Selected Interview: Rachel Whiteread
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Rachel Whiteread
But before we explore that let’s talk about how you work and some of the sources from which you work. Downstairs in your studio there are a lot of sketches, how important is sketching for you?
Drawing and sort of painting is something I’ve always done. I studied painting as an undergraduate and I think it’s always been very much part of my sort of every day practice, and also I think more recently, you know over the past five years or so, a lot of the works I’ve made have been, you know, very large, and in order to sort of work them out you know it’s not like I can sort of play with a bucket of plaster to sort of make it happen, and to really sort of think through them and work them out I make a lot of drawings, and they’re not technical drawings, and people are always asking me, you know, do I use computers, do I use CAD systems, do I use this or, you know I can just about send an e mail on the computer, I’m a bit of a ludite, but I do, you know I draw in my own sort of technical way and I use my own sort of perspective and it’s just something that I really enjoy doing. It helps me dream a piece and make a piece happen.
Because I was struck by some of the drawings, the watercolours stuck on the walls downstairs. They are minutely worked out with a large number of reference lines, so they’re not just impressionistic sketches are they?
Yeah, it’s more to do with, I mean some of the drawings you’re talking about and they look actually very technical but they’re sort of not. You know they’d be following the line of the edge of something and just drawing something sort of vertically from there, and it becomes the pleasure of drawing as much as the necessity of making something, so a lot of the drawings, you know they’re like small paintings in their own rights in a way. So it’s a difficult process to describe but it’s really more a sort of process, an enjoyment of materials and colour and line.
And you’ve also said that London is my sketchbook. Now what exactly does that mean?
I think I said that an awful long time ago, but it, I would say it still is. I think when I first moved back to London after having lived in Brighton for three years as a student and I’d grown up in sort of leafy Muswell Hill and I moved back to Hackney and that was about eighteen, fifteen years ago now, and you know Hackney was a real and still is, you know, a very interesting world soup of a place, and there may be lots of things changing about it now but in those times it was a very, very sort of gritty place, and I just enjoyed that part of it and I would go around with my camera and take photographs and you know go into junk shops and look at things and go around back streets and really just sort of exploring it, and all of the studios I had were really in the kind of furthest, darkest depths and you know it was always an interesting journey going to the studio, what you might find en route. You know I think this area of London is very much like sort of SoHo in New York was sort of twenty, thirty years ago, when a group of artists moved there and then it changed and now it’s sort of fashion and not even galleries anymore, fashion and …
You mentioned photography. The photographs of yours that I’ve seen are very ordered, a lot of straight lines, quite monumental, Roman amphitheatres, the Corinth Canal and things like that. How does that fit in with your work?
The photographs that I take are generally to do with spaces actually. The photographic part of my work is something to do with trying to find a sense of what people have done to the land, whether it’s not through building structures, or through making great big holes in the ground, or whatever it is that they’ve done, whether it’s a reservoir, or a pyramid, you know. I think it’s just the way in which we’ve affected our world, physically affected it, and I think it’s very much a part of the practice that I do in the studio, whether it’s casting the inside of a hot water bottle or looking at a pyramid I think it’s the same sort of thing in effect, because it’s really just about how we have as a human race, you know, affected the surface of the earth in one way or another.
You mentioned architectural space, or rather you mentioned space, and that of course naturally springs the idea of architecture, but the works that you do, which are inside of a room, inside of a house, staircases, etcetera, those are not your comment on architecture as such are they?
No, no not at all actually, I think that the first architectural piece that I made which was Ghost, which was the caste of the inside of a small room in a Victorian house, and that was really to do with kind of childhood memories in a way and maybe leaving home and doing all those sorts of things. It was, you know, a lot of that earlier work was very much connected to my own sort of history, but I think that changed you know through House which was obviously a sort of political statement as well, and then some of the more recent architectural pieces, a lot of which were cast in this building that we’re now sitting in, and it was more the notion of how buildings are sort of anonymous, you know the way in which apartments are often made, so two, these two apartment pieces that were cast in this building were caste physically from the actual apartments that were here, small rooms, you know a bit like council flats, a bit like this kind of international sort of forgotten architecture. It’s just spaces. You know no one really considers them. It’s just got windows and it’s, you know, got a door and there’s nothing beautiful about them they’re just there. They’re purely functional spaces. Actually when I was casting these pieces the things that I was most interested in was actually the space between the walls, so they were cast in such a way that the walls didn’t exist anymore, so the walls were all slots, and that came from having made House ten years ago, and the one thing that sort of, well there were many things that frustrated me about House, but the one thing that frustrated me about the appearance of it was that it, the walls were still embedded in the actual sculpture.
It was a solid chunk and therefore it went against your idea of expressing the void rather than the structure?
Exactly yeah, it was, I think I couldn’t, you know I didn’t really know that at the time. I knew I was a bit irritated that I had to keep these walls in, and it’s just since then through the kind of plodding nature of my practice that I’ve realised that oh yeah that’s what it was that annoyed me.
Let’s just, let’s just put that to one side for the moment, because I want to go back to the personal background that you mentioned. The sort of things that are written about you, the memories of crawling into a dark cupboard as a child and that then led to I think your first significant cast piece, you were heavily influenced by your father’s death and another piece was driven by that. Did these experiences really influence your work, or have the critics kind of retro fitted a lot of traumatic experiences and cast you as this rather, I mean almost gloomy, traumatised artist?
I’m not, I’m not in the least bit gloomy and traumatised. I, when I made Closet, which was the piece that is always referred to as the sort of childhood experience, and I said when I made it that I had this sort of memory of sitting inside wardrobes, it wasn’t a traumatic thing. It’s the way in which kids crawl under beds. You know my son does exactly the same thing, you know finds little spaces and you’d go in them because they’re kind of cosy and interesting and you can close a door and it’s dark and you can see a chink of light and it’s private and secret, and you know that’s sort of what that was about. It was cast in plaster and then it was covered in black felt, and people immediately thought it was incredibly morbid, which I don’t think it was, I think it was quite celebratory and sort of …
A perfectly innocent memory, not a memory of trauma.
No no no, an innocent memory but to do with I think sort of reverie as a child rather than trauma, so that, that was that. I made Shallow Breath …
Which was of a mattress.
Which was soon after my father died, and that was very much to do with my father’s death, which was, you know, as a, someone in their mid twenties it was a very traumatic thing. You know I make no apologies for these things and I, I don’t think that it’s necessarily painted me as being kind of morbid but I do, you know I’m a very sort of honest, straightforward person and I think that that’s somehow where the waters maybe get a little bit muddied because people can’t quite believe that I can be that straightforward about my father’s death, and sort of not illustrate it but somehow bring the pain out and physically make something with it.
No I think that’s right and I mean I was struck by the fact that when some of these and other pieces were displayed you said really some of these pieces still break my heart and doing it as an exorcism of, of emotion, I mean it’s almost this is an unfashionably candid and honest thing for an artist to say.
Yeah I, well I, yeah I think that’s still true actually. I mean the first show that I did when I left college was a show that was in a gallery called the Carlisle Gallery, that doesn’t exist anymore, and in the show there was a cast of the inside of a hot water bottle that was called Torso, there was Closet, there was Shallow Breath and there was another piece called Manty, which was the cast of the dressing table, and it was a really sort of quiet show in a very small gallery that had a wooden floor, it was very domestic space, and I think it was, for me it was the first time that I felt that I’d made sculpture, throughout all my time at college I was sort of struggling with trying to make things that stood in the middle of a room and never really managed it, and not that I think that’s what sculpture is but for me that was a starting point, but then from that you know I’d made this, you know the, the four things that you might find in a sort of little domestic space, and then I thought well I’d, you know I’d like to cast the space inside a room, and I described that as mummifying the air in a room, and again people thought that was really morbid, you know mummifying…, but for me it was just a way of poetically describing it and being able to make grant applications, to be able to fund doing it, you know, so …
These are perfectly, as you describe it that is a perfectly innocent and logical progression of there’s a young artist and what’s she doing, dealing with a material which first comes to, to hand.
Yeah I mean I think you know throughout my time at college, especially in post grad when I kind of knew what I was doing a bit more, in the last year of college I would say I knew what I was doing, and I was using a lot of materials, blankets from my childhood and chairs and tables, and so all of the things that I kind of use now but I didn’t quite know what I was doing with them, so I made all this very strange work with furniture and hung them upside down and stuffed things into them and it’s work that I still, you know, stand by but it was, it was very kind of naïve in a way, and I think the actual struggle of leaving college and getting a studio and how, you know someone putting their faith in you and saying that, you know, they’d like to give you a show.
Can I just try to get a basic definition for my own benefit? It’s sometimes the impression is given that you cast a particular kind of space, i.e. the inside of a building as in House, but you also cast spaces below, as with your chairs and tables, and in the case of Sarcophagus the space, that is the imprint that the bath makes on a block of material, so you’re playing with the idea of the volumes that you cast in a fairly complicated set of ways.
Yeah I think it, it’s something that I’ve developed over the years. You know you have as an artist you, you know you develop a language, it’s like learning to talk and over the years you gradually sort of move this language a little further and you start thinking about how, you know what happened to that, how that refers to the floor, how that refers to something else, and once you’ve got all of that language together you can then play with it and I think that’s what I’m sort of doing now. When, you know when I first made the bathtub pieces, which were called Ether and various, they were never called Sarcophagus actually.
Yes people say it is a sarcophagus, yes there you are.
I was always, I stopped titling things a long time ago, but I was always very careful about my titles that they were never that sort of direct. But yeah these were using a cast-iron bathtub, I always used cast-iron because that was what I could get to rust into the material properly and to get this very rich surface on the final piece, and that was, you know I had the bathtub, I turned it upside down in the studio and I just worked on proportions and how something could look when it was finally a lump in the, you know in my studio, so that, you know I was trying to decide what height it would be and, and they were also always based on weight and how I could physically move them around the studio, you know maybe myself and someone else next door that I could knock on the door to help me just shift something for ten minutes. So all of those things were sort of considerations and they all become part of your working practice.
If you had just been, I use the word just deliberately, casting the space inside, you would have put the resin, in the case of Bath , inside the bathtub wouldn’t you rather than putting the bathtub into a block of resin?
Yeah, but I’ve never found that space very interesting so.
Right, can’t be bothered, that, that disposed of that, but you find the space beneath chairs and tables and stools like that, that is interesting?
Yeah I think it’s for, for a number of reasons, one that they’re, they’re quite architectural lumps once they’re made so, and they also stand for the absence of a body really. You know chairs are made to be sat on and whereas the inside of a bathtub is water.
And the body?
Yeah but then you have to put the body in it don’t you, so it’s, yeah and that, that would then become a very complicated cast and would look very figurative, the thing that I’ve, you know I’ve never used the body other than when I was a student in my work, and I’m always looking for ways of representing the body but not actually physically putting it there.
It’s the presence of the body and the spaces that the body inhabits that …
Yes the presence and the absence, you know whether it’s casting the space underneath a table and really enjoying the fact that there are pieces of chewing gum and all sorts of other things that actually become part of the sculpture, but I think that absence is, you know, in more the sort of physical way in which people are absent that’s one way to read the work, but I think it’s something that I very much played with especially in, in you know a lot of the chair pieces and you know making a hundred chairs together and it’s almost like an audience, an absent audience. I think in the room pieces, especially I think with Ghost when I, you know when I first looked at it in the studio and saw it for the first time after I’d been sort of spending three months making it or whatever, and I was completely sort of alarmed when I realised that I was the wall, you know as the viewer, and I thought what have I done, you know I’ve actually made everybody absent from everything, you know and it, and it was quite an odd moment …
But you did dehumanise.
Epiphany. No I don’t think I dehumanise no not at all, no, but you know but it is about becoming the wall a lot of the time and maybe that’s just, you know, the place that I think more people should be, behind the wall.
Now just going back to your great piece, the House of 1993, what strikes me is that it must have involved a huge amount of preparation and planning. It was, it was an engineering and a building operation. Now were you prepared for that, are you particularly good at doing that sort of thing?
No, I certainly wasn’t prepared for it, I’ve got better at doing it. I, you know I work with Artangel so an awful lot of the stuff was organised by them. You know they found the construction firm and they found the engineers, so you know that was all taken care of. I had to work very closely with everybody and the most important, for me the most important part was getting the internal structure of the building right before we actually cast it, so I went in with a group of people, you know we had to strip a lot of things out and sort of make good and you know make decisions about what should be kept, what should go.
What sort of things did you take out, I hadn’t realised that you had as it were interfered in the inside of House so much?
Well not, not so much but there were, there were some very interesting 1950s-’70s DIY let’s say. You know there was a bar, built-in bar in there and things like that which it didn’t really resonate as a structure that you wanted to cast or have as part of the building, so things like that you just, you know one just needed to think about. Some of the roof structure, there was actually a valley roof on the building and I made a decision to just block that off and not actually cast into the roof space, because it would have looked too complicated, it would have looked like there was a crown on the roof rather than just being this very kind of severe flat top to it.
So there were some unadmitted interventions as architects would say?
Yeah, yeah, they were very slight actually but there were. You know we had to cut the staircase in half, because we had to cast around the staircase, things like that …
Would it make a huge difference to the importance of the piece, or the validity of the piece in your terms, if the amount of intervention you had introduced was very significant, in other words if you had tinkered with the space too much before casting it?
Well I think it would have been a very different thing and I wouldn’t, you know I would never have done that. I remember actually we got into the building, I think we’d been working on it for about a week and then we came in one night and two of the fireplaces had been ripped out by someone who’d just gone in and nicked them, so we had to rebuild the fireplaces. You know things like that happened that we didn’t really expect to happen and then you kind of had to deal with once they had happened, so.
Was it physically hard work?
It was completely exhausting, yeah. I actually got very sick making that piece, because I just overdid it.
But basically do you like getting involved with the physical side of sculpture?
Completely yeah, yeah, no it’s very much my, you know in the more, more recently I’ve had to sort of stand back a little bit from that. I, I organise an awful lot of the making these days on, on the larger works rather than physically doing it, but I make all of the decisions, all of the decisions of how it’s going to finally look, but I have a great kind of team of people that I work with, not all the time by any means but they come in and work on specific projects with me.
But you no longer need to get some of your satisfaction from getting physically tired?
I get physically tired in other ways now. No I don’t, of course I love it, you know it’s like you move into a new place and you spend all night unpacking books, you know, that’s very part of it and you sort of, one needs to kind of move into a new piece of sculpture in the way you need to do with anything else, so yeah I do very much enjoy doing that but it’s a kind of necessity to not have to do it sometimes these days.
Your nature, your, your character as an artist, are you a realistic or a symbolist, and I suppose you don’t have to make the choice between the two?
I would say, I could easily make a choice, I would say I was definitely a realist.
I don’t think I’m romantic enough to be a symbolist.
But people read huge symbolic values into your work.
Yeah they do.
So do they think of you as an unadmitted symbolist?
I don’t know, I’ve never asked them. I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. I think that it’s not that I’m, I’m not responsible for how people respond to works, but you can’t dictate how people respond to works, and it’s actually something that I, you know a long time ago when I was first making sculpture I think maybe for about three years maximum I titled works and I was very careful about titling them. I spent hours pontificating about what the, you know what the words should be, and then I decided that actually it was because it’s the sort of thing that you can sort of take in one breath to then give it a name, it made the reading of it very specific, which is why I stopped titling things and now everything which makes life very complicated is untitled and then would be maybe Grey Bed in brackets or something, you know so it’s very, it’s much more specific rather than having a kind of poetry to the reading of it.
People rather like me then go round and label a piece Sarcophagus, which it isn’t …
Well that’s fine, you know that’s fine, but I, you know so, you know I just remember as a student you know I’d be puzzling over something and then you’d go and read the label and read the title and then you’d think oh, and it would, could be incredibly disappointing because you sort of got it you know, and I think the interesting think about looking at work is that you don’t necessarily get it, you don’t necessarily understand what the artist is trying to say, or you can completely put your own interpretation onto it.
Let me try another ism while we’re here. Do you see yourself at all as a minimalist?
Yes, I mean there’s some, you know I work in a very specific kind of way and I have a debt certainly to the minimalist, yeah.
And one final one in this respect, a concern for pure form, formalism, how much does that drive what you do?
I don’t think it does really, I think that proportion maybe is more of something that, proportionalism. No I think that proportion with making the works and that comes very much from drawing and, you know and a sort of physical thing, for me it’s to do with being able to move things around and in and out of buildings and whatever, but I enjoy playing with that and I think the formality, you know the works often are very sort of formal looking, but I think that was never an intention. You know it’s not that I’m trying to make the straightest line or the most beautiful curve, it really comes from the thing that I’m physically casting and have chosen to cast, so maybe the formalism comes from the actual spaces and the interpretation for me but not finally the sculpture, if that makes sense.
Yes, yes it does. And do you set out, well I think I know the answer to this question, I was going to say, do you set out to do something which is beautiful, but you have sometimes specifically said that art should not be beautiful?
Um no I’ve never set out to make things beautiful no, I kind of enjoy it when they are sometimes but I also like making ugly things.
Which of your pieces would you regard as being successfully ugly?
Strangely enough there was, I could be very specific about a piece which was called Untitled Black Bed I think, which was made a long time ago now, and it was the caste of the space underneath a bed and it was cast in two sections and it was a large double bed which could be folded in half to, you know, get it up and down stairs and whatever, bit of kind of utility furniture, and then I made this bit in the area in the middle which I didn’t do anything with at all, I just kind of bunged this black rubber down it and it came out as this horrible kind of hairy lip, which was in the centre of the piece, and a friend of mine, an artist called Alison Wilding, I remember came to see me in the studio and she said that reminds me of the stuff you find underneath your fingernail, and I thought that was a really great way of sort of describing something and yeah I think it was …
Successfully ugly …
Successfully ugly yeah and it was very sort of female, there were all sorts of things about it that, that made it deliciously ugly I’d say, yes.
Some people have described the spaces you work with and express as meaningless spaces, clearly meaningless to them. Now presumably as we’re talking about the chairs or the tables, they are not meaningless to, to you, they may, they seem arbitrary but they’re, they’re not meaningless?
No, everything that I cast I make a very sort of clear cut decision about casting it. It may be to do with sort of physically what it looks like, it may have come from a place that I’m familiar with, it may. You know there’s all sorts of things that can inform each piece that I choose, but they’re certainly not meaningless, and I think, you know I always see furniture, especially sort of furniture that’s kind of chucked out in the street, that’s almost like people, you know that are just sort of derelict and been chucked out in the street and they’ve been loved and used and then they have no purpose anymore in someone’s life and they just chuck them there. It’s something that you see in Hackney and in Tower Hamlets all the, you know everywhere, it’s just part of the sort, I would say street life, but street furniture, or whatever, you know it’s just part of the city.
From that point of view there’s the random element in what you do that you could see something that’s been rejected like that and say …
Yeah, no I would very rarely actually pick something up from the street, that might have been something that I’ve done as a student but somehow it’s a little bit too arbitrary. I need to go and choose something. I’ll photograph stuff in the street but I don’t necessarily, I wouldn’t necessarily bring it back and work on it.
What’s your working day like?
Get up around seven and that’s because I’ve a little boy, and do all that kind of stuff, get into the studio by about 9.15 and finish by 6 and then after my evening’s activity maybe come back into the studio and have a think, have a, do some drawing, you know, or maybe not.
But then what about the nine hours between the nine fifteen and the, and the six, what is your life, I know every day is different?
During my day, my working day, well over the past year it’s been involved with dealing with builders and architects a lot, but usually my working day consists of getting up, maybe going through some sort of correspondence, doing some admin stuff and then going into the studio and start thinking and drawing and making things in the, the drawing space of my studio, getting it to a stage and then going downstairs and actually start physically kind of making things.
Do you work in a very steady way throughout the day?
Life’s been quite different over the past few years, but I used to definitely have a very, very steady way of working yeah where I, and I think when I had a studio in Hackney Wick and I’d cycle to the studio and I’d cycle to second-hand shops and you know it was a very sort of fluid way of working, and now the older I’ve got the busier I am, the trying to sort of work everything into one day can be quite hard, yeah.
Do you try to avoid work at times?
Oh yes, yeah I know …
And how do you avoid it?
I go for a walk, I go and try and find things in shops, I go for a swim, I maybe go for a run, you know I, I’ve got lots of avoiding tactics.
But what happens, have you ever been serious, seriously blocked where, where you thought you just didn’t know what you were going to do with any of your pieces?
It hasn’t happened for a while actually, but yeah, yeah and I think actually it’s a very healthy moment when that happens where you just, you just think I just don’t know what I’m going to do next, and you sort of back yourself right into a corner and then you just have to work your way out of it, and I think it only happens through work actually that you can only get yourself out, and I don’t know what kind of writers feel about this when they have writer’s block, but I think with artists you have to just somehow do it, even if it’s just an hour a day you need to do something, because you need to keep thinking in order to get yourself out of a sort of blockage, yeah. I do a lot of drawings when I’m stuck.
And then finally you realise that you’re not stuck, that actually just the process of putting ideas onto paper work, works you through?
Yeah exactly, exactly.
And did you get very depressed, I mean you say that you have had a period when you were blocked, do you recall were you, were you depressed or were you frustrated?
I have, yes I think you do, yeah one, yeah you do if you, especially if you’ve got kind of deadlines coming up for things and you just think I don’t know what I’m doing you know, but I think generally you work through it yeah, and it’s difficult but you know depression comes in all sorts of forms and misery comes in all sorts of forms and people have different ways of dealing with it.
You’ve said of your work that it’s quiet, spiritual, poetic. Is that a description of you as well?
Of me personally? I don’t know really, I’m certainly quite sort of contemplative. I wouldn’t really necessarily say that I was, what was it quiet, spiritual and poetic …
Quiet, spiritual and poetic.
No I’ll just stick to contemplative.
That’s all right, but obviously also very determined person or you would have given up on the Holocaust Memorial in, in Vienna . Rather than me trying to describe it, why don’t you describe it for me?
The Holocaust Memorial is a concrete sculpture made from case books. So it’s sort of like a library but it’s kind of inside out not really, it, it has a kind of double reading to it. It has two doors on the front. It has a ceiling rose in the roof which acts as drainage, and it has this concrete plinth around it with an inscription and names of all of the concentration camps in which people died in Austria . It was an idea that I, I’d lived in Berlin for a long time. When I lived there I thought a lot about what had happened during the War, and I think that if I hadn’t had that experience I wouldn’t have even approached or begun to approach such a subject. And when I was asked to put in a proposal, which I did, and I hadn’t a clue that I would get it. I really didn’t think that I would get it because it was against all sorts of other people that were much more experienced than I was, and it was a piece that was to be in a square called Judenplatz which is a, a sort of quite domestic scale square, and it was as if one of the rooms from the surrounding buildings had been taken and put in the centre of the square, and all of the books were completely blank. You had no idea what was supposedly in them, and the pages were facing outwards so you couldn’t read the spines of the books, so that was essentially the idea, a sort of blank library. There’s all sorts of interpretations …
What the Jews as the people of the book?
Exactly and various other things which I obviously thought about when I was making the piece or thinking about making the piece, but it’s also quite like a bunker and it was something that I thought about and something that I was accused of. I remember at the jury when I went and stood in this very terrifying room and I said what do you mean it’s like a bunker? I, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, and acted completely innocently, but it was something that I really felt quite strongly about. And I’d been to see a lot of the bunkers around the Atlantic wall and I didn’t want to give the city of Vienna a beautiful object. I wanted to give them something that they had to think about and that wasn’t ugly but that had a presence and quite a severe presence in the city, which I’ve done very successfully I’d say in terms of, you know, how people have to look at it and it’s not an easy thing to look at and I would hope it makes people quite uncomfortable, but it’s also quite poetic. You know it has all sorts of different ways and layerings to reading it. You know I’m finally very proud of it, but it took an awful lot of doing and you know it wasn’t a pleasant thing to go through.
Were you ever tempted to give up?
Yeah I certainly was tempted to give up, but I think, I mean what sort of drove me through that was I think because of the nature of the sort of attack on it, I felt even more sort of clear that it should happen, because there was a lot of racism involved and it was pretty nasty, but I also had a wonderful woman called Andrea Schlieker who sort of worked with me through it and sort of helped me through the whole thing and she’s German speaking but lives here, you know, and she had a kind of good handle on it all and she was able to sort of nanny me through it a little bit. I think if she hadn’t been a part of it I would have chucked it in, because I just wouldn’t, I just couldn’t handle the, the attack all the time. It was just driving me slightly kind of insane …
How much was it though the attacks on you and the piece rather than a huge piece of internal Austrian faction fighting?
It was both. The internal fighting was extraordinary and, and it really was that that I think made it, you know and everybody was so excited that it should happen under their political umbrella that, that they could be seen to making, you know to be making a Holocaust memorial, but the Government I think changed three or four times and everybody was trying to make it their political baby or not, but there was a lot of local opposition actually in the square in which the piece was made in Judenplatz, and there were ideas that it should be moved to place called Heldenplatz, a Hero’s Place, which I refused to let that happen and said if you want a piece for there then you have to have another competition. This was specifically designed for this intimate place. So there were all sorts of fights that went on. I got to a stage where I would go over there for day trips, and going to Vienna for a day trip’s quite hard work, and then eventually I refused to go until they sorted themselves out and they would all come over here and turn up with their chocolates and sort of trying to make me feel very much a part of it. But it’s extraordinary, I mean the piece was finally opened maybe two years ago or something. I haven’t been back since. I will go back but I haven’t gone back.
You have these big pieces, you’re associated with these big pieces, the House, the plinth in Trafalgar Square, Holocaust, but are you in danger of being branded as, or becoming the sculpture, the sculptor of the monumental?
I don’t know. I don’t intend to do that, and as I said to you earlier you know I’m resisting making more large works just simply because I want to become a bit quieter about the way I make work, and I want to be in the studio more physically doing it myself and just sort of changing things a little bit. I think it becomes constantly work in other people’s studios or in other countries or… You know all of these things really kind of take their sort of toll kind of mentally and physically, and I think that it’s very important to just try and keep a kind of handle on the things that maybe you want to do make work in the first place and I think that, and you can lose sight of that a little bit if you’re flying around the globe, but I’ve actually made very few very large works. You know people think that I’ve made a lot but you know I’m not a sculptor that makes enormous pieces for bank buildings or lobbies or, you know I haven’t really sort of done that.
So you need to rediscover for your own purposes, or to reconnect yourself with the smaller more intimate works?
I think it’s something that I’m about to sort of start, yeah.
Does this actually amount to a change of direction, because somebody said, I think Francis Bacon said, an artist must deepen their game. Do you feel at the age of forty that you’re at the stage when you want to deepen your game, or you’re ready to deepen your game?
I’m not sure what that means deepen your game, what does that mean?
Extend the range perhaps.
Extend the range, I’m not sure if extending the range is something that I want to do. I think some of the most interesting artists have done more or less the same thing their entire lives. I think that you can by reinvestigating things you can just draw that little bit more from something. It’s not something that I, you know I don’t want to start making vast metal sculptures out of eye beams or something, you know I’m not going to start doing that.
And you see no need to abandon the idea of casting or something connected with it?
No I see no need at all to do that no. It’s what I do.
You’re not running out of themes, ideas, subjects?
We’ll see, I hope not.
Because you’ve just done a room, Room 101, which is George Orwell’s supposed room at the BBC, a room I think that’s now been destroyed. What attracted you to that commission? That’s a fairly monumental piece isn’t it?
Yeah, it wasn’t really a commission it was more a sort of would I think about it and then I decided that it was an opportunity not to sort of be missed, and actually I mean when I was starting to think about making it it was during the time that the war was about to happen here, rather in Iraq, and I you know wasn’t a great supporter of the war by any stretch of the imagination, and somehow it felt a kind of good thing to do because it somehow felt connected to that and by casting this room and the way in which, you know, rooms get bombed out, it felt like, Room 101 actually felt like that because all of this sort of plant machinery had been taken out of the room and there were these big kind of gaping holes in the walls, so it’s almost like a kind of, when you see it it’s almost like a cartoon of a room. There’s all this kind of brickwork that you can see and it felt somehow connected. It’s kind of difficult to explain but it’s felt a little kind of Orwellean in some way.
Well I have to say looking at the photograph and my producer who’s also an old BBC hand, the thing we instantly recognised was the fenestration.
And so as a piece of evocation and nostalgia for anybody who’s been inside Broadcasting House it’s very powerful on that level to start with.
I don’t know what’s really going to happen with it, but when I think we put it in the cast courts, cast courts are an extraordinary place in the V & A, and it’s going to be standing alongside gargantuan Michelangelo and sort of various other things, and I’m moving some of the works around, not a great deal of them but what we can, and somehow making a relationship with the works that are in the room in the cast courts with Room 101, so that’s a kind of interesting thing to play with as well.
And you’re also doing something which really is rather different. You will be working with snow and ice in Finland and that will have nothing whatever to do with casting but it will use some of your corridor and staircase themes won’t it?
Yeah exactly. That’s going to be something which happens in February, and it was really for me a way of being able to make something very large without actually physically having to do it myself and also working alongside an architect that can make all the drawings and understand how this structure can go together and tell the builders what to do, but it will be working with snow and ice and making a kind of cavity of where a staircase was rather than a sort of hole, so it will be an architectural space but it will be sort of unusable. You’ll be able to go inside it and from the outside it will be very, very straightforward, very formal.
Ah, can you imagine, can you see other ways you feel or are you prepared to admit even to yourself other ways in which what you’ve done over the last twenty years and what you’ve learned can be turned into new kinds of work?
I don’t know actually, I mean I’m sort of about to start. I’m very much a kind of open book with it all. You know this was partly one of the reasons why I’m doing this interview with you. It’s often very good to really kind of think things through and just try and work on the whole of something or the whole of what I’d done and try and work out what it is that I’m going to be doing. I’ve got some ideas, I’m thinking things through and we’ll see. You know I’m about to start playing with lots of new materials, making lots of …
Different types of rubbers and what else have I got downstairs, different types of, of the sort of clear plastics, felt, you know. All sorts of things. Felt but not casting felt. So, so there’s all sorts of things that are kind of going on that are kind of related, I’ve done, I’ve used them a bit but you know colours have changed, materials have changed, so we’ll see.
So if you’re in this taking stock mood, you look back over twenty years, what’s your sense of the journey that you’ve come?
A long and arduous one, but very good, you know a very good journey. I’ve achieved an awful lot and you know I’m sort of looking forward to my mid career. That might sound like a strange thing to say but I think it’s… You know no one can continue at that pace and you know some artists have three good years in them, some have ten, some have fifty, you know. We’ll just see what happens. I can’t really say what it is that will happen but I’m still looking forward to continuing the journey.
But you’re not facing block at the moment?
No, I’ll let you know in a few months time, but at the moment no.
And you don’t feel that casting has run its route for you?
No I definitely don’t feel that, I mean I’m often asked that. People say what else can you do with casting, but you know the staircase pieces that I made very recently they completely surprised me, you know, and I felt absolutely kind of ecstatic that I’d made them and it felt like the first sculpture I’d made you know once again, so if that can happen every sort of five, ten years then that’s a, that’s a great feeling, that’s what keeps you going.
You mentioned the YVAs, many of whom have led and continue to lead legendarily rackety lives. You’ve never done that and you described yourself or been described as being very grounded. What keeps you grounded?
I don’t know. I think. It may be something to do with the background that I came from. You know my mother’s an artist and my father was sort of involved in it, I don’t know maybe the artists that my parents knew weren’t necessarily all mad and you know crazy drinking, drug taking people, so maybe it comes from there, I don’t know, but you know I’ve done my fair share of partying as well, I just hide from the cameras. I just haven’t done it for a while, I’m just not interested really any more. I, I like doing it sometimes but I have a different kind of life now.
Do you mind fame? Would you quite like it?
The fame thing I find quite difficult. I’m getting used to it now but there were times when I’ve really not enjoyed it being followed, being whatever, yeah. You know some people love it. They court it. They actively enjoy it, I just don’t really. I don’t like being available to people all the time, which comes with fame …
That’s where the privacy and quiet comes from …
Yeah, yeah, I don’t like people saying, oh I’ve got a great idea, you know cast the inside of a telephone box. One because that’s not a very good idea and you know it’s …
I’ve got a great idea cast the inside of a motorcar!
That’s not a good idea either!
Well that’s why you’re the artist and I’m not. Rachel Whiteread thank you very much.
Interview Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/whiteread_transcript.shtml