Part Three – Exercise 3.9: House: Indexical Sign

In what sense is Whiteread’s House indexical and why does this matter for
an interpretation of the work? Would someone overlooking this feature be wrong or would that simply be a different interpretation?

“A politically embarrassing monument to an impoverished history and standing in the way of the construction of a less threatening green space.” – S. Thacker


Sarah Whiteread’s House (1993-4) can be considered as one example of visual art that attracted more public attention through its function as sign than perhaps by its inner virtues. The negative cast makes the inside visible to the outside, the void turns into a solid concrete block. A home is a place were one finds comfort and seeks through its protective outer walls shelter from the outside world. The experience of ‘homeness’ condenses our feelings of self, belonging, security and meaning. Our domicile – “the large cradle” as G Bachelard once described it – is the refuge and projection or our body, memory and alienation. (Pallasmaa, 2011).

Indexicality of House

Stefan513593 - Part 3 - Signs and Index - Peirce Triadic Model

Fig. 1: Stefan513593 – Part 3 – Signs and Index – Peirce Triadic Model

House is a negative cast of an original Victorian terrace house (Fig.5 and Fig. 6) and through this immediate connection of existence it shows an indexical sign. The outer surface of House points towards the inner surface of the original house.

The index sign is according to Peirce characterized by a relationship between a sign vehicle (cast) and an object (original house). This relation is subject to an Interpretant (in Fig.1 featured as a mind, not a person is not necessarily required) and its meaning depends in inference. (Chandler, 2017)

It is rarely that one sign has only one quality i.e.only indexical or only iconic what one can see clearly at the example of House:

  • Iconic: as it resembles the model (original house) through the outer shape (‘negative image’)
  • Indexical: by its reference to / pointing at an external object and to a specific location (193 Grove Rd). A genuine relationship that is independent of an interpretant and evidence of the real existence of the referred object.
  • Symbolic: based on a background signification due to the resistance by the last owner Mr Sidney Gale gave already a conception of contrast and resistance against council’s decisions. House as artwork became a symbolic meaning due to its public appeal, connection with heritage and conveying a generalised message.

Interestingly, two decades after destruction and creation of Wennington Green, two benches are pointing to the space of House (Fig. 7). This points not only to the location of Whiteread’s artwork as a ‘negative’ copy and to the same location of the original Cole’s house. It also conveys a general message towards the story of the Turner prize winning work that changed and challenged the way contemporary art was perceived and conceived.


I am wondering whether a re-location of House would have had a different signification. I think a different place, or museum as Whiteread’s previous work Ghost (1990), would have not got the same public attention, especially from those directly involved. It would have required a caption to place it in context. The artist’s intention and semiotics of language could differ meaning. Whiteread herself was very clear stating that House was ‘absolutely specific to the site’ (Thacker, 2015)

Another possible reception, as I outlined briefly in my introduction, is to see the ‘negative cast’ not from an indexical perspective relating the Grove Rd in East End, but rather from an iconic and inner perspective of home. Through a distorted icon through the ‘negative cast’ of a non-empty void, the personal experience of living would become dominant. This reception is more related to a direct and personal perception of the artwork while experiencing physically.

To see House as purely symbolic sign, arbitrary and with a generalized meaning would be nearly impossible in that location. Nevertheless, it became an symbolic monument based on prior reception of the artwork.


The indexicalty of House is one key aspect for public reception, a sign of evidence of existence. Although, the circumstances that Whiteread ‘used’ Cole’s house was rather incidental, it could have been in any place in London. What brings to my mind the question of relevance of artist’s intention, as the meaning related to signs (and any artwork constitutes of intrinsic and/or extrinsic signs). The index as pointing to one specific location (Grove Rd) alongside the reference to an demolished house (Cole’s) is interwoven with the symbolic meaning of a place (East End) in context of gentrification projects (Green Corridor).

The evolvement of the artwork into a monument and symbol for the area impoverished past (Thacker, 2015) was not intended. However, understanding how signs do relate and refer to in creating meaning this could not have come up totally by surprise. Here one need to be cautious though, as looking backwards two decades later.

Overall, I do not think that there is wrong or right way of reception and interpretation of art. It seems that a reception of an artwork independent of context is nearly impossible. The choice of location of the artwork and the location of the object it refers to need to considered. In this respect House is quite different to Ghost.

Open question would be whether another, more symbolic artwork, on the same location of 193 Grove Rd. would have made a difference. How people can connect with art would matter. Indexical and iconical art seem to have more political impact.

My notes:

Understanding signs (icon, index, symbol) in a cultural and historical context. Changing signification or disturbance in understanding as challenging underlying assumptions and constructed meanings.

Saussure relational and Peirce referential semiotic models, and how this can be related to Sarah Whiteread House (1993)


Sarah Whiteread (b. 1963) UK artist from Essex and living in London, won the Turner Prize as best young British artist her work House in 1993 (£20.000). Besides she also won the K Foundation art award for ‘worst British artist’ (£40.000). She used the money from the latter for a shelter fund for homeless people and a fund for young artists.

The location House is located on London East End, Wennington Green between Roman Road and Grove Road. A neighborhood from the 19th century, Victorian style terrace houses of a working class area. It was severely damaged during WWII, and restored with prefab constructions. The area was continuously destroyed and people were re-located. The council’s plan was to create a Green Corridor, a parkland, part of a gentrification project. By 1993 only one house was left on the premises, the home of Mr Sidney Gale, No. 193 (Fig.5) who resisted eviction. But eventually he lost and was re-located to a nearby home. This was the background on which Sarah Whiteread, seeking to further develop her work from Ghost, 1990, was searching for two years for a condemned property. It seemed a good fit for her negative cast of the house.

After removing the exterior brick structure, the concrete cast (Fig.6) was exposed and subject to wide political debate that Whiteread was aware during her project work (Thacker, 2015)

“I knew of course, while I was making House, it had a political dimension. You can’t make a cast of a house in a poor area of London and not be political.” – Sarah Whiteread

House became an object for an underestimated diverse debate around the political and cultural heritage of East End and became the breaking news and a topic of debate in the House of Commons.  As often with prize winning art, the money as the prize involved was one aspect in opposition resulting in graffiti on House (indexical) asking ‘WOT FOR – WHY NOT’ (Thacker, 2015). Was the destruction and re-location of the inhabitants prior 1993 ‘unheard’ by the public, the planned demolition of the the artwork attracted perhaps more protests as Tacker is quoting some ‘art-lovers’: ‘We’re doing this because House represents the destruction of not only homes but whole communities in East London.’ (ibid). Apparently the split was not between Art world and local population, more a diverse reception across the boarders (ibid)

The consequence was that the council wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible to overcome the  ‘politically embarrassing monument to an impoverished history and standing in the way of the construction of a less threatening green space.’ (ibid) By the reaction of the public the art turned into ‘an emblem for the area’s time-honoured mode of living‘ (ibid). Eventually, it was demolished and Whiteread stated that it was “absolutely specific to the site” and preferred its destruction to relocation. (ibid)


The three stages of 193 Grove Rd, London (prior, during, after House):

Images :


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