Rachel Whiteread: ‘I have a clarity I never had before’

The artist has taken a radical new direction, turning her back on casts and creating sculptures from scavenged material. She explains how a bipolar diagnosis has changed her work

When I last spoke to Rachel Whiteread, I declared loftily that she would always make casts, that she’d never do anything else. Because that’s what she’d been doing for more than 30 years; that was her language. She began by casting the void under a chair, then she cast the gap under a bed. She cast tiny, humble things – the interior of hot-water bottles, resembling little human torsos. She went huge, casting an entire room, then a house in Bow, east London. That won her the 1993 Turner prize: she was the first woman and the youngest artist ever to do so, aged just 30. She went on to cast rows of bookshelves, and fashioned them into the grave, bunker-like Holocaust memorial in Vienna. She won London’s Fourth Plinth project, and elegantly skewered the entire monumental enterprise by casting the plinth itself in icy, translucent resin and inverting it.

None of this has been particularly peaceful. House became a lightning rod for angry debates, not just about contemporary art, but housing policy, communities and regeneration. It took her two years to get it done and, despite campaigns for a stay of execution, the work stood for a mere six weeks. Beset by politics and heartily opposed in some quarters, the Holocaust memorial took five years. “I’m very glad I made it,” she says, “but I wouldn’t want to go through anything like that again.” It is hardly surprising that, in recent years, she’s made what she calls “shy sculptures” – a version of a Nissen hut in a forest in Yorkshire, cabins in the Mojave desert, a boathouse on a Norwegian fjord, a shed on Governors Island in New York. These are reclusive things; experiencing them requires a quest. And they are all, one way or another, casts.

The world as we knew it has been thrown on its head

Related: Great excavations: Elizabeth Price on unearthing the truth about work

Rachel Whiteread’s new exhibition, Internal Objects, runs at Gagosian, London, from 12 April to 6 June.

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Category: Mental Health