Rachel Whiteread at Belvedere 21

Rachel Whiteread: What to shred and what to keep?

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Rachel Whiteread at Belvedere 21
Photo by Anita Corbin. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures capture the invisible. We sat down with the renowned artist to reflect on her body of work.

Rachel Whiteread has materialized the intangible for over 30 years. She creates solids and manifests things that usually cannot be touched or even seen. As the first woman to ever win the Turner Prize, Rachel Whiteread became one of the leading international artists of her generation. Her work can currently be seen in Austria, at the Belvedere 21. The cross-sectioned museum exhibition gives an excellent overview of Whiteread’s practice and is on view until July 28, 2018. We talked to the British artist about escaping gentrification in her hometown London, the use of materials, and her famous Holocaust memorial here in Vienna. An interview by Julius Pristauz.

Your work deals a lot with the in-between. When did your fascination for the void, for the invisible develop?

Really, as early as when I was at college – in my last year of college. That’s when I started to sort of think about it. It came from reading people like Gaston Bachelard and I think, when I then started to work in the studio and made my work, which was different than in the college environment, I began to realize what it was. Yeah, that was back then, and it’s been about thirty years now. (laughs)

Rachel Whiteread at Belvedere 21

Using more expensive materials like synthetic resin in the past, you recently returned to papier-mâché. What drew you back to the material?

It came from moving. A couple years ago I moved my house and studio. We sold our building and it all happened very quickly, I hadn’t decided what to do with all my paperwork. And when I came to my studio I just started to shred it and said: „Okay I will try to make some papier-mâché with it.“ When I was in college I used papier-mâché, so it was a material I was familiar with. It was a very interesting way of recycling and thinking about my life and what had happened – what I decided to shred and what to keep. It was a sort of remembrance of things in the past.

You use drawing as a medium itself but also for sketching three-dimensional works. When is the point you separate a sculpture from your drawing?

Well, I think the papier-mâché works are somewhere in-between the two. A lot of drawings are done in a state of reverie. They are a way of translating sort of ephemeral thoughts. Not really wanting to make things concrete, not wanting to make a sculpture but just trying to translate things and ideas that might eventually translate into a sculpture. It is a mindful practice which I think a lot of artists do, just like doodling – creating things but almost subconsciously.

Rachel Whiteread at Belvedere 21

Your East London roots have had a big impact on your work. Do you still get inspired by your surrounding? What has changed?

Yeah, I do very much so. I now live back in North London which is where I grew up. What happened in East London is that it became far too trendy where we lived. It was impossible to stay there, and we decided to move. There is a lot of homelessness and an enormous amount of people on the street which is very upsetting. There are a lot of mental health problems which is very present on the streets. It is a big turn-around in the past 20 years and I don’t know if that will affect what I do but it is certainly very present in my day-to-day life – seeing it, observing it. There is a lot of building work going on, a massive amount of gentrification. But I also go to the countryside a lot where it feels very different. My politics are close to my work I think, so I can’t help to be influenced by it.

I read that you are an avid collector of things which is very interesting in the throw-away society we live in. What is it you value about these pieces and where do you find them?

I find them everywhere, whether it is a bit of junk that has been washed up on the beach or something that’s on a pavement or in a shop. I am always looking for things that just capture something and that make me think about things in a different way all of a sudden. That is always interesting to me.

Rachel Whiteread at Belvedere 21

Here in Vienna, you are especially known for the creation of the holocaust monument at the Judenplatz. Have you visited it since then?

Yes, I came back, and I have been to Vienna multiple times. When I was invited to do the show there I decided to come back and have a look. The monument looks very well, and I think it is doing a very good job there. I think people appreciate it and understand what it is, which is good. I am very proud I made it.

Last but not least. Can you say something to encourage young artists today?

Work hard and keep off electronics I would say. (laughs) Be ambitious for your work, don’t be ambitious for your electronic personality.

Text by Julius Pristauz
Unless otherwise stated: photos by Johannes Stoll. Courtesy of Belvedere 21