A Talk With: Rachel Whiteread

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Place (Village), Rachel Whiteread, 2006-2008. /PHOTO: © MIKE BRUCE — MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

In Boston last week I sat down for a conversation with Rachel Whiteread, the most prominent British sculptor of her generation. She’s the subject right now of a small, somewhat fitful show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It centers on a new installation work called Place (Village) that consists of scores of doll houses that Whiteread has collected over the years, all arranged into a nocturnal townscape. (Right now the Boston MFA has a British director, a British architect, Norman Foster, designing the museum’s still-in-progress new wing, a loan exhibition of Assyrian art from the British Museum — first rate, by the way — and now this show dedicated to Whiteread. It’s only a matter of time before they start flying the Union Jack over there.) In other galleries of the Whiteread show are a selection of some earlier works — casts of doors, boxes and an expanse of floor, plus some drawings and collages — though none of it displayed to advantage, because they’re in large spaces that swallow them up.

But again and again over the years Whiteread has produced some brilliant work, so I asked her to talk about the full arc of her career, as well as the new work in Boston.

LACAYO: Let’s start with House, the famous early work in which you cast at full scale the interior of a house, the last that remained of what had once been a row of 19th-century terrace houses in East London. It was only after seeing the Louise Bourgeois retrospective again in New York recently that I started to realize how much your art is connected to her’s.

House, Rachel Whiteread, 1993, destroyed 1994/TATE PHOTOGRAPHY

WHITEREAD: [Laughs] I think a lot about Louise Bourgeois. I was introduced to her work when I was in my first year of college, 25 years ago. She was relatively unknown. My critical studies lecturer told me: “You must really come see it.” And I was completely blown away by it, I didn’t really know why. A year later I saw a Bruce Nauman show and they both had the same effect.

LACAYO: Well for one thing, like you, she plays with domestic spaces, the psychological nuances of rooms and enclosures.

Spider, Louise Bourgeois, 1997/© LOUISE BOURGEOIS — PHOTO: RAFAEL LOBATO

WHITEREAD: Many years after college, just after I had made House, Louise was at home ironing the New York Times, which it was her habit to do every morning. And there was a picture in the paper that day of House. She saw it and said to somebody: “I want this woman in my house. I want her to come to my house.” So I was summoned to see her.

LACAYO: When you were asked to make a sculpture for the Fourth Plinth, the empty pedestal in London’s Trafalgar Square that holds a new work of contemporary art every year or so, you chose to make a translucent copy of the pedestal that you mounted on top of it, upside down. What were you getting at?

WHITEREAD: I was trying to make a “pause” in London, to make time stand still for a moment. Trafalgar Square has changed since then, 2001, now it’s mostly a pedestrian mall. But then there was traffic going all around it. I was just trying to make a simple and quiet moment.

LACAYO: There are works you’ve done that aren’t about neglected space but about objects. Water Tower, which sits on a roof near the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a rooftop water tower cast in translucent resin as sculpture. It has this ghostly quality and glows very beautifully at certain hours. It also fluctuates very smartly between Minimalist abstraction and trompe l’oeil realism. It always makes me think of Gavin Turk’s metal sculpture of a full plastic trash bag, a universal form we barely notice.

Water Tower, Rachel Whiteread, 1998 /MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

WHITEREAD: I remember when I was first thinking about what to make, about the New York skyline, I was thinking about what were overlooked objects, like the benches on the street. And I’ve made a number of floor pieces where I’ve cast the space between the floors. I think of them as like the intestines of a house. With the water tower I was thinking of it as the tear ducts of a house. Often I anthropomorphisize objects. These things I don’t necessarily talk about but they’re part of the work.

LACAYO: A couple of years ago in London I saw Embankment, your huge installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. It was made of pale polyurethane boxes, like things you would dig out of an old closet, But they were piled up so high that when you walked along the paths between them it felt like walking down a ghostly city street, a skyline of trunks and hatboxes.

Embankment, Rachel Whiteread, 2005/© TATE — PHOTO: MARCUS LEITH

WHITEREAD: The Turbine Hall is an extraordinary place, a very difficult place to work with. I think as an artist you dread the call, when they call up to say: “Can you do something there?” But I went there to look at it. I had some ideas, having started making some work involving boxes. I also wanted to make something completely temporary, that wouldn’t be sold. I wanted to make it purely for the moment. Then I went to the Arctic to go have a look at some whiteness. I wanted to have a look at a celestial landscape. Then I felt empowered to deal with it.

So we cast these 14,000 boxes in white polyurethane and then had this extraordinary job of having to organize it. I had to do it on site. I tried making a smaller version of it in the studio and it just didn’t work. And it was an incredibly difficult thing to do, because it was so gargantuan. I wanted to make something that was like a landscape and sort of awe inspiring. And I was especially thinking about children and how they would respond to that — they have a freedom in the Turbine Hall that you don’t get in any other museum situation. I wanted to make something that was profound, like being in a landscape, or being in a cathedral, something that had some elemental force to it.

LACAYO: But now you’ve done a different kind of town, made of doll houses, so it’s in reverse scale — instead of boxes piled up to the scale of a street it’s an ensemble of big things, houses, made small.

WHITEREAD: I started collecting doll houses when I first left college 20 years ago. I was dragging them around from studio to studio wondering what I was going to do with them. This piece was first shown in Naples 18 months ago when I was asked to make a show there. I don’t know if you’ve been to Naples but it’s a bit like Hackney in England, a bit rough and ready. I was thinking about that, but also about Pompeii and especially Herculaneum, all of those things were coming into play as well. And working in Naples just gave me this freedom to test something out in a place where [she laughs] not so many people would see it.

LACAYO: So in a way this is a work of art that you didn’t so much make all at once as it crept up on you over the years?

WHITEREAD: Yes, it is. But I think the thread that connects it with all the earlier work is that if you look inside these houses none of them have people in them, there’s no furniture. They just have electricity – I was interested in the interiors of these houses and also the fact that they had been through many generations of family. They may have been made by the father. There was a lot of love involved with them and then eventually the love was lost. They were transferred through generations. That transaction is always something that’s been in my work. The things that I’ve used have been second hand.

LACAYO: Do you care about the art market? Do you find it a distraction?

WHITEREAD: You have to care about it — that’s how I make my living. But I’m not obsessive about it. I’m making my art and I get on with it. Frankly I’m here in Boston at the moment and [the commercial art fair] Frieze is going on in London and it’s great to be here, great to be away from it. There’s something that’s happened over the last 15 years, where people who are supposedly artists have become available in a way they’ve never been before. And I don’t want to be that available.

LACAYO: Well, I appreciate your availability today.

[We both laugh.]