Something sticks out in Rachel Whiteread’s current show of drawings at Tate Britain – a brightly-lit vitrine full of stuff. There are sticks that look a little bit like guns; there are old spoons and door knobs; there are bits of battered old dolls’ house furniture meticulously fashioned from sheet metal; there are cobblers’ tools and a bit of a model brain. Together they tell a story about the poignancy of lost objects, a subconscious world of vague memories, everyday things stripped from their contexts and placed in the precious precincts of the museum. But what are they doing in a show on drawings? “For me, scavenging the streets and rummaging in antique shops is a kind of doodling,” the artist tells me in her studio.
“The streets of London and the collection of things become like a sketchbook.”
Whiteread’s vein of collecting is not about the accumulation of objects of beauty or value, the things that a conventional collector might look for. Instead it is about finding pathos in the lost, the overlooked and the ordinary. And, in a way, that would make a pretty fair overview of Whiteread’s own artistic oeuvre. She made her name with the extraordinary “House” (1993), a concrete cast of the inside of a condemned terraced house in east London. The sculpture exposed a kind of nakedness, revealing the tender vulnerability of seemingly solid bricks and mortar. She has gone on to cast and reflect upon an array of things, from the inside of a bathtub and a New York water tower to the book-lined walls of a Vienna room, which constitute the Judenplatz Holocaust memorial.
I had wondered whether we might be able to go on a walk, a scavenging stroll to see if we could find something on the streets of Shoreditch, something which might go on to inspire another artwork, but the artist wasn’t keen. “I don’t think I can find stuff to order,” she told me, so instead we wander around her studio, discovering bits and pieces as we go. The first thing I notice is a dull-green-painted, lino-floored model toy shop, its bare display painfully void of everything except two tiny tattered Father Christmases and some empty Christmas tree pots. It seems as close to a concretisation of consumer existential angst as you could get. “It does look a bit sad doesn’t it?” Whiteread says.
Her studio is quiet, spacious and quite calming. “It comes to life later at night,” she tells me. Whiteread herself, with her shock of red curls and a tiny silver stud glinting on the side of her nose, is modest, a little reticent but charming. She becomes animated when talking about the things spread around the tables and shelves, the boxes and walls.
Has she always collected things? “As kids we had dolls’ houses, which we squabbled over. Even at the age of six or seven, when we lived in Ilford in Essex, I remember trips to the municipal tip, rummaging through stuff to find interesting things,” she says. What kind of things does she look for? “I don’t know till I see it,” she explains, pulling out a squashed, rusty oil can. “Look at this. I’d been dragging this around for 30 years till we made these prints from it.” She shows me a series of reliefs on paper pulp, the rusty surface of the metal rendered exquisite through its strange translation into a work on paper. “I was doing a show in New York recently and the curator opened these boxes of junk and apparently said, ‘doesn’t this woman ever throw anything away?’ ”
The first time I encountered one of Whiteread’s collections on a big scale was at the Hayward Gallery’s Psycho Buildings exhibition in 2008. She had constructed a sinister city – or, rather, a suburb – composed of dozens of dolls’ houses stacked on boxes to create a weird, miniature landscape, each house lit from within in a dark room. It was, I tell her, one of the most haunting exhibits I’ve seen. What was it about dolls’ houses that made her want to collect them?
“They just seem to have this smell, like an attic or a cellar. They smell of the houses they’ve been in and are often decorated in the same wallpaper and fabric as the house had. They are things made with love,” she explains. “I was never interested in period models but in things that had been played with and were no longer wanted.”
She has stopped collecting them now to save space and money: “I ended up making the market; there was only me buying them on Ebay.”
There’s nothing new about found objects in art. From Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal (“Fountain”) to Joseph Cornell’s dream-like boxes, objects with their own lives outside art have been a mainstay of contemporary discourse. Whiteread’s slant is that every one of the objects here has a patina – a layer of rust or dust or damage – that tells of its use over time. But is this particular strain of junk – hard-wearing stuff that ages gracefully – likely to run out? In answer to this, Whiteread lays out a jumble of rusty objects.
“I went down to the Thames at Rotherhithe with these mudlarks [treasure-hunters],” she says. “These are Tudor nails, these are weights for fishing nets.” Though pleased with this haul, she concedes that collecting is likely to change. “What I used to get at the Salvation Army shop is now sold around here as ‘vintage’. And plastic doesn’t have that same patina. Things just used to be made very well and they were looked after.”
If some grander collections are about pride or completeness, about specialist knowledge and the urge to possess, Whiteread’s is rather different. It seems to be about recognising the realities of a life of use. “It’s a fairly unconscious way of looking at things,” she says. “I’m trying not to be sentimental. All these things I collect have an integrity because they have a history. Casting and collecting are part of the same thing.”
Just as I’m about to leave, I see a table full of postcards of old buildings. Whiteread, it turns out, was fibbing about giving up. “Oh yes, the postcards, I’d forgotten about those.” Well, I suppose they take up less space.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic