simple, minimal, textured surface. What I did was make a series of bookshelves, which I then packed with books, then made a polystyrene interior, sort of mold of the inside of that, and then filled it with plaster.
What you're seeing is a negative space of where the books were. So, if you're looking at your bookcase at home and you think about the space behind the books—that's what's left. That's what I've actually cast, that's what's making this sculpture hold. There's a mixture of new books and second-hand books, some very well thumbed books, some library books. If you look onto the surface of the work, you'll notice that there are thumb marks where you may have had a dictionary with indentations down the side of it. Or there are certain words spelled back to front. And there's an awful lot of color in there, it's very subtle color, but there's a lot of color, so it's really about trying to work with the surface, laying down surface detail and color.
What I really like about the piece is it's very hard to make your eye settle on one point. There are apertures—two doorways—but other than that, it's very hard to, you know, where you just look at something and, "Ooh, I like that bit best, or I like that bit." It just really is a matter of your eye wandering around. There's no one area that you stare at, you're just kind of taken around it.