‘When I was a little kid I used to enjoy hiding in my Mum and Dad’s wardrobe. I had two older sisters. We played hide and seek and stuff. But also I think I was bullied a bit. It was a little safe, cosy space that you could go... I could just remember the smell of the clothes and the furry blackness of the space. I wanted somehow to make that real.’
I recently visited an exhibition at Tate Britain reviewing the work of the splendid Essex-born sculptor Rachel Whiteread (until 21 January 2018).
For three decades Whiteread has made casts of everyday objects: of fireplaces, mattresses, staircases and rooms; of floors and baths, windows and doors, tables and chairs.
Her sculptures prompt us to reflect on the curious emotive power of ordinary things. Cast from plaster and concrete, rubber and resin, wax and recycled materials, the forms are at once strange and familiar. The inside of a hot water bottle looks like a human torso. An office interior resembles a prison cell. An arrangement of the undersides of chairs brings to mind a grand cosmic chess game.
‘I choose things because of their humbleness really. And they’re things that we all have some sort of relationship with. It’s making space real…giving space an authority that it’s never had.’
In 1993 Whiteread created ‘House’, a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced home in London’s Mile End. It stood for 80 days before it was demolished by the local council. Seeing the work in photographs and film, we can consider the personal stories that once animated the space; the ghosts that haunted it; the private histories that have now vanished into thin air. Life seems so transient, so fragile, even when expressed in reinforced concrete.
‘It’s all to do with that ghostly touch of things. The way things get worn down by human presence, and the essence of human is left on these things, whether its pages of books or staircases or doors or windows.’
In 2000 for Vienna’s ‘Holocaust Memorial’ Whiteread created an inverted library, again in concrete. We imagine books unwritten and unread, words unspoken and unheard, thoughts unthought.
Whiteread asks us to contemplate space: she turns space inside out; she examines the spaces beneath, beside, under and over; private, interior, secret spaces – the mystical spaces that are unseen and unexplored; and the spaces that surround and separate us – the spaces between us.
I suppose we tend to value material things precisely because they are visible, tangible, audible. Material objects can be weighed and measured; bought, owned and sold.
But our lives are lived in the spaces between material objects. Our thoughts and ideas, feelings and passions, memories and relationships are played out in the spaces between us. Surely we should learn to value the intangible as much as the tangible.
Perhaps as a society we are increasingly appreciating the immaterial. It’s reported that consumers are turning to experiences instead of things; that they are as comfortable renting as owning; that they crave happy memories more than just stuff. In business we talk nowadays about the intangible economy: wealth is less and less held in machinery, buildings and shops; it is located in software and services, databases and design, IT and IP. And consequently the nature of work itself is shifting, from manual to mental labour. Progressive governments are beginning to measure success by collective contentment and wellbeing, rather than just gross domestic product.
Of course, the transformation to an experience culture and an intangible economy poses its own challenges. Intangibles can be readily distributed, shared and scaled. But they can also be easily replicated, copied and stolen. Intangibles are difficult to measure, manage and protect. Some have argued that the intangible economy is responsible for growing social inequality.
Nonetheless, people working with brands should be more capable than others at navigating this intangible world. Because marketing and communication expertise is fundamentally concerned with creating intangible assets, directing emotional investment, establishing value for ideas. Marketers and agency people should also be masters of managing talent and inspiration; of measuring feelings and experiences.
I say ‘should’ because sometimes I think brand managers hesitate to recognise their core competence. They may be more at ease working within a narrower frame of reference: a world of products and promotions, campaigns and initiatives, platforms and distribution.
Perhaps marketers and agencies should be more self-confident, more expansive in their vision for their craft. Perhaps they should think of themselves as creating, managing and measuring intangible value in an increasingly intangible economy. Because nowadays we’re all living on solid air.
'You've been taking your time,
And you've been living on solid air.
You've been walking the line,
And you've been living on solid air.
Don't know what's going 'round inside,
And I can tell you that it's hard to hide,
When you're living on solid air.’
John Martyn, Solid Air