Pioneering sculptor Dame Rachel Whiteread has come a long way since she rose to prominence in the ‘90s among London’s Young British Artists (YBAs). The group, dubbed “Cool Britannia” was famed for their new approach to materials, process, and for many, shocking antics. Whiteread however, established her international renown as a subtle-yet-enduring art innovator for more than three decades. Known for minimal, evocative large-scale sculptures, she casts everyday objects and domestic forms in industrial materials—from plaster and resin to concrete, rubber, and metal. The true magic of her work, however, lies within its “negative space”—the empty areas in and around the structures that brim with memory, experience, and palpable emotion.The Essex-born artist (b. 1963) had an innate sense of creativity from her youngest years, which was encouraged by her parents’ interests in art and architecture. Whiteread went on to study painting at Brighton Polytechnic, where a casting workshop inspired what has since become her artistic signature. Then, after pursuing sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art, she held her debut solo exhibition in 1988, and only a few years later, her first large-scale work “Ghost” was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Soon after, Whiteread made art history as the first woman to receive the award in 1993 for her seminal artwork, “House.” To create the piece, Whiteread cast the full interior of a Victorian terrace home in East London, which was set for demolition. After the exterior was removed, the resultant sculpture preserved the imprint of the house’s detail—windows, staircases, and the invisible-but-unmistakable emotion and domestic history within its walls. When the home was torn down less than four months later, its temporality—and the force of its memory—became part of the project’s larger story. Notably, it has lived on as one of the most significant works of the artist’s career.
Among her other achievements, Whiteread represented Great Britain at the 1997 Venice Biennale, and the same year, she exhibited in the infamous Sensation show at the Royal Academy. Her distinctive genre of sculpture has been the subject of museum shows around the world and she has designed major public projects, including Vienna’s “Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial” and recently, “Cabin” on New York’s Governors Island. Last year, she was awarded Dame recognition by her native England in honor of her contribution to the arts. Here, the artist speaks with CR about the connections between emotion and her aesthetic, which influences have most inspired her creativity, and how art can forever change us and how we view the world.
How has your artistic practice evolved over the course of your career?
“I was lucky because I found my genre early on. My practice has been consistent over the years, encompassing an evolution of language. Changes happen mainly through the process and time element that you spend on your work. When I was young, I didn’t have the same amount of time to spend in the studio, which was good discipline as a young artist. You need to concentrate and have that discipline throughout your career because the work you put into your art will be with you for the rest of your life.”
How do you express emotional depth and metaphor in the minimal form of your artworks?
“I have always seen objects to have a kind of soul. It sounds strange, but I mean that the things we touch and use in daily life are what come through to the surface. Like my desk that I have had for decades, there is an area where my leg always touches the side or the cat rubs its body. I have found a way to bring that out and that is why I think people are touched by my work—because it touches everyone’s life. I break it down in a way that is not too complex and sentimental. There is an emotional energy in the Minimalist form. As a student, I became interested in Minimalism and those artists have probably influenced me more than anyone.”
In what ways does the “negative space” in and around objects become its own presence within your works?
“There is emotional energy in the history of people and things around our bodies. Everything you touch has an imprint, whether it is positive and hopeful or otherwise. I am able to channel that sort of energy, which can be difficult because it is so emotional, but I believe in it. A work like ‘House’ is something everyone, wherever they live, can connect to because everyone knows the idea of home.”
What is the role of drawing in your creative process?
“It is an enormously important part of my work. Whether or not I am drawing something I am making is beside the point. It is a very mindful practice and artists have always done this, even just to keep themselves creatively sane. It is at the very essence of what they are doing. When I start a sculpture, I find it to be a very useful part of the process.”
You are broadly considered one of the most significant contemporary artists. Was there a moment or a project when you felt that you had made your mark in the arts?
“I knew it when I made ‘Ghost,’ which was the first architectural piece. When I put it up in the studio, there was something about it that was different and special. I was a young artist and I didn’t realize what it was or could be, but I knew that there was something there. ‘House’ and the [‘Judenplatz’] ‘Holocaust Memorial’ are projects in my body of work that had a unique emotional power. There are other things I have done since that I am equally proud of, but those were very special moments.”
Across your career, how have other women artists inspired your creative practice?
“At the beginning, there was my mother, who was also an artist and a big influence to me. Louise Bourgeois and Agnes Martin were particular influences when I was young. Throughout my career, I have been inspired by many artists, a lot of them friends, I’m thinking of Kiki Smith, Sarah Lucas, Rebecca Warren, and Phyllida Barlow, who was also my tutor. There are too many great women artists to mention.”
What impact do you feel your work has had on sculpture and art, and what further impact do you hope to achieve?
“I realize that I have made some very important work and I have worked consistently for over 30 years to do so. Through the Internet, the way students are taught and work now is so different than the way I was taught. In my generation, we were very hands-on and worked with artists on a more practical level. It is different now because much is virtual, which can be wonderful and amazing but it has its limitations. I noticed when I was teaching that students sometimes wanted to become a famous artist immediately, but it doesn’t work that way. You have to put in the effort and become an artist first, and then maybe the other part follows. Looking ahead, I am very happily working in the studio, enjoying being hands-on and interpreting the world. That’s what artists are really good at. I would always tell my students to keep interpreting the world; it’s all there.”
You have said that art has the power to change how you think and who you are. How has your art practice changed your own view of the world?
“‘House’ changed me, the [‘Judenplatz’] ‘Holocaust Memorial’ changed me. They were profound in their effects on me. When I made ‘Cabin’ on Governors Island, it felt like the thing I had been trying to make since the Twin Towers fell. There is also the profound moment of having children, which requires focusing outside of your art and yourself. For me, it is one of the greatest things I have done. Having children has certainly added emotion into my work.”
Looking back, what advice would you give to yourself as a young artist?
“I would say to be truthful to yourself and do what you think is right. This is always what I have done, and still [will] continue to do. I would also say to make time for family. When you are young, you think that you will have time for everything, but you need to strike a balance. Most of all, I would say that as an artist, it important to feel satisfied and privileged to be able to do what you love.”
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