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Rachel Whiteread

1993's most controversial artist on what it feels like to make a masterpiece

Taken from the August issue of Dazed and Confused:

How do you illustrate absence, memory or loss? Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures do just that. Over the past 25 years she has become one of our most important artists, transcending the YBA mantle. Looking back, 1993 was Whiteread’s critical moment. She was 30 and already successful. Her work had exploded as soon as she came out of art school, but it was “Ghost” (1990), a plastercast of an entire Victorian living room, that established her as a serious name in contemporary art, leading arts organisation Artangel to invite her to create a project in a public space. The result was 1993’s “House”, for which she filled a condemned terraced house in Mile End with liquid concrete then removed the mould – i.e. the house itself. One of the most controversial, memorable and defining works of the decade, it won her the Turner Prize but also the former KLF’s K Foundation award for “worst artist of the year”, and was demolished by Tower Hamlets council 11 weeks after construction. Whiteread later represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, created the almost equally controversial “Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial” in Vienna and filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 14,000 translucent boxes. Here she remembers life in London as a “baby artist” in that pivotal year.

Dazed Digital: What was the London art scene like in 1993?

Rachel Whiteread: I’ve got an assistant at the moment and it’s very weird. She’s 28 years younger than me and she’s living my life from then in Hackney! She’s not living in exactly the same places, but it’s very similar. I always swore that Dalston would never change. It was sort of unaffected by the rest of the world. We lived there for years. There were Yardie clubs you’d go in where people were packing guns. It was really quite serious and heavy. But there were all sorts of little funny places that we made our dens, run by people that had sold off everything and arrived from Jamaica. We would knock on the door and the kids would go, ‘Hey, do you wanna come in?’, and we would all pile in. It was fun. We just made it up as we went along. There were lots of art students around but it was very edgy, much edgier than it is now. Now it’s kind of safe and just groovy. We laugh about it now.

DD: Has London always been an inspiration for what you do?

Rachel Whiteread: Yeah. I remember when I was a baby artist I said that London is my sketchbook. For years my studio was down on Carpenters Road, which is where the Olympic site is now. 
You’d go there and tie your bike up for ten minutes, come back and there’d only be the frame left. Nothing ever happened to me there but it felt very isolated and dangerous. There were these fur factories and things that I broke into or walked into, really extraordinary, toxic places. I found all of that very interesting and ‘Ghost’ and ‘House’ relate to all that.

DD: What other artists were around?

Rachel Whiteread: Fiona Banner was there. Grayson Perry was there. This is when he was completely unknown and made the odd pot. We used to have great conversations.

DD: 1993 was a crazy year for you. You made ‘House’ and won the Turner Prize...

Rachel Whiteread: And I was living in Berlin. I lived in Berlin from ’92 for 18 months. When I started making ‘House’ I had to commute for the first part. It was difficult just trying to find a house in the right site. I made ‘House’, we moved back and then it came down. But yeah, there was the Turner Prize, there was the ridiculous K Foundation thing...

DD: How did you feel about that?

Rachel Whiteread: Someone called me when I was in Berlin and said ‘You know you’ve been nominated as the worst artist in the world?’ I was like, ‘Fuck, ridiculous. Why are they doing this?’ It was purely a publicity stunt on their part. When I won the Turner Prize they threatened to burn their prize money and unless I accepted I would be responsible for that. I really didn’t have a lot of money at that time but I didn’t want to accept it, so I had to figure out a way – which became really hard work for me – to give it away. I gave it away to Shelter and a charity for people making art in prison. We did a call to young artists and gave ten grants away. One actually went to Paul Noble. He always says ‘thanks’ because that was his first ray of hope, that someone thought his stuff was good.

DD: How was the physical process of making ‘House’?

Rachel Whiteread: I was physically knackered. Emotionally and mentally, I was knackered. This was pre Damien’s shark, pre Tracey’s bed. Before the hyped-up art thing. So I was really on the front line. There were motions in Parliament about it, it was extraordinary. It was on the news, and I’m not a great one for sticking my neck out and being the public face of these things. I just want to make them and let them speak for themselves. Damien at the time was going, ‘God, it’s great, you should get whatever publicity you can get! It’s tomorrow’s chip paper...’ Damien was absolutely mad-keen on trying to make this happen, and good luck to him, it has worked for him. He did what he intended to do. I’m much quieter about how I try to do things and that was all pretty hard.

Years ago someone described my work as ‘minimalism with a heart’. I thought, ‘Ugh, what a horrible way to describe it’. But actually that is quite a good way to describe it, because in every piece there is a bit of me

DD: Your work leading up to it was so intimate. Were you surprised at the response?

Rachel Whiteread: I knew when I made ‘House’ that it was going to get a response. I was aware that I was making a political work and I knew that by having something so in-your-face in the street, it would cause a reaction. That was an invisible building. No one ever saw these buildings. And as soon as it became something, everybody drew attention to it and became interested in it. I do feel that it was great work and I’m really proud of it. It’s not often that you can say ‘I made a masterpiece’, but I really do feel that it was a masterpiece. It’s great to be able to say that in your lifetime.

DD: You were the first woman to win the Turner Prize, but Gender doesn’t seem that relevant to what you do.

Rachel Whiteread: I know that I’m a woman, a female artist. Years ago someone described my work as ‘minimalism with a heart’. I thought, ‘Ugh, what a horrible way to describe it’. But actually that is quite a good way to describe it, because in every piece there is a bit of me. Whereas I think with Donald Judd or Carl Andre, they were actually trying not to have that empathy with their work.

DD: Would you agree that the sheer act of highlighting forgotten space has an emotional resonance?

Rachel Whiteread: Years ago Martin Creed and I did a very bizarre thing in Tokyo together – we gave a lecture sort of concurrently. He showed his being-sick film (Sick Film, 2006) and I talked about my work. He said, ‘You know, we do the same thing.’ Martin is quite off-the-wall but actually I think he’s right – every piece I make is almost like throwing up!

DD: You once said you were influenced by cinema. In what way?

Rachel Whiteread: There is a quietness to what I do, a dumbness to it. There’s a pictorial aspect to it and a three-dimensional aspect to it, but there is nothing about it that moves. Cinema has been an enormous influence on me over the years. Often if I feel completely stuck and don’t know what to do, I’ll go and see a movie. You can watch a movie and you don’t even have to participate in it. You can be completely passive or absolutely involved, and if it’s a good cinematographer every shot can be the most beautiful picture you’ve seen in your life.

DD: How have the materials you use changed over the years? 

My vocabulary of material has been plaster, rubbers, resins, metal, bronze – actually patinated bronze. I’ve more recently started using plaster, but with a material that can oxidise with the plaster so the colour is in the patination. I made a number of works using coloured plaster. What I tend to do is set myself very hard and fast rules which I spend years working to really closely, and then occasionally I just say ‘fuck it’ and cheat a bit, change the rules. Any artist does that. You set yourself a clear way of working and then it’s good to shove yourself in a different direction.