Untitled (Stairs), is a 2001 work of art by Rachel Whiteread. It is a large-scale sculpture created by bolting together ten plaster casts of a staircase. What is seen is the negative space of the staircase. The sculpture solidifies the empty air of this three-landing set of stairs. Details of the architecture can be seen. The ten casts have been assembled and then displayed on their side.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stairs)

Messiaen’s commentary for XI. Première communion de la Vierge (First communion of the Virgin)

“A tableau in which the Virgin is shown kneeling, bowed down in the night – a luminous halo around her womb. Eyes closed, she adores the fruit hidden within her. This comes between the Annunciation and the Nativity; it is the first and greatest of all communions.

Theme of God, gentle scrolls, in stalactites, in an inner embrace. Recall of the theme of La Vierge et l’Enfant from my Nativité [du Seigneur for organ, 1935]. Magnificat more enthusiastic. Special chords and durations of two and two in which the weighty pulsations represent the heartbeats of the Infant in the breast of his mother. Disappearance of the Theme of God.

After the Annunciation, Mary adores Jesus within her … my God, my son, my Magnificat! – my love without the sound of words.”

This sculpture is a visual puzzle. Every time I look at it I have to make sense of it by twisting and turning to figure out which way is up. It is like an M.C. Escher drawing in the third dimension and I cannot figure out which way is up. Are those the undersides of the stairs? Why is there a diagonal slant to them? Where am I supposed to stand? The place for my body is solid plaster.

When I look at architecture I usually look at the walls and architectural features. I do not think about the space that I occupy. Whiteread emphasizes what stairs enable. Stairs are only important because of the space above them and the use we make of them.

Are these really a set of stairs as the parenthetical title suggests? They do make an inaccessible but second set of stairs that ascend and descend but I cannot use these stairs as stairs. Paired with this song I imagine the ascension of notes twisted on its side, the common is made alien to me. The immaterial aspect has been made material. It is laid on its side. It is at rest. Like Christ in the manger, or His body in the tomb. The Incarnation makes The Word flesh.

How can we prepare ourselves for the coming Incarnation of this Advent? Am I a vessel filled to the brim or am I ready to receive?