When the social historians come to write the story of how east Londonchanged so dramatically between the years 1985 and 2015, it will surely be the artists that they quiz first: the frontiersmen and women who watched the process of “improvement” and gentrification from the smeary windows of their wondrously cheap studios in abandoned offices and disused factories. Rachel Whiteread first pitched up in Dalston some time in the late 80s, when she was a postgraduate student at the Slade School of Art: she shared a flat above a fried chicken shop on Kingsland Road with four other girls. “I remember calling my mum from a phone box outside,” she says, her voice on the edge of laughter, as it often seems to be. “There was blood all over it. I thought: ‘Oh my God, where have I moved to?'” When she heard her mother, down the line from Muswell Hill, she might as well have been speaking to her from the surface of the moon. “But I said: ‘Yeah, it’s great, mum. It’s brilliant… it’s… fine.'”
And it was fine – so fine, in fact, that she never left (she still lives only a mile away, with her partner, the sculptor Marcus Taylor, and their two young sons, in a converted synagogue in Shoreditch). “It was quite heavy. It was all Yardie gangs then, and you’d go to a nightclub in some dodgy basement, and everyone would be standing around with guns. But it was interesting, too. The different cultures; the rough with the smooth. I’ve always liked that.” After her degree, she looked for a studio. Lots of artists had places out in Hackney Wick, but she found a space in Carpenters Road in Stratford – formerly known by locals as Pong Alley, on account of its many factories. “There were a few of us: Grayson Perry, Fiona Banner, Fiona Rae, Simon English. It was a sort of silent club: if you could survive Carpenters Road, you could survive anywhere. It was the Badlands. Hackney Wick was really posh compared to us.” She once made the mistake of leaving her bike chained up outside a pub. By the time she returned to it, only the frame remained, as pitiful and useless as a single shoe.
Does she mind that this world, spectral and edgy, has now pretty much disappeared? Carpenters Road has been all but erased by the Olympic Aquatic Centre. “I’m not sure. It was a hinterland that couldn’t really exist in a city that’s constantly expanding. I found those places fascinating because I’m very interested in industrial archaeology. There was an old fur factory at the back of the studio. We’d break in, and come out with these weird pelts. It was really quite extraordinary. But it was toxic land, and now, hopefully, there are some facilities that will be used. I mean, they’ve spent millions on Victoria Park [London’s oldest public park, which lies between Hackney and Mile End], and it’s just fantastic.” I can’t help but wonder, though, where on earth young artists work now? She makes a face. “I’ve heard… [she lowers her voice a little] that they’re all down in Deptford.”
Did the landscape of the east feed into her art? She thinks it did. “My early work – the mattresses and the hot water bottles and the things that leaned against walls – that all came from looking inside myself, but also from seeing stuff in the street. I was forever watching people try to stuff old mattresses into bins. There were a lot of second-hand shops, and they were my treasure troves and my sketch books. I’d buy tons of stuff, put it on the roof of my car, and try to work out what to do with it all later.” And of course, Hackney’s derelict buildings worked a strange magic on her, too. In 1990, she made Ghost, a cast of a deserted room, hollows for doorknobs and all (Ghost, which at one time belonged to Charles Saatchi, is now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC); and in 1993, the year she won the Turner prize, there was House, for which she cast the interior of an entire Victorian terrace, the soon-to-be-demolished 193 Grove Road (it stood in Mile End Park until the local council made the baffling decision to destroy it).
It’s fitting, then, that Whiteread has now reciprocated by putting something back. She and I are sitting in a small dining room at the Whitechapel art gallery, where one of the major commissions of theLondon 2012 festival has recently been unveiled: a frieze created by Whiteread for its facade (Walter Crane had a plan for a mosaic for the gallery’s main entrance in 1899, but this was deemed to be too expensive, and it was never executed; she filled the space intended for Crane’s design). What’s it like? Well, there are gloriously delicate clusters of gilded leaves, which bring instantly to mind – once you’ve struggled to the other side of the choked Whitechapel Road for the best view – the art nouveau Secession Building in Vienna, with its extraordinary filigree dome (and also, perhaps, the cheap jewellery you can buy along the way in Whitechapel market). But there are also four terracotta reliefs cast from the gallery windows, faintly pink, but terribly stark. It’s almost if the piece were the work of two artists: Whiteread, in her jeans and boots, and some other Klimt-loving fellow, in velvet and silk.
What was she thinking? “Well, I did spend a lot of time in Vienna [when she was working on her Holocaust memorial], and the Secession was always a beacon in all my misery. That was one of the postcards on my wall. But I was also thinking about the Arts and Crafts moment. I was thinking about the street. I was thinking about Hackney weed [aka buddleia], which pops out of buildings all over the place.” The eureka moment, though, came when she went up to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral with a camera. “I was trying to find somewhere where the old and the new worked together, and I was thinking about what it is that really makes something a presence among all the greyness – and that turned out to be gold leaf.” Another laugh. “I’m really happy with it. I had a few cross moments. A project like this takes four years. All the bloody meetings. I would start stamping my feet because you can’t make a good publicsculpture from meetings. But English Heritage are pleased now, and it looks how I thought it would look. I’m just waiting for the first blue plastic bag to get attached to it…”
Are these big public commissions – the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial;Plinth, which stood on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square – intimidating, or is she used to this way of working by now? “I’m certainly not used to it!” She’s indignant at the thought. “I could have made a whole lot more outdoor work, but it’s not something I gravitate towards. I prefer being in my studio quietly getting on with it. But if there’s something you can’t say no to, even though you know it will be a real pain in the arse, it’s a calling. It felt right to do this one. The Whitechapel was such an important museum for me; I saw so many fantastic shows here when I was younger, things that changed my world.” Unlike certain of her contemporaries, Whiteread is, I think, no stranger to gratitude. Fantastically amiable, modest, and unshowy, there is something gallant about her, too, as though, deep inside, she is always braced for adversity. And it’s certainly true that the surprise of her career – the simple fact that she is able to make a living at all – has never left her. “I’m incredibly lucky,” she says, now. “I often think that. To do what I love, and be paid for it.”
Rachel Whiteread was born in Ilford in 1963. She spent her early childhood in Doddinghurst, in rural(ish) Essex, and her teenage years in Muswell Hill, north London. Her father, who died shortly before her first show, was a teacher turned polytechnic administrator, and her mother was an artist (she has two sisters, who are twins). Her mother, who died in 2005, was a powerful influence. “Her generation did all the schlep work so people like me could do what we do,” she says. “She never made a penny out of what she did, but she made art for 35 years. Just being in her studio, watching her work, that was enough. We’re very different artists, but she was always passionate, and quite political. She was a feminist in the 70s. She put together this exhibition at the ICA, Women’s Images of Men. The work for it was all selected from our basement in Muswell Hill, and I got to make the coffee and listen.
“But it wasn’t so much her feminism that affected me, as her balls. They didn’t have much money, yet she just got on with it.” Is she surprised women haven’t progressed more in the years since? “I’ve always seen myself as an artist, rather than as a female artist. On the other hand, only two and a half women have represented Britain at the Venice Biennale: me, Tracey [Emin] and, a long time ago, Bridget Riley [in 1968, Britain was represented by Riley and Francis Bacon, hence Whiteread’s use of the word “half”]. That’s quite unbelievable.” How does she account for it? “I don’t really know what to say about it. I’m not the person who makes those decisions.”
Whiteread knew she wanted to be an artist as a sixth-former. “I dropped everything else. I was quite obsessed. I was taken over by the idea of making things.” She went to Brighton Polytechnic to do her degree, and she was soon on a roll. “There was a room you could book out for a week, and I went into it with 12 sheets of black paper and a pair of scissors. I knew I was going to make something, but I had no idea what. I set myself lots of tasks like that.” She fell into the furrow she has ploughed for most of her career thus far – the idea of negative space, of sculpting the gaps in between things, of making the air solid – early on, too. Richard Wilson, the artist, used to drive down to Brighton in a kind of mobile foundry, in which, on his arrival, he would teach his students. “They were real fire and brimstone workshops,” says Whiteread. “I made all these sandcasts. I pressed spoons into them, and then I poured in lead or aluminium – and you had a spoon, only it was filled up. I thought: wow! A spoon that has lost its spoon-ness.” Casting the inside of a wardrobe –Closet (1988) – or the spaces beneath the seats of chairs – Untitled: One Hundred Spaces (1997) – was a huge leap in technical terms. But the idea was essentially the same.
To those who accuse her of repetition, Whiteread says: “Everyone repeats themselves. Robert Ryman has been making the same painting for 70 years. I like to explore something in depth. Over the years, I’ve cast lots of spaces, but the work has also been to do with materials and colour and translucency and depth.” As for the scale of her work, it is mostly dictated by the forms of the things on which any given sculpture is based; she certainly isn’t trying to make a statement, macho or otherwise. “I’m not scared by scale. I just make things the size they need to be.” It took her, working on her own, a year to make Ghost. “I’m very practical and pragmatic. It needed to be that size, so there was no question it wasn’t going to work. I did it through sheer bloody mindedness, and I designed it to go in a skip. I didn’t think for a minute that anyone would want it.”How wrong she was about that. Success came quickly, as it did for all the Young British Artists. There were four pieces at her first show at the Carlisle Gallery in Islington: Closet, Mantle (a cast of the space beneath a table), Shallow Breath (a cast of the space beneath a bed) and Torso (a cast of the inside of a hot water bottle) – and two dealers wanted to buy all of them. Not only that, they wanted to buy the next 20 pieces she made. “They would do things like send taxis round, with a message: come to our hotel. I’m not very good at being pushed around. I was penniless, but I thought: no, and that was a very sensible choice, though I still don’t know how I resisted.”On the good side, they brought Harald Szeemann [the Swiss curator] to the gallery, and he asked me if I wanted to do a show with Bruce Nauman and, well, that was the start of it. I made Ghost, and there was a lot of interest.” Charles Saatchi, it’s worth noting, was not the first owner ofGhost. Nor even the second. Whiteread thinks he might have been the third.We talk about the YBAs, the fact that so many of their careers are still going strong. “Yes, you’d think there would be a lot more casualties.” Cue hearty laughter. When I say some of them seem to get better and better with time, she says, with a snort: “Yes, some.” Her feelings about that time are mixed. She loved the mutual support among artists, which was, according to her, wholly genuine, and has continued down the years. “But it irritates me that art has become so popular.” Is she serious? “Yes. It’s not that I want it to be a cut above, but I want people to understand it, and take it seriously. It’s become pop culture. I can’t step outside my front door without tripping over a bloody graffiti tour, and I’m yet to be convinced that graffiti is art. You have to really choose your moment if you’re going to see a show. It’s just unbearable otherwise, the crowds. I used to teach, and I loved it. But I stopped because I got so irritated with students who just wanted to learn to be famous artists rather than understand how to make art. I was really tough about that stuff: ‘You lazy fuckers,’ I’d say. ‘This is not how it happens.’ But it’s part of the culture now. Instant art, instant gratification.”Has she seen Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern? “Yes.” And? “It was strange for me. We were direct contemporaries. Voom! It was like looking through a flicker book of my life. It discombobulated me for a good few weeks. Damien is a phenomenon. He’s done some great things, and some not so great things. He confuses people with over-production.You like it? Well, here’s 2,000 of them. You want that? Well, here’s another 1,500. It’s partly his ego, and it’s partly his trading roots. But it is on his own terms, and it’s sort of extraordinary.”What is she going to do next? Something a little more quiet. “I made a piece in Norway. There was this boathouse on a fjord outside Oslo, in the middle of nowhere. It was going to be destroyed. So I shipped it here, cast it, and put it back on the fjord. I’m going to do a few more like that: two in LA, one in Norfolk, one somewhere else. I’m calling them my secret sculptures. They’re little forgotten buildings, and I’m going to fossilise them. When there are enough of them, I’ll make a map and a book, and people can go on journeys to find them. I’m really happy about the idea. It’s public art that’s not public art. That’s how I like to see art.” Meanwhile, she is hoping to give Place (Village), her dramatically beautiful installation of dolls’ houses from 2008, to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green on a long term loan.Is it ever hard letting work go? Place (Village) was clearly such a labour of love (Whiteread bought hundreds of dolls’ houses on eBay over a period of many years). She shrugs. “I would love my work only to go to good homes, but the art world is very strange. You can’t always be in charge of what’s going to happen to stuff. Most collectors are extremely nice; they love something, and that’s why they buy it. I think if a collector isn’t very nice, the work won’t stay with them very long anyway; they just want to sell it on, probably. But you have to let go.”She smiles broadly, aware perhaps that she is about to surprise me with an unexpectedly strong statement (her preference, as you will have gathered by now, is for understatement). “You’d be in pieces if you didn’t. It would be like saying goodbye to your children.”