‘We had to grow a tough skin, fast’
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?
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.
Fairly quickly we started thinking about what kind of building, which part of London. It needed to be somewhere that was scheduled for demolition.
I was very clear it couldn’t be a place someone could live in.
Another important aspect was to find a house that could be seen from all sides.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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