Stepping out of Shoreditch station into winter sunshine, it’s impossible not to feel heartened by the spirit of regeneration that sings out in London’s East End these days. From the Gherkin’s cheeky gleam to Marais-louche cafés, this district was on the up even before the Olympics came to call.
Yet with transformation comes loss. In recent decades, swathes of Victorian terraces have been razed. Their passing has been chronicled with poetry and compassion by sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Her 1990 work “Ghost” cast the interior space of a Bethnal Green living room; three years later, she made “House”, which mummified the empty volumes of a dwelling on a doomed street, and was itself slated for the bulldozers. An inside-out, inhospitable shrine to homeliness, its demolition caused such controversy it reached the House of Commons.
Now Whiteread is finally creating a permanent public artwork in the UK, one that will bear witness to the East End’s renaissance rather than its demise. One of a clutch of works, including Anish Kapoor’s Orbit tower, under the auspices of the Cultural Olympiad, it is a frieze for the façade of the Whitechapel Gallery.
“It’s been five years in the making!” the artist retorts when I ask her, somewhat naively given that it is to be unveiled in June, if the work has advanced very far.
Since “House” made her the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, Whiteread has carved out a reputation as formidable as any of her YBA peers. If Hirst is the showman, Emin the confessional poet and Mark Wallinger the intellectual, Whiteread encompasses all those labels. Her Vienna Holocaust Memorial, which cast a library interior in concrete with walls of open books, was lauded for its fearless clarity. “Embankment”, the maze of soap-white boxes in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, evoked an Arctic tundra. Recent installations of cast household objects – small-scale, jewel-bright – are blessed with Morandi-like mysticism (although the metaphysical Italian might have winced at the toilet rolls).
If one definition of greatness is longevity, her vision – mixing melancholy and mischief, grandiosity and humility – possesses stamina. Her personality enjoys similar paradoxes. We meet at her studio, an ex-synagogue in Shoreditch, which is also the family home. (Whiteread’s partner is sculptor Marcus Taylor with whom she has two boys, aged 11 and six.)
Auburn hair curling on to her shoulders, garbed in a grubby apron and sturdy black boots, she is a beguiling, bubbly blend of tough and tender, street-smart and bourgeois-straight. Within minutes, she has ditched the pinny to reveal a chic shirt dress from Margaret Howell and is making me cappuccino – complete with sculptural froth – from a state-of-the-art machine. Yet later, when I ask her how she relaxes, she actually blushes as she mutters of swimming at smart members’ club Shoreditch House. The daughter of socialists – “with a great sense of morality” – it’s clear that she struggles with material success.
In other ways too, renown is a double-edged sword. As the coffee dribbles, she derides the lengthy approval process that turns every public art commission into “an emotionally draining” marathon. This is the frustration of an artist driven by social duty yet incapable of answering to any imagination but her own. Suddenly, all gravity evaporates. “S***! I forgot to put the glass there!” she squeals, exploding into gales of laughter as her coffee streams away.
No work will embody her contradictions more potently than the Whitechapel frieze. Behind its commission lies a curious architectural hiccup. In 1899 the new Whitechapel Gallery, built by Charles Harrison Townsend, founded by cleric Samuel Barnett and funded by philanthropist John Passmore Edwards – who also financed the library next door – epitomised the utopian marriage between art and socialism of the British Arts & Crafts movement. Beyond its neo-Romanesque portal, art would reach the working man as well as the noble one. The illustrator Walter Crane designed a mosaic to fill the blank rectangle above the entrance, proffering just such an allegory. In many ways, the Whitechapel has fulfilled that goal of inclusiveness. Today, the display of photography by Uganda-born Zarina Bhimji, alongside works from the Government Art Collection, draws visitors whose diversity puts other institutions in the shade.
Crane’s mosaic, however, was never realised. Offended perhaps when Barnett refused to give the gallery his name, Passmore Edwards withdrew funding, and the space has remained empty ever since.
Enter the London 2012 Festival, finale of the Cultural Olympiad. “They pledged enough support ... to lever other bodies,” explains Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick when we catch up later at the gallery. Chief patron is the Art Fund, whom Blazwick warmly applauds for departing from its custom of buying existing art and supporting “something that doesn’t exist yet”.
Whiteread’s involvement was a shoo-in. There are her own egalitarian roots; her passion for the district – which she describes as “world soup” – and the fact that the gallery shaped her as an artist. “I saw really great shows there,” she recalls, citing those of Bruce Nauman and Frida Kahlo. Later she became a trustee for a time, and acted as an architectural adviser when the gallery expanded into the adjacent late-Victorian library in 2009.
Her design flies in the face of our thrifty times. Blazwick declines to name figures but intimates a hefty sum. “It’s bronze, it’s gilded, it has to stay there forever, protected from everything from pigeons to metal thieves ...”
Bronze? Gilded? From this most reticent of artists? Back in the studio, there is merriment in Whiteread’s eyes as she proffers the frieze’s current incarnation: a plaster spray of leaves, its golden patina ablaze in the sunlight.
“I thought, how can I make this work in one of the grottiest streets in London?” she says. “How can I make it really sing so it won’t disappear in the grime?” Essential too was harmony with the ornate cornices and two-tone brickwork of the former library building next door. “I wanted to work on that as well but I wasn’t allowed to ... so [my design] really needed to be busy.”
Her solution was to pick up the Tree of Life motif with which Harrison Townsend adorned his otherwise serene façade. A trip to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral revealed that gilding “is what makes things ping within the city landscape”.
She decided to cast Harrison Townsend’s leaves in bronze and scatter them across the upper building, then balance this sylvan, art nouveau prettiness with a central quartet of terracotta reliefs cast from a row of small windows running below the space. Locked, blind, lightless, these minimalist rectangles are signature Whiteread.
These windows are “part of the language” of her most recent work, she explains, showing two resin casts of windows mounted on her studio wall; both are profoundly enigmatic and opaque. Finally, we come to rest in a vast space filled with work tables piled with drawings, models, objects and tools. A closed MacBook is the solitary computer. Here, in the hub of her imagination, she finally addresses the question of inspiration. “It’s looking for a secret, really.”
Later, as we drink tea with Blazwick, Whiteread reveals that the terracotta casts do stem from a specific root. “There were two funny little windows belonging to the caretaker’s flat that had been blocked off,” she explains. “It was a way of reintroducing the life that had once been lived there.”
The Whitechapel’s frieze will acknowledge the working man after all.