publication of the International Sculpture Center
Traces: A Conversation
with Rachel Whiteread
to Contents page>
2001. Resin and granite, 9 x 5.1 x 2.4 meters.
Whitereads meteoric rise to prominence in the 1990s cemented her
reputation as one of Britains most important sculptors. Her work
involves casting the space within and around objects, using materials
such as resin, plaster, concrete, and rubber, to create negative impressions
of her chosen object. She made her first architecturally scaled work in
1990 with Ghost, the cast of an entire room. In 1993 she was commissioned
to make House, the cast of the inside of a terraced house in East London.
Her commissions have come under much public scrutinynone more so
than Holocaust Memorial for the Judenplatz in Vienna (2000), which marks
the genocide of the Austrian Jews in World War II.
Room 101, recently
unveiled at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is a cast of the
actual room that inspired George Orwells nightmarish vision of the
future in his novel 1984. Whitereads current projects include the
realization of a number of experiments using new materials.
Ina Cole: You have achieved an enormous amount over the last
decade and your reputation is assured, yet youve said that you now
feel you have arrived at a pause. How do you intend to use your period
of respite in the planning of future projects?
Im at a stage where I worked incredibly hard for 10 years and simply
need time to take stock of things and start thinking about how other projects
will happen. In the last couple of years weve moved house, moved
studio, and had a child. Its been a lot to deal with, and its
now time to very quietly get back to work. Theres an exhibition
called The Snow Show that I decided to get involved with in
Finland (through April 2004). Im making a large work in snow and
ice, which I think will be an interesting way of moving forward and may
lead to something else.
The BBC recently
asked me to make a casting of a room at Broadcasting House, which George
Orwell had apparently used as his officeRoom 101 from 1984. I couldnt
say no: the room was about to be demolished, and this was a way of making
an imprint of it. I made an enormous sculpture, which is now on show at
the V&A in the Cast Courts (through June 27, 2004). So, things like
that have been going on over the past nine months or so. Now I really
want to get back to the intimate process in the studio that sometimes
gets taken over when youre making large pieces and end up producing
your work, rather than physically creating it.
Conceptual rendering of a collaborative project with
Juhani Pallasmaa for The Snow Show 2004.
recently turned a former synagogue in East London into your home and studio.
Why did you take this project on?
RW: We were
originally looking for a site to build a studio and house, but we realized
that it was just impossible; developers know what every square centimeter
is worth, and theres no way we could have afforded it. So we found
this building, which was in a very disheveled state. It had been used
as a textile warehouse for a long time and we werent sure what to
do with it, but we knew that we wanted to try and live and work in the
same place. Ive lived in this part of London ever since I came back
from Brighton 15 years ago. Its really changing now, with a lot
of construction going on. It could be a problem to live next door to this;
however, Im optimistic with things like that. There are a lot of
artists living around here and a varied community, which is what I particularly
like about it.
IC: A recent
work, Untitled (Stairs), consists of casts taken from your new home. They
are poised at an incomprehensible angle, exaggerated by the fact that
youre looking at the space where the stairs were, not the stairs
themselves. How did your fascination with staircases come about?
RW: It really
started a long time ago when I made House. I work in a linear way, and
when I made Ghost, I thought it would be interesting to explore the possibility
of casting an entire house; House came from Ghost. When I made House,
I thought there was something missing; I was slightly irritated by the
fact that Id left the walls in and that the staircase hadnt
actually been taken out. It was like the mold hadnt been completely
taken apart. About eight years later, I finally worked out how I could
do it. Id been trying to cast stairs before that, but I didnt
have the right materials or the expertise. I also didnt have the
staircases. There was a possibility of doing it with certain buildings
that had been demolished, but it just didnt feel right.
When we purchased
this building there were three staircases in it, which was fantastic,
and I just worked with those. We made the first one, and I was so excited
by it that we ended up casting all of them. Its very difficult to
turn a space into an object in your mind, so we made models and played
around with them, trying to work out which way they would go and how they
might sit. When the actual object was cast and put in the studio, it did
something I hadnt felt for a long time with a sculpturepsychological
and physiological things where you felt upside down and things felt upside
down or turned on their heads. It really excited me as a very simple act
of making something, rotating it, and finding the right way up for it.
I enjoyed mapping this building, and I also made some casts of the floors
and the two apartments, which felt like a way of getting to know the building
and understanding it.
have been working in London for a long time, yet the spaces you cast are
often private spaces where one might hide. Do you feel that the faster
city life becomes, the greater becomes the need to hide or to create impenetrable
but I think I need London. I lived in Berlin for 18 months and that was
a much quieter city. I made more work there in that time than Ive
ever done anywhere, because I was on my own and really able to concentrate.
I definitely need quiet times when we go to the country and take a deep
breath, but I do need the hubbub of city life around me. I use it as my
sketch book. I dont know if that will change, who knows; you get
older, you change, life changes. When I made Monument, for example, I
was trying to create a pause in the city and place something that felt
very quiet in Trafalgar Square.
you imagine living and working in more tranquil surroundings, or is it
the contradictory need to create a private space within the urban environment
that gives your work such potency?
RW: I get
as much from the hubbub as I can from anywhere else, but I am essentially
a private person and need time to stare at a white wallI dont
mean literally, but meditatively. When you become more successful, its
much harder to find that time and to plan ahead. Im trying to work
out a way of changing, of going backwards and remembering when I was working
in the depths of the East End and cycling to the studio. The freshness
of that time was easier, and Im trying to find that place again.
Ive done a
lot of traveling over the past five years. I recently went to Brazil for
an exhibition of my work organized by the British Council [currently at
MAM São Paulo through May 3, 2004]. When Im traveling I take
photographs, walk around markets and back streets, and drive out into
deserts. That time really is researchyou know its going to
feed back into your work. Ive also been walking in Wales over the
past couple of years, and there are a lot of reservoirs there. Ive
become fascinated with these great cast bits of water, these manmade,
rather dreadful but necessary things, which are essentially incredibly
poetic forms. I just wanted to go and look at places and think about making
sculpture. Im still absorbing all of that. It definitely feels like
a thoughtful time at the moment.
(Stairs), 2001. Mixed media, 3.75 x 5.5 x 2.2 meters.
you feel that youre standing on the outside looking in, taking time
to observe aspects of life that often otherwise go unnoticed?
RW: Yes, but
I think a lot of artists do that; its part of being an artist. You
seek out things that are hidden, draw them out of the environment. I do
that, but I also scratch around with the residue of cities. Whats
odd about living around here now is that a lot of the second-hand shops
and resource places where I used to get things have all changed and moved
further out. Were living right on the edge of Brick Lane market,
which is a very established market, and sometimes you cant even
get out of the door for people selling their wares. Weve actually
designed this building so that were living on the roof, looking
straight onto this ever-changing East End environment.
IC: Your work
has been compared to that of Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, and
Gordon Matta-Clark. However, you pushed the boundaries in making the invisible
visible, which was remarkable, particularly in monumental projects such
as House and Holocaust Memorial. The demolition of House caused a public
outcry. Were you saddened by its destruction, or did you feel that ephemerality
was important to its meaning?
1990. Plaster on steel frame, 106 x 140 x 125 in.
RW: I dont
think I would have liked to see House as a permanent piece because it
wasnt made with that in mind. I would have liked it to stay up for
a year, and it only stayed up for about four months. The main reason I
was sad when House was demolished was because I felt I never really had
a chance to see it properly, because making work in the street is very
different from making work in the studio.
I was actually quite
ill by the time Id finished. It was all just crazy: I used to go
to the site virtually in disguise and sit in the car around the corner,
and every time it would be mobbed by people. There was an unfortunate
set of circumstances, mainly because of one particular council member
who wanted it demolished. He thought that the middle classes were lobbying
for it, and it wasnt a middle class neighborhood. We ended up renting
the ground that House was on from the council, so it could stay up for
an extra month or so. I suggested we make a childrens park there,
and they said no, they didnt want any memory of the piece. However,
people continue to tell me their memories of seeing House and Im
very proud to have made it, but I am sad. I dont think it completely
lost its dignity, but its dignity was rather hijacked.
Memorial was a difficult and emotive commission. There has been much speculation
about the problems of this sculpture, involving politicians, local residents,
and factions within the Jewish community. Why did the piece become so
(Rooms), 2001. Mixed media, 2.82 x 7.26 x 13.43 meters.
because there was a political struggle in the city, and the ministers
involved were always changing. Some of them were desperate for it to happen,
others didnt care, and it just went on and on. Austria is a strange
and complex place politically.
I got absolutely
frustrated in the end when I was just used as a political pawn, and I
refused to go over there. We worked like that for four years. Without
the guidance and support of the architects, Jabornegg & Palffy, and
of Andrea Schlieker as liaison, I wouldnt have managed to complete
the project. However, Im happy to have made it, and Im proud
that its there. It hasnt been graffitied, extraordinarily,
and I think its well received in the city, but I havent been
back since it opened and there would have to be a very good reason for
me to return.
important is the historical casting of space to the development of your
work? Im referring to feats such as the excavation of Pompeii, Egyptian
sarcophagi, and the making of death masks in the 15th century. Are these
issues you think about?
RW: In the
past, yes. Casting has now become the language I make work in, but when
I was looking for that language I was definitely looking at sarcophagi.
Ive never been to Pompeii, quite intentionally, because I dont
want to be disappointed. The image I have in my mind is probably stronger.
I had a period when I went to look at volcanoes for example, which for
me was as interesting as going to look at a pyramid. It doesnt necessarily
have to be a manmade thing; it can be completely elemental and unpredictable.
I recently saw an exhibition called Body Worlds, which was
extraordinary. The work was dreadful, but there was something fascinating
about it as well. There were casts of blood vessels and a whole artery
system in the body, which looked like fantastic sea plants. It was the
casting of the bodys interior that really interested me, rather
than the fact that it was a macabre 21st-century circus.
sculptors referred to the stages of casting in bronze as life, death,
and resurrection; the object is destroyed through casting, only to live
again in bronze. Your objects remain in the stage where they have shed
life yet retain the potential for transformation. Do you feel that you
always maintain control of how a work is developing, or can things happen
in the process that sometimes surprise you?
RW: Yes, definitely.
If Im in the studio and an accident happens, Im very happy
to embrace it and make decisions based on it. If accidents happen in the
foundry, it has to be destroyed and done again. You go from the plaster,
to the mold, to a wax, to a metal, and I think that in those stages there
are already enough changes. I have to be very clear as to what the end
result is going to be, and its really satisfying when youve
made something in the studio, send it off, and later it comes back and
its exactly as you wanted. When I made some of the early rubber
sculptures, I wasnt sure of how they were going to work. They were
cast flat, and I was literally wrestling around with them in the studio.
Then they would slump against the wall and that would be perfectthey
found their own home. Those things become part of your language, and in
order to work with a full deck of cards I had to spend 15 years developing
the language. Im now working with all those different elements,
and by taking a pause I hope to start playing again. Its a linear
but organic process: Im always thinking in a straight line, but
these little things happen along the way. The casting process has to be
structured because you cant make a seven-ton sculpture and think,
well that hasnt worked. But the language will always change and
House, 1993. Concrete,
there any materials or methods you havent tried yet that you intend
to use in future projects?
just about to start on a whole bunch of new material samples that Ive
got laid out in the studio. Ive done a lot of research in the past,
and Im sure I will continue with it because Im always curious
about materials. I dont think of a piece and then try to find the
material; theyre equally balanced, and Im playing with the
two things all the time. For The Snow Show, various artists
and architects were paired to make ice and snow sculptures, which will
be dotted over two areas. Its going to be very bizarre, I have no
doubt. The show will be up for a couple of months before it becomes too
dangerous for people because of the weather. Im going to spend time
with the architect in the studio. Were working on an idea that involves
an inside-out, upside-down architectonic structure. Im currently
working with models and drawings, but its all in the early stages
so I cant be too specific about a description of the work.
idea of casting space began when you cast the inside of a wardrobe where
you used to hide as a child. By making a void solid you are effectively
shutting viewers out, you are sealing off the space they would normally
enter. Is this just part of the process, or is there also a psychological
RW: My very
first show consisted of casts from a wardrobe, a dressing table, a hot
water bottle, and the bed, Shallow Breath. These four elements sat in
a gallery as though it were a bedsit. Im not from a wealthy background,
and it was simply a memory of my childhood, of my grandparents and my
parents. Some of those early works were autobiographical and very much
to do with my childhood and my father dying. Over the years it still comes
from there, but it comes from all sorts of other places too. I think the
staircase pieces are as psychologically loaded as Closet or Shallow Breath.
I always use the word physiologically because I think its
something psychological, but also something to do with the bodyhow
you use space, how space is connected, how you sit on a chair and put
your legs under a table. Its something I use all the time and will
continue to use, whether its about absence or presence.
Untitled (Amber Double
Rubber and high-density foam,
47 x 54 x 41 in.
have said that you need to make the sculptures. Where does this urgency
RW: I think
if youre creative and have an idea you know will work, its
almost like an addiction and you have to make it.
have called what you do mapping, a process of making traces solid.
You are in a sense immortalizing the spaces that you, and all those before
you, have entered. Do you actually think of your casts as tombs, containing
the ghosts of previous inhabitants, as well as traces of yourself?
RW: Yes, thats
a very rounded way of looking at it. With Room 101, all six sides are
castthe floor, the ceiling, and the walls. Its the first time,
other than with the staircases, that Ive made a room thats
not solid: theres an interior to it, yet its completely sealed
and does feel tomb-like. Ghost, for instance, didnt feel very tomb-like
because it didnt have a ceiling. I never try to make something look
like a tomb: I make it as I want the object to be and then it will have
these other associations and connotations. When I saw Room 101, it was
a plant room full of all the gubbins that kept this big building breathingall
metal work and pipes. Everything was ripped out, and I was left with a
blown-up, pock-marked room. It was at the beginning of the Iraq war, so
it felt like a response to thatit actually felt like a room that
had been bombarded with shrapnel. When you look around London and inspect
the outsides of buildings, they often still have pockmarks all over them.
So, it looks very much like that, which felt quite Orwellian.
Ina Cole is based
in Warwickshire, England.