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Making the unnoticed visible. Rachel Whiteread’s “Double-Doors” on the cover of Sara Ahmed’s “Complaint!”

The cover of the publication “Complaint!” by Sara Ahmed (2021) shows an exhibition photograph of the installation “Double-Doors II, A+B”, 2006/2007 by Rachel Whiteread. In this photographed “room”, “Sara Ahmed” is set above the doors in cream-coloured capital letters and in 2D. The photograph is surrounded by a frame, also cream-coloured, in the lower part of which the title of the book and a quotation from Angela Davis are set in black letters and the same typography as above.

The “Double-Doors” are the focus of attention; in contrast to the entire publication, including its illustrations in the interior section in black and white, the cover and thus also the photograph of the doors is printed in grey-white-black-toned colours. This colour printing is reminiscent of a griseille technique or also of monochrome colour field paintings, they rely on a strong shadow effect in their effects, were used in different centuries and for different genres: Griseille for medieval panel/ancient paintings or also stained glass in churches and monasteries, monochrome (here in greyscale) can find its application in all fields (advertising, photography, design, interior/architecture) and was a preferred format in modernism. The colour-field paintings were often large-format, to the point of colour uniformity, and were often painted by male painters.

Here now are Whiteread’s double doors, two quite obviously unrelated, different door variants. The reference to Whiteread is noted on the back of the cover, so that Whiteread’s name does not compete with Ahmed’s name, and so it is not immediately apparent to quick readers or readers unfamiliar with art that the cover design is an illustration of an artistic sculpture.

Whiteread’s artistic strategy essentially focuses on transforming everyday objects such as mattresses, boxes, hot-water bottles, but also staircases and entire houses, and even doors, into sculptural negative forms made of resin, rubber, concrete or plaster, sometimes even taking another replica from the replica. In this way, the cavities hidden in the objects take shape and, in particular, the surfaces, their wounds, scratches and wear and tear are materialised. With this negative replica process (also referred to as mummification in theoretical reception), the 1993 Turner Prize winner transforms the previous voids that existed in familiar routines but were not recognisable, the seemingly absent, into a volume that can now in turn attract attention like a crime scene and evoke new themes and interpretations. These can be memories, pasts, nostalgias, pains, obsessions, pathologies, etc. The previously unseen becomes imaginable and visible through a minimalist process of abstraction and materialisation, especially the traces of use on the surfaces become recognisable, documented and archived and can be interpreted by the recipients in a personal process of reception. Whiteread herself speaks of the entrails she is interested in, entrails that no one has seen before and now become sculptural.

Ahmed is also interested in previous emptiness, the previously unsaid and unobserved, which is now to find presence. She dissects the “entrails”, the inner life – of complaint operations: What takes place, where and by whom, with whom, what is enforceable, what is prevented? And she is interested in the traces that arise and remain, the pain, injuries and scars that are documented and archived as possibly traumatised psyches, as in Whiteread’s sculptures. Both colleagues focus their attention on doors. While Whiteread seems to be interested not only in the topos but also in the formal as sculptural questions, perhaps also in psychological and physical similarities to the users, Ahmed emphasises both their metaphorical and operational dimension with the doors: doors must be opened in order to make and enforce complaints, complaints are made behind closed doors, doors are closed for those who complain or are closed:

„Doors can tell us something not only about who can get in but who can get by or who can get through. After all, when a path is no longer available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech: we say that door is closed. A women of colour academic described her department as a revolving door, “women and minorities” enter, only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh.“ Source:

„Note then: power can work through what might seem a light touch: all you need to do to close a door on someone is to write them a less positive reference. This means that: the actions that close doors are not always perceptible to others. A closed door can itself be imperceptible; we can think back to the how diversity is figured as an open door; come in, come in; as if there is nothing stopping anyone from getting in or getting through. Or it might be that the effects of the actions are perceptible but the actions are not: so when someone is stopped, it seems they stopped themselves.“ Source:

The fact that Whiteread’s exhibition photograph of the door installation has now just been put on the cover of Ahmed’s book in greyscale colours certainly has something to do with the source photograph. Whiteread’s material, both the sculptures and installations and the exhibition photographs, not infrequently turn out in this colour scheme. But with the decision to design the cover in this way and exactly this way, next semantic levels merge with each other: it is about the “entrails”, which can now already be more precisely designated in the application of the technique of griseille or monochrome. For these artistic techniques reference specific places (churches, monasteries), times (modernity) and practitioners of these techniques (male artist colleagues) and can thus determine very precise structural and cultural techniques and framework conditions. The use of griseille and monochrome thus makes a meta-commentary on the subject: Attention, the cover seems to announce, we are located with the now following contents between the book covers in toxic, ideological, (quasi-)religious, traumatic, maltreating, in effective contexts of meaning of patriarchally effective structures and cultures.

This is also the context in which the quote from Angela Davis, the ancestor of the US civil rights movement and feminism, chosen for the cover design, is to be understood:  “Complaint! is precisely the text we need at this moment.“ Like Whiteread’s artistic strategy of transforming negative forms into positive forms or recognising the positive in the negative replica – for example, the doorknob in the hole – this is precisely what is envisaged for Ahmed’s book; the use of plaster for the materialisation of the absent, which is used as a healing material in medicine, points in the direction of the concern presented here.