I popped into the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Tate Britain yesterday morning. I’m fascinated by her stuff – the back to front of a fireplace, the inside of a school desk, the wrong side of a window, the invisible middle of a hot water bottle made out of concrete and resin. I’m no art critic but what happens to me when I see these sculptures is not unlike the fascination I feel at miniature villages and dolls’ houses. It’s the surprise that a change of scale brings, and the swapping of the ethereal with the solid. It’s the same delight I feel when something you expect to be constructed of one thing – wool, say, or stone – is offered in steel, say, or fur.
The object in this exhibition that delighted me the most was the airbed. Here it is:
Expecting something to be soft and comforting only to find it cold and unyielding will be a nasty surprise, but it’s the kind of thing everyone has to deal with from time to time. Not usually in the form of airbeds made of concrete, but a party we’ve been looking forward to that ends up being a disaster, a job turns out to be harder or more boring than we hoped, friendships we thought were for life fritter away or disappoint at critical moments, a partner becomes distant, cheats, or simply changes their mind.
There are times in our lives when even quite small surprises can derail us. At other moments we can take large disappointments in our stride, learn from them and turn them into something positive. This is called resilience. It’s also called bounce-back. It’s a curious thing, resilience, and it’s opposite, helplessness. You hear it talked about as if it’s an attribute, as if we’re born with it, or not, blessed or denied in some grim inheritance lottery. But this isn’t the case at all. It’s been well established since the 60s that you can learn to be resilient. You can train yourself to bounce back. You can decide to be a pessimist, you can choose to be optimistic.
So, back the the airbed. Falling back on one of those, finding hard concrete where you’d hoped to find the softness of air – hard to know how that could be turned to a positive. Hard, until you check the auction site.