‘We had to grow a tough skin, fast’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Exhibitions -

On the eve of her Tate ret­ro­spec­tive, Rachel Whiteread and her col­lab­o­ra­tor James Ling­wood tell Ann Gal­lagher about the strug­gle to make the di­vi­sive, era-defin­ing work, ‘House’

In 1993, Rachel Whiteread’s sculp­ture ‘House’, a con­crete cast of an en­tire ter­raced house in east Lon­don, was awarded the Turner Prize. That same day, the K Foun­da­tion dubbed her the worst artist of the year. De­mol­ished after only 80 days, this con­tro­ver­sial sculp­ture – made with the help of James Ling­wood, co-di­rec­tor of Ar­tan­gel – sparked a cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal row that fed off lo­cal griev­ances con­cern­ing the planned “re­gen­er­a­tion” of the East End.

AG Rachel, can I ask you about the visit James made to your stu­dio in 1991?

RW

I re­mem­ber it re­ally clearly. We had a cup of tea and a chat. And then he said, in a very ca­sual way, “So, is there any­thing you fancy do­ing?” And I said, “Well, yeah, ac­tu­ally – I’d re­ally like to cast an en­tire house.” And his eyes lit up and he said, “Great, let’s do it.” And that was it. We just had to fig­ure out how.

JL

Fairly quickly we started think­ing about what kind of build­ing, which part of Lon­don. It needed to be some­where that was sched­uled for de­mo­li­tion.

RW

I was very clear it couldn’t be a place some­one could live in.

JL

An­other im­por­tant as­pect was to find a house that could be seen from all sides.

RW

Then we found out about Grove Road in Bow. Most of the ter­race had al­ready been de­mol­ished, but there were a few houses still stand­ing, in­clud­ing one that was still lived in.

AG This one was Syd­ney Gale’s house?

RW

Yes. Ev­ery­one else had al­ready been moved to other coun­cil prop­er­ties, but Mr Gale was hold­ing out to be moved to an­other house and not a pokey flat. He even­tu­ally won and moved to a house around the cor­ner. He was OK about the idea that his old house was go­ing be cast, he was hon­oured in a way. So we had a very good re­la­tion­ship, and it was only later in the press that it turned silly, when words were put into his mouth… What did he say?

JL

The head­line I re­mem­ber was “If this is art then I’m Leonardo da Vinci”. But that was later. Mov­ing is desta­bil­is­ing any­way, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that to some ex­tent he felt very un­com­fort­able about all the at­ten­tion, and it must have been very dis­turb­ing to wit­ness the en­tire ter­race dis­ap­pear­ing while he was still liv­ing in his place. Ba­si­cally, he was un­happy with the coun­cil, with the way he had been treated.

AG So the ini­tial per­mis­sion for the piece came from Bow Neigh­bour­hood Coun­cil?

JL

Yes. It was for a three-month pe­riod to make the sculp­ture, present it and then clear the site. Ridicu­lously tight, but that was the max­i­mum we could get with­out hav­ing to go through a much more pro­tracted process.

It was a very volatile po­lit­i­cal con­text lo­cally. Rachel’s project be­came the light­ning con­duc­tor for all of th­ese emo­tional charges in the at­mos­phere. The East End had changed a lot in the Eight­ies. In pre­vi­ous decades, it would have been im­mi­grants mov­ing in to the area; by the Eight­ies it was just as likely to be stu­dents, artists, yup­pies. There was a lot of hard­ship in the area, and a lot of ten­sion about ter­ri­tory. I al­ways thought that one of the most telling jux­ta­po­si­tions was see­ing House with Ca­nary Wharf be­hind it, a mile or two away.

AG Dur­ing the short pe­riod that the work was be­ing made, were you able to en­joy it?

RW

One of the first things that hap­pened was that some­one came in and stole two of the orig­i­nal fire­places, which was just re­ally an­noy­ing. We then had to have a se­cu­rity guard on site at night, which was pretty un­pleas­ant for the poor guy, who had to sit in the damp. But once we’d re­ally got into the mak­ing of it, ev­ery­one thought it was a build­ing site.

JL

We were anx­ious about whether the process would work. It was a very dif­fer­ent tech­nique to any cast­ing Rachel had done be­fore, be­cause it didn’t in­volve the quiet ap­pli­ca­tion of plas­ter by hand in a stu­dio. It was con­crete sprayed, at con­sid­er­able ve­loc­ity, from the in­side.

RW

It was a very un­pleas­ant en­vi­ron­ment to work in. Firstly hav­ing to put this re­lease agent on the walls, then tie in a metal frame­work, then put on a first coat, and then do all the back­fill­ing. We were to­tally cov­ered in the stuff, with masks on, and with air be­ing blown from out­side into your suit so you could breathe. this sort of rock’n’roll thing with the me­dia.

AG It was un­usual for the press to be in­ter­ested in a work of art.

In­te­rior life: Whiteread in­side the house, with the metal frame­work in­stalled, be­fore the build­ing was filled with con­crete

De­fi­ant: Syd­ney Gale’s house was the last in the street to be de­mol­ished

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