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June 12 2012

Rachel Whiteread: 'I'm not thick-skinned'

Her massive works of art have caused both wonder and controversy. As Rachel Whiteread's latest piece is unveiled, Mark Lawson hikes up a ladder to talk to her about thick skins and ageing YBAs

On a morning in late May, wearing hard hats and high-vis jackets, Rachel Whiteread and I climb up flights of aluminium ladders through three levels of scaffolding to inspect the progress of her latest work: a frieze on the facade of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in east London. Whiteread ascends as swiftly as a seasoned sailor on a ship's rigging, the journey now a familiar one, although we go up on a rare day when rainwater on the metal steps hasn't been a worry.

"We hadn't realised we'd be doing this in the monsoon period," she says, "so it's taken longer than we thought." Her first experience of this perspective, she explains, was "from a cherrypicker on one of the coldest days of last year, in snow and blizzards. But I've lived and worked in this area for 25 years, so I know the landscape very well."

This is the second time in her career that Whiteread has filled an accidental artistic absence: for the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, she created a double-take by casting a resin replica of the plinth itself. On the face of the Whitechapel, which has carried a bald patch since the original design by Walter Crane in 1901 was judged too expensive, she has extended a tree motif already on the frontage and created a pattern of gilded leaves. On the platforms, her assistants are handling fragile strips of gold leaf, like glowing Post-it notes; these have been going up and down in value as Whiteread and her team have worked through these tense economic months.

She was drawn to gold while taking photographs from the roof of St Paul's cathedral. "I wanted to put something there that wasn't bling, but sort of lit up the building. And, looking out across the city from that height, I was struck by the sun alighting on a streak of gold in a miserable part of London and going ping." To work on the frieze, which will be unveiled tomorrow, she built a plywood model of the Whitechapel facade. "Luckily, I've got quite a tall studio."

Whiteread is best known for bringing to life the insides of buildings – in Ghost (1990) and House (1993), which made solid casts of the interior spaces between walls. Did the Whitechapel put a proviso in her contract that she couldn't remove the gallery and display its interior on the facade? "Yes, exactly," she laughs. "It was always clear that there was never going to be anything like that." Even so, in deference to what she recognises is "sort of my signature", the frontage contains four reliefs cast from the concave gap between the glass and frames of the gallery windows – another of Whiteread's explorations of what she calls "negative space"; these began when, as a young artist, she had the thought of "mummifying the air" in a room. She has also used the technique in her "nameless library" Holocaust memorial in Vienna, an impression of a room of books with their blank pages facing outwards.

Back at ground level, we talk at a varnished table in a Whitechapel meeting room, a fitting symbol for the numerous bureacratic discussions, involving the gallery, the local council and English Heritage, in which the artist has had to take part. "An enormous number of meetings," sighs Whiteread. "Absolutely everyone had a say. It took me five years to put up the memorial in Vienna because of the same sort of process. But you can't make a good piece of public art by consensus; it's just not possible. So I really had to stick my heels in." Does she ever lose her temper? "Yes. Yes, I do, a few times."

While Whiteread has never become a public figure in the manner of contemporaries such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, her projects have become the subject of fierce public debate, both in Vienna and in London: House won her the Turner prize in 1993, but was the subject of some local hostility; some found her fourth plinth commission repetitious. Has she had to become immune to criticism?

"I'm not thick-skinned at all, which is why I don't do very many of them. I find it really difficult. I'm learning to get a thicker skin. House nearly killed me; the Vienna memorial nearly killed me. The Whitechapel hasn't been quite as bad, but it's really hard. There are a lot of voices, and I try to think that you just have to let it go. But everything I make is a part of me. I don't hand it over to an engineer to make; I'm very much a hands-on artist. You mention Tracey and Damien and they've worked very hard – this isn't a criticism of them because it's what they want to do – at making their personalities and their lives very much a part of it. I've worked very hard at a quieter approach. A lot of the work has been temporary. Probably the most powerful thing about House is that it doesn't exist any more."

This surprises me because even I get intermittently upset at the absence of House, which was demolished in 1994; surely the artist must? "Well, yes, I do get upset. And I'm incredibly proud of making it. The Tate buying Carl Andre's bricks and then House were the two most controversial things to happen in art in 20 years. Now people can't get enough of it; the papers can't get enough of culture and it's just rammed down everyone's throat. And actually I think to the detriment of culture, because it belittles it. Everyone can have a say, but not everyone's an expert, not everyone's an art critic. It's become far too easy to have a pop at modern art."

She again distances herself from contemporaries. "Damien's been very savvy, Tracey's been very savvy, Grayson Perry's been very savvy at becoming almost cultural commentators themselves. And that's interesting in itself, but it's a very different thing from what I do."

Is she still close to the other YBAs? Whiteread exhibited alongside Hirst, Emin and others at the Royal Academy's landmark Sensation show in 1997. "Er, yes. I used to be a very good friend of Damien's, don't see him so much now. I'm a friend of Tracey. Grayson and I had studios together, where the Olympic stadium is now. But I have always been a bit of a loner within the YBAs. I'm not a very good joiner-in, not very good at staying under the umbrella."

Is she competitive? "No, I don't think so, not in the obvious way. What really annoys me is when people make shit work and it's still out there and it's emperor's new clothes, and people lose their critical distinction." Whiteread declines to name names, so I ask if she would ever tell an artist friend that their latest work was shit. "Erm. Ur. Ah, now there's a question …" A five-second pause. "Sometimes I find a way of telling them that I don't necessarily say it myself. I might try to pass it through someone else. Look: anyone who makes art over a long period has to know when they are making good art and bad art. But money and fame are very addictive."

Are there pages in her own career catalogue that she now flicks quickly past? "There are a few things that I believed in at the time, not so much now. But I don't have an enormous output. I try to avoid that risk."

Whiteread is sometimes presented as something of a feminist pioneer, because she was the first woman to win the Turner prize. But the artist has always deflected such a reading; her mother was an artist, she says, and so she was never conscious of what we might call a ceramic ceiling.

Does the art world have gender equality now? She laughs before answering. "Well, I think the answer to that question is probably no. Although, saying that, I've always been very comfortable with my position in the art world. An American artist friend a few years ago said: 'Do you know, you single-handedly make the largest pieces a woman artist has ever made?' And I hadn't thought of that before. That does make me proud."

I mention that the sculptor Barbara Hepworth once said something similar about people expecting small works from women. "Yes, but mine are much bigger than hers!" A long burst of laughter. "Oh, God, I sound like one of those men. OK, maybe I am competitive."

Critics have always read death into Whiteread's work, even before it became most explicit in the Vienna Holocaust sculpture. Was she one of those children with a precocious awareness of mortality? "Erm. I had a pet sparrow who died and stayed under my bed for three months in a cardboard box. My mum kept saying: 'What's that awful smell?' But it was just that I was sad and didn't want to bury it. I don't think I've had an unhealthy interest in death – it's just something I've always been interested in. A lot of my work isn't intellectually based, it's emotionally based and I think that's where that comes from."

It strikes me that, like musicians and actors who call themselves Kid or Junior, being a YBA becomes complicated as the birthdays accumulate. In middle age, should they become MABAs or, later, OBAs? "I don't think the label will ever change. We've discussed for a long time now setting up an old people's home we'll all go into." And presumably, at some point in the 2040s or so, there will be pressure for a reunion group show at the Royal Academy, a sort of Sanatogen Sensation? "Yes. I think that's almost bound to happen. But hopefully, by then, there'll be a rush of new young blood – out storming the world."


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May 29 2012

Tate's new gifts

Works by David Hockney, Lucian Freud, R B Kitaj and Rachel Whiteread are among the nine being gifted by philanthropists Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker



April 01 2012

The artisans behind the artists

What's it like to make giant monuments for Rachel Whiteread? Or to paint spots for Damien Hirst? The people behind some of Britain's best known art share their highs – and lows

Rachel Swainston

Made spot paintings for Damien Hirst in the mid-1990s, before becoming an upholsterer.

Painting spots was very dull. There's not a lot you can say about them. The canvases would arrive; they'd be stretched and pinned. Damien would specify spot size and we would mark them up and draw them. Then we'd have a massive delivery of household paints, which we'd mix into smaller pots of whatever colours we needed. We'd have hundreds of colours: no two were ever the same. A six-foot square canvas with spots four inches apart would take about a week. Every painting was sold.

It was quite simple really. With the spot paintings: it was, just a formula. Damian didn't need to have much input. Most of the time, there were two of us, although it would depend on how quickly he wanted them churned out. We were just the small fry. I came out of Goldsmiths [University] thinking I can't do anything, so I did these. Although they were all hand-painted, meaning each one is imperfect, there is no individual quality to the painting.

Lots of the Old Masters had people doing things for them. Damien created the idea; we just did the manufacturing. It would have been nice to have been credited in some way. We didn't feel he was particularly grateful, but it's quite a nice thing to be able to say you have done. Whenever my kids do a project on famous artists at school, they always do Damien Hirst. It means they can say: "My mum did the spot paintings."

Kerry Ryan

Has been making neon signs for more than 20 years, for artists including Tracey Emin, Anselm Kiefer and Mat Collishaw – as well as shops and restaurants.

About 20 years ago, Tracey Emin and Cerith Wyn Evans came into my shop in Spitalfields, London, separately, to ask for neons. It seemed to be getting used more and more in art. The first piece I made for an artist was the word EXIT backwards, TIX3, for Cerith, then a neon for the Tracey Emin Museum in Waterloo, then a piece for Sarah Lucas, a neon coffin she called New Religion. I now make all Tracey's neons for the UK and Europe: drawings and whole sentences in her handwriting.

I started nearly 30 years ago, via an apprenticeship on Brick Lane, when I was 16. Working with artists has inspired me to be more artistic myself. It's nice to see the transition from sketch to finished piece on the wall of a gallery or a collector's house. So I've been making my own work – in neon, metal, vinyl. I've also, over the years, worked out how to make underwater neon, which in theory you can't do but I found a way. It was for putting in fish tanks, although not all fish can cope with it. We tried electric eels, piranhas, all sorts. But we found that carp are tough enough.

Because neon is such a specialist field, I end up being a sort of consultant as well as a fabricator. For example, I have to explain that there are some things that just cannot be made in neon: it can't do folds or corners; it has to be curved or rolled. Conversely, I sometimes find myself suggesting even more risk-taking. I do feel essential to the process.

Working with artists is easier than working with people who want a sign for their restaurant or shop. Most artists tend to know exactly what they want, and tend to respect people who know their trade. They also understand materials and processes, as that's what they think about all day.

Art is all about the idea now: I think using fabricators makes art more valid and not less, from a conceptual point of view. If an artist has an idea, it can still take a lot of work to realise. As far as I'm aware, no artist who uses fabricators ever sits on their behind and lets other people get on with it. I don't know any people who work harder than artists.

Paul Vanstone

Former stonecarver for Anish Kapoor. He now exhibits his own work.

Anish Kapoor's work is very boring to make because it's so methodical, so precise. Changes could be measured in millimetres. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. I'm a bit more random with my own work.

Anish is very good at making things himself: he knows what's what. But carving is very physical. He could use a stonemason but prefers to use an artist, so he obviously wants that artist's sensibility. I ended up going to quarries for him, driving across Spain looking for materials. That was fabulously useful, the sort of thing you never learn at art college.

The common analogy is that you wouldn't expect an architect to build his own building. Constantin Brancusi worked for Auguste Rodin, Anthony Caro for Henry Moore. It's understandable: you absorb or reject the skills of what comes before you, and then hopefully find your own voice. At the same time, you can't imagine Francis Bacon handing over his paintings to anyone else at any point. One thing that has changed with fabrication is that a lot of the artworks are like executive toys. They're just so controlled. In my own art, I look for more of a dialogue.

Mike Smith

Has made work for artists including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mona Hatoum, Rachel Whiteread, Mark Wallinger and Damien Hirst.

The most difficult piece I've worked on was probably Monument for Rachel Whiteread because it was so fraught. The piece, which sat on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in 2001, was 11 and a half tons of polyurethane resin, carved into two pieces and made to look like a mirror image of the plinth. We worked on it for three years and then it was on show for six months. If we were to do it now, it would be easier because of the way materials and processes have developed.

It's pretty annoying how little people understand the processes of making contemporary art. Many of them would be horrified if they thought that photographers didn't take their own photographs. But how do they think Henry Moore made those bronzes? It's a lot like making a large car or a truck. I think there's a lack of understanding of the process. There are people who latch on to the fact that peopleartists are not making things themselves. There are even trained art historians who take issue with it. That's the scary thing. The moral outrage – the idea that we're all being duped because we're paying all this money and the work's not being made by the artists themselves – is ridiculous. What's more interesting is whether a piece is good or bad.

Steve Farman

Former negative cutter on major films from Lassie to Batman Begins. Worked on Tacita Dean's Film, recently shown in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

The Tacita Dean piece was the highlight of my career. I'm 52 now and I've been doing this since I was 17. It was the film I've had the most approval for. I felt appreciated, not just a very small cog in a massive machine. And Tacita's film was such a mess. As I recut it, I was saying: "Oh God, you can't have this bit – but you can use that. This bit's got marks on it, but you can use it – it makes it look more like film."

We started at midday on a Tuesday and she stayed with me until eight the next morning. I remember, at a reception for the piece, somebody asked how long I'd known Tacita, and I said we spent the night together last Tuesday.

That was my first major foray into the art industry. Compared to the film world, people are much nicer. They've got time to be nice because it's much slower paced. It was a bit surreal for me because I'd always been in the background. I remember, while working on [Wolfgang Petersen's] Troy, I only managed to speak to the third assistant director, not the director, not the first assistant director, not the second. That's the difference.

I'm of a different generation. If I stop, then effectively there'll be nobody left in the UK doing negative cutting. The 23-year-old editors working today have never touched film; they have no idea what it can do. Someone asked if I knew how a certain part of Tacita's work had been done and I said: "Oh yes, that piece of film was put through the camera 13 times." And they said: "Why wasn't it done digitally?"

It's a touchy-feely thing. Tacita still wants physically to touch the film. But as it's such an expensive medium, artists are the only ones willing to go down that route – because they love it.

Rungwe Kingdon

Runs Pangolin foundry in Stroud, Gloucestershire, one of the largest in the country. It has cast work for Eduardo Paolozzi, Lynn Chadwick, Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley.

I tried to be a sculptor and, although I could make all sorts of things, I recognised that I didn't have a language. Skilful people can make anything, but that doesn't mean it will be made well or can touch a large number of people. The language has to be distinct. A good fabricator can take an artist's language and work with it, a bit like a translator.

I'm not interested in how many assistants Rodin had. I'm interested in his language, his vision. Big artists have a big language – and Rodin's was monumental. Before him, it was tight, talented and dead, everyone worrying about the last hair.

Getting credit has never bothered me in the slightest. We're silent collaborators. We don't have the big ideas ourselves. We'd be ridiculed if we tried. There are a lot of mediocre artists and I didn't want to be another one.

I won't work for just anyone. I have to get into their language, understand them. We solve problems. Some artists will come to us and want an exact reproduction of a model. Others aren't very practical: they might come with some amorphous idea and want us to grab hold of the smoke. We help them fit their ideas into a practical reality. You go through very long periods of incubation, working on drawings with the artist. Once you get an image you have to try to fit it to a material. There is the technical challenge and the challenge of interpreting ideas

I don't think we should be surprised if the general public think it is fraudulent. What's really important is that things are made with integrity. If the artists pretended things were all their own work, that would be fraudulent. But we deal with artists, not charlatans.


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February 09 2012

Rachel Whiteread designs Whitechapel Gallery frieze

In her first permanent public commission, 1993 Turner prize winner to create huge frieze above gallery doors

Inspired by the Secession building in Vienna, and the ubiquity of a certain type of rapacious weed in Hackney, the artist Rachel Whiteread has designed a golden frieze that will finally solve a 111-year-old problem.

The Whitechapel Gallery in east London announced on Thursday what its director, Iwona Blazwick, called "the realisation of a dream" - a plan for a large and empty space on the front of its building to be filled by a permanent work of art.

In what is her first ever permanent public commission in the UK, Whiteread has been asked to fill the 8m by 15m space above the gallery doors on Whitechapel High Street, after the failure of the first attempt in 1901 when a planned mosaic by Walter Crane was judged too big and too expensive. Since then the problem has been kept "out of sight and out of mind", admitted Blazwick.

Whiteread said it had been a daunting task and one she had realised by installing a 1:1 model of the Whitechapel facade in her studio and working in wax to create a work of clusters of gilded leaves and branches.

"I find it quite difficult to work with computer generated images," she admitted. "I'm a sculptor, I like to work in three dimensions and not two dimensions."

Her influences for the frieze include the "tree of life" motif that is already part of the building as well as "the Hackney weed" she sees most days - Buddleia - which can be seen growing out of buildings or by the canal; the Secession building in Vienna with its "golden cabbage" roof and "then I went to the top of St Paul's and looked around and thought what is it that makes areas of London or just parts of buildings stand out?"

One answer was the use of gold. There will also be a more recognisable Whiteread touch to the work in that she's casting four terracotta reliefs of existing gallery windows as a counterpoint to the gilded leaves.

The work will be unveiled in June and forms part of the London 2012 festival running this summer as the culmination of the cultural olympiad.

The Art Fund is donating £200,000 to the project but Blazwick said it was too early to give further costing and funding figures as it was still "a work in progress".

The commission will fill a space that many did not even know was there to be filled; "it's part of invisible London," said Whiteread, who lives and works about five minutes' walk away from the gallery.

Her solution for the empty rectangle is quite a subtle work, although Whiteread said: "It's pretty ostentatious, there's gold leaf on it - it's the most ostentatious I've ever been."

Blazwick believes it will turn heads: "I think it will be a way of making people look up. Usually we're all busy, heads down running for the bus and the tube; this will be a way of celebrating the architecture in this part of town."


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November 04 2011

March 21 2011

Artangel: Frontline warriors

In 1991, two young men decided it was time art broke out of the gallery – and become an event in its own right. John O'Mahony meets the Artangel revolutionaries who changed Britain

'Here," said Robert Wilson, making his way through an underground labyrinth of caverns, arches and alcoves, "I want a pile of yellow sulphur." In the darkness, people around him took careful note. "And here," continued the American guru of the avant garde nonchalantly, "I want hundreds of golden arrows flying through the air, suspended in mid-flight . . ."

The year was 1995, and the setting was the cavernous Clink Street Vaults on London's Bankside. I had gone behind the scenes, and was getting my first glimpse into the shadowy workings of an art production outfit known as Artangel. Although the company had been in existence for a few years, its ambitious new commission – HG, a vast installation by the legendarily demanding Wilson, based extremely loosely on The Time Machine by HG Wells – was on an altogether more monumental scale.

Following Wilson, the Artangel crew (producers Michael Morris and James Lingwood, plus an army of support staff) were unblinkingly jotting down even the most outlandish request. They then spent the ensuing months transforming this subterranean expanse into an immersive dreamscape of dripping lightbulbs, glittering sphinxes, mummified corpses and ruined temples.

"At one point, he requested an amphibian," remembers Morris, with a chuckle. "So we found this guy from a place called Animal Ark, who would show up every day with strange animals. Finally, he brought this weird thing called an axolotl: a dark, almost prehistoric creature with feathery gills. Bob gave a nod, and so the axolotl took up residence, a lurking presence at the bottom of a glowing tank of water."

For the past 20 years, Artangel has been playing a crucial, if backroom, role – as curator, facilitator, fundraiser, administrator, babysitter and celestial guardian – to some of Britain and the world's most radical, daring and provocative artists. Even before HG, the company had already made a splash in 1993, as the unseen hand behind Rachel Whiteread's House, a concrete cast of the insides of an entire terraced house in London.

The work proved as controversial as Carl Andre's infamous pile of bricks and Damien Hirst's formaldehyde shark: it was praised as "testimony to the human spirit" and denigrated as "a joke" and "a monstrosity". On the day it won the Turner prize, Whiteread was named "worst artist of the year" by a subversive rival award.

Other comparably bold and confrontational Artangel projects include Jeremy Deller's 2001 The Battle of Orgreave, a spectacular real-time re-enactment of one of the most divisive conflicts of the miner's strike in 1984; and, also in 2001, Michael Landy's Break Down, in which Landy set about obliterating all his worldly possessions, in the archly ironic consumer setting of a former C&A store in London. Few other organisations would have had the courage to take on such uncompromising, barrier-breaking projects. "No commercial gallery would touch me," says Landy. "So they were a godsend."

As well as supporting 55 or so artists over their two-decade span, Artangel pioneered the use of unconventional venues and refined the notion of spectacular one-off art events. "They've had a huge effect on the cultural landscape," says Deller. "Something like the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern – that's really just a kind of ongoing Artangel project. The Turbine Hall would never even have been thought about if it hadn't been for Artangel."

Low-key and reserved, the two men behind Artangel seem blithely unconcerned by the fact that, while they toil in the background, the artists are out there getting all the attention, glory and Turner prizes. "One of the main skills of a producer is the ability to step back," says Lingwood. "It's our job to keep perspective, to keep calm," adds Morris.

Two middle-class boys from not terribly artistic households, they met at Oundle school in Peterborough and became colleagues at the ICA in the 1980s, during its experimental golden years: Morris as director of performing arts, Lingwood overseeing the gallery. It was during this period that many of the ideas that fuelled the Artangel credo were conceived. "We were frustrated at the limitations of what we were doing," says Morris. "I wanted to do things of a different scale. We wanted to go beyond the white walls of the gallery and the black box of the theatre, to explore uncharted territory."

Ultimately, the duo wanted to completely change the way audiences experience art: "We wanted everything to seem like an event," says Lingwood, "with art so immersive and absorbing, you simply can't get away from it."

In 1991, they got the chance – when offered joint directorship of Artangel, which had existed in other incarnations since the mid-80s. Their breakthrough came when Lingwood paid a visit, shortly afterwards, to the studio of a little-known artist named Rachel Whiteread. "He just sat in the chair and I gave him a cup of tea," she recalls. "He asked if there was anything I wanted to make. And I said I'd like to cast a whole house in concrete. He just said, 'Great, OK, let's do it.'"

As soon as the concrete had set on 193 Grove Road in Bow, the outrage and campaigning began. Just hours before it received the Turner prize, the council voted to have House demolished. "It was one of the worst days of my life," says Lingwood. "The first part of the evening was spent attending a meeting of Bow neighbourhood council. And I had to go from there to Millbank to convey the news to Rachel, before she learned that she had won the Turner prize." House was demolished in 1994.

Shredders and soldiers

But the notoriety and scandal put Artangel on the map, allowing them to move on to larger-scale projects such as HG. The two projects that really confirmed Artangel as a major force, however, came not from their trademark "conversations" with carefully selected artists, but from an open call for submissions via a national newspaper.

The first was Michael Landy's anticapitalist statement. "Michael was going to catalogue everything he owned and then just destroy it," says Lingwood. "The challenge was how to present this dismantling and deconstruction to the public in an interesting way." Artangel injected a sense of theatre with an "anti-production-line" of conveyor belts and chutes that fed Landy's clothes, cooker and even his Saab into gigantic mechanical shredders. Appropriately, when it was all over, all Landy had left was a boiler suit he borrowed from Artangel.

The second was Deller's pitch for The Battle of Orgreave, which was scrawled on one side of A4. "It was a haiku of a proposal," says Lingwood. "But its implications were enormous." Deller's plan to re-enact the clash in the fields around a South Yorkshire coking plant in 1984 proved a gargantuan logistical undertaking. It marshalled over 800 participants – some of them former miners and policemen who had faced each other in the original battle, others drawn from re-enactment societies all over the country. "On the night before, everyone gathered together in the fields of Orgreave, in a kind of makeshift military camp," says Lingwood. "It really felt like the night before a real battle."

Since those successes, Artangel has continued to take on only the most towering, unwieldy projects, including 2003's Imber, a three-day promenade event about the Salisbury Plain village evacuated in 1943 to make way for US soldiers training for the Normandy landings; and 2005's Küba, an video installation by Turkish artist Kutlug˘ Ataman that took place in a gigantic postal sorting office in central London.

To mark their 20th year, in a nod to posterity, the Artangel duo are donating part of their video archive to the Tate. They insist there is no grand plan for the future, simply the hope that new associations with new artists will take them on new journeys as huge in scale and ambition as House, Orgreave and Break Down. "I can't say what our strategy is because it involves things we don't know about yet," says Morris. "Expect more of what we've done," adds Lingwood. "And some of what we can't imagine."


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March 08 2011

Rachel Whiteread | Top 100 women

British artist who filled the Tate Turbine hall with boxes and took on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth

An accident of timing led to Whiteread, 48, being grouped into that noisy, boisterous 90s movement, the Young British Artists, but she was the least showy of her peers. Best known for her casts, turning empty space into a solid, some of Whiteread's best work doesn't even exist any more. The piece that won her the Turner prize in 1993, the first woman to win the award, was House, concrete poured into a Victorian terraced house in east London whose walls were then peeled away to reveal the solidified void; it was demolished soon afterwards. After she filled the Turbine hall of the Tate Modern with a landscape of 14,000 white plastic boxes – casts of cardboard boxes – in 2005 for her work Embankment, they were dismantled and recycled.

Whiteread, who was raised in Essex and London, and studied sculpture at the Slade School of Art, is often concerned with the familiarity of domesticity – tables, chairs, rooms – but she can also do art on a big scale, chosen to create Vienna's Holocaust memorial and as one of the artists who created work for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth. "She has always talked about intimacy and quietness in her work, and yet she is also the only artist of her generation who has tackled these huge public projects. That is a very rare balance," says Mark Francis, director of the Gagosian gallery.


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September 11 2010

Rachel Whiteread: Drawings

Tate Britain, London SW1

The show that can overturn one's attitude to an artist is as rare as hen's teeth. The show that can achieve this solely through drawings – unless the artist is a draughtsman – is even less common. This has been my experience, at least, which is why the new exhibition of Rachel Whiteread's works on paper at Tate Britain comes as a double surprise, quashing all my glum expectations.

Expectations, good or bad, are inevitable where this sculptor is concerned. For the fixed fact about her work is that it never changes. Everyone knows that Whiteread casts negative spaces – the interiors of wardrobes, the underside of chairs, the emptiness of abandoned houses. Most people sense a melancholy in these commemorative casts, solid blocks of plaster, tinted resin and rubber.

But if anyone expected her to tire of this one big idea, then Whiteread has proved them wrong ever since she became the first woman to win the Turner prize in 1993. Consolidation is not just the method of her art, it is the narrative of her whole career.

These spaces, in recent years, have tended to turn into famous places: the translucent Water Tower erected in SoHo that became a New York landmark; the resin cast of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, which people came to see – and see through – in all its airy transparence; the celebrated Holocaust Memorial in Vienna's Judenplatz.

The memorial, largest of her permanent works, is a library turned inside out, a cast of the space enclosed and defined by bookcases, walls, doors and so forth, so that one sees the pages rather than the spines of the books on the shelves. But the distinction feels inconsequential. What's there – stolid, didactic, untransformed – remains the gigantic form of a library.

And tautology is not just a side-effect of Whiteread's approach; it has been the main condition of her sculptures, it seems to me, from the start. The space inside a hot water bottle, when cast, simply produces a duplicate bottle; the space around a bath only reproduces its familiar concavity.

Of course Whiteread adjusts the effects. The bath, when monumentally increased and cast in black, resembles an open sarcophagus, just as the inverted plinth-cast resembled a cenotaph. But these associations were – are – inherent in the original forms themselves; the sculptures only seem to labour the point.

And the poetry that others love in Whiteread's work always seemed more evident in the titles – Torso, say, for the hot water bottle – than the sculptures, where meaning was heavily overstated. So what could several dozen drawings possibly add, other than further repetition?

Plenty, as it turns out. For Whiteread's drawings, which have never been shown in depth before, are not preliminary sketches but works of art in themselves and frequently more subtle and beautiful than the sculptures. They show not just how she views the humble objects that furnish her mind, but how the artist actually thinks.

Take a drawing like Untitled (Double Mattress Yellow). Painted on a sheet of graph paper, this oblong form looks at first like a stale yellow cracker flat on its back, its buttons forming Tuc biscuit holes. And then you notice how the watercolour puckers the paper just like twisted cloth and how it seeps into the page exactly like the stains on a mattress: patchy, uncontrollable, a lasting human trace. And then how the inked outline stitches the whole thing back together.

Such close and lyrical affinities between the stuff of life and the medium of art emerge all the way through this show. When Whiteread draws an old parquet floor in chalk, it resembles ancient geological strata; in glinting ink, it becomes a dynamic checkerboard invoking the rhythms of dancing feet. Her casts of parquet never offered such poetry.

She blacks in a window, over and again, until it becomes a solid presence, dark as night, forcing its way into a room. Then she shows its obverse, a patch of whiteness so opaque on the page that you see how uninflected light may become oppressive and weighty. The nearby cast of a closet interior in black felt spells dark fug much too obviously, by comparison.

Whiteread is known for making absences feel present, for turning the spectral into tangible form. But these drawings are more ghostly than the sculptures. Green resin glows from her careful sketch of a sink – Valley, perfect title – as if it had some strange inner radiance. Golden varnish washed across the surfaces of a bath leaves an aura of past pleasures, smooth enamel memory.

Her gift is for applying a sculptor's feeling for materials to two-dimensional images. In particular, she uses the obliterating opacity of correction fluid to stark effect, blanking out a building in a street, or a step in a staircase to trip up the mind, making it fumble through the white-out in search of what is no longer there.

Like her sculptures, the drawings emerge from existing structures. Most are made on graph paper, a straight and narrow grid against which the images mutiny. A doorknob becomes as alien as a new planet, floating free of the grid. A bright door, isolated in the middle of the page, looks as abrupt as the exclamation mark it strangely resembles.

This drawing puts you in mind of the suddenness of doors, opening on a whole new view, shutting out the world, framing an entrance or a final departure. Just as her chalk drawings of stairs emphasise their curious neutrality: neither up nor down, neither positive nor negative, just zigzagging their way through space without ever quite arriving. Whiteread looks at the overlooked in the most poignant and unusual ways.

And though this might be said of her sculptures too, it would be more in the spirit of hope. What those heavy items preclude is exactly what the drawings achieve: ideas condensed to the scale of poems, intimate thoughts on a page.


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September 06 2010

Through the eyes of a child

She is famous for her grand sculptures. But Rachel Whiteread's smaller works – from her doll's house furniture to a cast of Peter Sellers's nose – delight Adrian Searle

Rachel Whiteread's art is almost entirely concerned with the places where we live, and the places where we might also die. In the end, it all comes down to the empty room, the table and chair, the space under the stairs, the mattress and the bath, the light switch, keyhole and door knob, a life packed away in a cardboard box on a shelf. It's an art of understatement and reserve: she knows how much and how little to say, leaving us space to think and interpret. Simple things fixate her in the same way that they might loom in the imagination of a child.

The show of Whiteread's drawings at Tate Britain is a kind of reconstruction of her career to date, starting from the late 1980s (a further show of drawings, and a new sculpture, are also at London's Gagosian). The Tate show reveals her preoccupations in a way that is direct, intimate and readable. A few sculptures – including her 1988 felt-covered Closet, and a 1995 model for her Holocaust memorial in Vienna, finally erected in 2000 after a long political wrangle – punctuate the exhibition, but the real fascination lies in her drawings and collages.

Whiteread's sculptures often present a kind of monumental blankness that resists us, while her drawings are more revealing. With their delicate fields of paint, their freehand lines in ink and pencil, and their layers of typewriter correction fluid, these small-scale works have an approachability we don't often feel in the presence of her sculptures. They might capture the brooding presence of a closed door, or a seemingly endless flight of stairs, which appears more exhausting to contemplate than to actually climb. Taking an old furniture advertisement, with its half-tone pictures of heavily upholstered settees and easy chairs ("3-piece suite £21"), Whiteread obscures the entire page with dull grey paint, leaving only a single ugly chair, sitting in dismal isolation. The image looks like a memory from a 1950s childhood, the gigantic, lumbering chair a stand-in for adult presence.

There are no people in Whiteread's art, but their presence is everywhere: the spills of varnish that bleed beyond the contours of a drawing of a table; the way tracing paper puckers around a layer of yellow acrylic that describes a bed (ending up looking like a rumpled sheet); the spatters that surround a drawing of a bath. All these hint at human occupation and bodily traces. The plainness of her outline drawings of rooms, windows and house frontages invite the viewer to project occupants – and domestic scenes – on to them.

Only one group of drawings makes direct reference to the human form. These are a number of outlines of child-like heads, seen mostly from above; they were meant as studies for a font for St Paul's Cathedral, which never came to fruition. One inspiration for them was a 15th-century diagram of a head by Piero della Francesca, an Italian artist and mathematician.

Ghosts among the rubble

Whiteread's pencil and correction fluid outlines wobble across the paper, their apparent tentativeness itself a kind of liveliness. The works have a frankness, a lack of affectation or mannerism, which to my mind makes them all the more approachable and direct. They have a sort of winning honesty: they are more about ideas than demonstrations of graphic skill. One group describes a parquet floor, with a herringbone pattern. In one white-on-black drawing, the wood blocks click-clack across the paper, the pattern undulating like an ocean swell, just as it might to the eyes of a child. The whole thing has a seasick quality. Stray blobs punctuate the wonky, out-of-kilter pattern. Ruskin wrote somewhere of his own boyhood fascination with the whorls on floorboards and the patterns on the carpet, as he played on the floor with a bunch of old keys for a toy. Some of Whiteread's drawings capture just such a state of reverie, provoking a similar daydream-state in the viewer.

It is now more 20 years since Whiteread made Ghost, her seminal plastercast of the interior space of a Victorian front room. When it was finally shown, the sculpture looked inevitable: so simple, so direct, so unfussy, never mind the complications of making, removing and assembling the sections of the cast. Ghost looked both familiar and uncanny, making the kind of room many of us in Britain have grown up in, and continue to live in, appear suddenly alien and strange. It gives us a jolt.

This same spirit is in Whiteread's overpainted photographs of a terrace in Hoxton Square, and a decrepit row of houses in Mile End, east London, one of which Whiteread eventually used as the mould for House, the 1993 work that made her international reputation. In the photographs, we see walls, doors and windows effaced by thick, pasty Tippex, creating ghostly presences amid the builder's rubble, the scaffolding and the crumbling brickwork; the Tippex drowns out the London grime, the signs of occupation and dereliction.

Further on in the show, there are postcards of cloisters and medieval church interiors, the images punctured by numerous round holes, letting in air and light, and dizzying the architecture with a colander of holes. Other postcards are edited with paint, correction fluid and scribbled ink, leaving mysterious, ambiguous half-images. These reworked postcards, we are told, are the sorts of thing the artist works at on her travels, sitting in hotel rooms.

Is that a human intestine?

The show concludes with a selection of objects collected by the artist, providing a further clue to her thinking. There are little groups of doll's house furniture, a number of bird houses (looking like weatherbeaten beach huts), and the glass cast of what seems to be a human intestine. Old tin jelly moulds and casts of the human brain sit alongside bits of fossil, a chunk of the Berlin wall and – bizarrely – a cast of the comedian Peter Sellers's nose. What the artist's eye alights on, and delights in, is always fascinating. These talismanic objects feed Whiteread's imagination in unaccountable ways. Just having them around might provoke a thought, an idea, a new beginning.

Kafka, talking about the process of writing, wrote that there was no reason to leave one's desk: that if you sit there long enough, the world "will writhe before you". So it is with Whiteread's art. Work often springs from a kind of creative emptiness, and frequently involves a lot of footling around, doing nothing and waiting – for an idea, for frustration to goad you into action, for some small shift in the atmosphere or for the light that sets the mind free. Ask any writer how much time is spent staring at the wall, looking out of the window, arse-scratching and prevaricating. A lot of visual art – and of writing and perhaps music, too – reflects on this, and even uses it as the basis of a work itself. Unlike the sculptor's studio, with its piles of materials, equipment and bustling assistants, drawings are mostly made seated alone at a table in a room, in introspective quiet. In Whiteread's art, the room is where things begin – and where the world starts to writhe.

Rachel Whiteread Drawings is at Tate Britain, London SW1, tomorrow until 16 January. Details: 020-7887 8888. www.tate.org.uk


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June 04 2010

Book now!

From Louise Bourgeois in London to Chicks On Speed in Dundee, check out the best art exhibitions up and down the country this week



May 04 2010

Tate Modern at 10

It started with Louise Bourgeois's giant sculpture. Since then, Tate Modern's Turbine Hall has been filled with a succession of spectacular slides, sunsets and visions of the apocalypse. As the gallery turns 10, we talk to the artists who took on the commission of a lifetime

Since it began in 2000, the Unilever series of annual commissions in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall has become the most significant long-term project instigated by any museum in the early 21st century. There are now similar installations in Paris and New York, and the series has developed its own cumulative energy. Let's hope this is sustained through the current economic crisis.

Invitations to participate are increasingly daunting for artists. The Turbine Hall presents an enormous opportunity, but also a huge career risk. One doesn't want overblown monstrosities, or for artists just to make grandiose versions of the kind of things they have done elsewhere. The space is too compromised for Richard Serra, for instance, who installed a great work in Paris's Grand Palais in 2008.

What I'm always hungry for is artists who turn us back on ourselves, who provide an experience that refreshes the way we think. I want them not to perform according to type, but to queer the space and make us think about art and ourselves differently.

The appeal of the spectacle, for a singular and gobsmacking novelty, is hard to resist. The best artists have not gone for the obvious. But however subtle their proposal, and no matter how serious their intent, Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth still became Doris's Crack, while Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project had the public using the mirrored roof to spell out rude phrases with their own bodies as they lay on the floor below. The recent How It Is, by Miroslaw Balka, seemed an invitation for spooked-out blunderings and fumbles in the dark. There are better ways of looking.

The Turbine Hall is the most public museum space anywhere, and is spectacular in itself. Being here is like being in a stupid movie we have already seen. To show here is a test of an artist's capacity and ingenuity. No one accepts the commission lightly, and no one can get away with going through the motions. This is exhilarating. The series has demonstrated the limits and capabilities of artists, of their work and ideas. In an age of spectacle, it continues to put art itself to the test.

Adrian Searle

2000 Louise Bourgeois: Maman

Bourgeois will be 100 next year, and no longer gives interviews, so the fact she's even speaking to me proves how much the first Turbine Hall commission meant to her. The twisted steel legs of her giant spider Maman, alongside a sequence of fabulous, hellish towers, gave the brand-new Tate Modern an instant visual signature, and made the then 89-year-old French-born New York artist a household name. Until then, Bourgeois had been revered by a small world of contemporary art fans; did this sudden popularity surprise her? "No," she says modestly. "The space is so beautiful – anything placed inside it would cause a strong reaction."

As an artist, Bourgeois dwells on the strange and darkly remembered interiors of her childhood; the intensity of her meditations on sexuality and power easily filled the colossal space. Maman turned the surrealist obsession with the male psyche on its head, creating a haunting image of motherhood – a spider carrying her eggs.

Before this, Bourgeois says, "I made a series of small sculptures with mirrors and chairs. They were about looking and being looked at. To continue these concepts on a large scale was an opportunity I could not pass up." What mattered to her most about this installation was the audience's engagement with it. Her towers were designed to be ascended, paving the way for subsequent participatory installations. "The towers were meant to be an experience. If you did not experience all three towers in sequence, then you did not get the piece."

Did Maman affect future work? She says not, beyond the opportunities afforded by scale; As she points out, her work is relatively immune to outside influences: "It has an internal logic all its own." Jonathan Jones

2001 Juan Muñoz: Double Bind

After completing Double Bind in June 2001, Muñoz said he wanted to retreat from constant travel and exhibitions. He had just finished preparing a mid-career survey show, to open in the US that October. He wanted to pay more attention to drawing and to his writing, both of which he felt he had neglected. He died suddenly in August that year, aged 48, while on holiday with his family in Ibiza. The things he had been writing that summer have been lost, somewhere in the hard drive of a broken laptop.

Muñoz was extremely aware of the potential this space offered, but also the risk. "It's a killer," he told me as we stood on an upper level of the gallery, looking down, just before his project was announced. The problems of installation were both artistic and technical. There were arguments and accidents. He had wanted to place figures on the false floor he constructed at the level of the bridge, where, in the distance, he had also installed a pair of empty lifts that rose and fell through the full height of the space. But in the end, he said, the floor resisted whatever figures he put there. Instead, it became a vast image of unapproachable emptiness. There were figures, little groups of them, in the cavities between the floor and the false ceiling he created below it. Despite the crowds and the work's complexity, there was something pensive about Double Bind. It induced feelings of solitude and wonderment.

I think Muñoz saw this as a summation and the beginning of a new phase of work. Since his death, there have been proposals to reinstall it in various locations, none of which the artist had in mind. The Atocha station in Madrid was one such possibility, an idea curtailed by the al-Qaida bombings of 2004. An old warehouse on the river in Bilbao was also considered when his Tate Modern retrospective travelled there in 2008. As it is, all the elements remain in storage. AS

2002 Anish Kapoor: Marsyas

The title of Kapoor's vast scarlet trumpet referred to the late Titian of that name: a depiction of the mythological character Marsyas, flayed alive by the god Apollo. The most obvious aspect of Kapoor's piece, a "skin" stretched over a frame, was its scale: it was almost too big for the space, and that was the point.

Though it divided critics, some of whom thought it bombastic, Kapoor remains delighted by Marsyas. "Just a big thing is boring," he explains, "but a big thing with another purpose can be awe-inspiring. Marsyas did everything I wanted. I wanted it to occupy a space that hadn't been imagined, [to be] a work that wasn't viewable as a whole, but in bits."

Visiting the sculpture after it was installed, "was the first time I had been able to get to know the work. You'd go in, and visitors were having exactly the same experience I was." In particular, people noticed the hum of the electricity substation next door – almost as if it came from the sculpture. Kapoor laughs: "Yes, I think it's a low G, actually." The piece formed a backdrop to an impassioned anti-war staging directed by Peter Sellars, while Arvo Pärt composed a work in its honour. (Of the Sellars, Kapoor says cautiously: "When Peter's pieces become agit-prop, they can become a little overwhelming.")

The commission taught him some practical lessons. "It needs to be organised as a real campaign. You have to install it over two to three weeks – it's got to happen quickly." Since then, he has resisted the more grandiose offers that have come his way. But next year, Kapoor will take on one of Europe's biggest and most intimidating spaces, Paris's Grand Palais – almost as scary as the Turbine Hall itself. Charlotte Higgins

2003 Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project

"At the time, I was incredibly happy with people's reactions – they were so diverse," Eliasson says of the gigantic wintry sun he installed at the far end of the hall. All through the winter of 2003/4, visitors basked in its orange light and saw themselves reflected in the mirrored ceiling the artist installed high up near the roof. "It had its own life. There was a sense of personal and collective experience: they're not opposites. The work sailed off into the realm of the public, but it's like when a big ship goes adrift – where will it end up? The Weather Project entered popular culture, and there were some who wrapped it all up in to some kind of new age, universalistic ritual – this I didn't like."

Eliasson thinks earlier projects linked the work with the gallery in a way his did not. "My project brought the city spilling in, and there was a collapse in the contract of how you are supposed to behave in a museum. Public space is becoming ever more controlled, while the Turbine Hall is more relaxed. Museums want objects, but reality changes that. With these projects, the museum itself begins to produce reality."

Eliasson welcomes this development, with some reservations. "Projects like these mostly happen in close agreement with market-driven thinking, which leads to little diversity. Everything comes at a price. But as a space, this is old and quirky, and it still shifts with every commission. There are plenty more projects in front of us. I am happy to have set the standard." AS

2004 Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials

On his first site visit after having been invited to undertake the fifth Turbine Hall commission, Nauman remembers that "a number of large Henry Moore pieces were arranged on the floor beyond the bridge. My first thought was to fly the sculptures around the space using the two gantry cranes below the roof structure."

Some proposals inevitably go beyond the feasible, and the American artist rejected this initial, startling idea. Nauman once made a sculpture called Henry Moore Bound to Fail, and has also remarked that we never know when the grand old man of British modernism might come in handy again. In the end, he returned to his own work and decided to limit himself entirely to sound.

Raw Materials directed our walk down the ramp and through the hall via a succession of human voices (including the artist's), revisiting 22 of the texts and soundtracks of earlier works. The piece was inspired by the gallery's incessant hum (the buzz from that electrical substation again). "The deep variable sound was persistent throughout the space, and eventually it occurred to me that the texts and voices, sung or spoken, that I have used over the years could be incorporated. The large number of people and the various ways to enter and leave the space – meeting, talking, eating lunch, making a public space private – all contributed to the idea of using these sounds to redefine and direct the experience. I don't know why I didn't use some of the non-verbal sounds as well.

"It has taken some time after this installation to use this [way of working] with large spaces again. Sometimes it requires a long period to digest this kind of risk." AS

2005 Rachel Whiteread: Embankment

Whiteread says Embankment liberated a new playfulness in her work. Certainly, hers was a remarkably introspective and personal sculpture for this space. Tottering icebergs, crumbling Carrara marble quarries, the sprawl of a Bernini fountain: these were some of the associations provoked by her thousands of white boxes, arranged to tower over visitors.

Whiteread had recently visited the Arctic. "I really wanted to use the whiteness of the landscape and to bring that inside. Where we were, no one had trodden before, and lichen was the only thing that was growing. We had to be together all the time, and it was very claustrophobic. Here, I wanted to make something really gargantuan and breathtaking."

Yet its use of boxes began in grief. "The starting point was my mother's house: she had died a year before and we were clearing it out. There was one box I had used for Christmas decorations when I was a child. From this came the casting of 14,000 more. All my work has an emotional starting point, but I wanted it to be completely recyclable. Afterwards, we recycled it all on site."

She directed the installers by walkie-talkie. "I made a maquette. You need to be prepared. I'm very much a hands-on artist, and it's difficult to work in there because it's so public. [But] it was very freeing, being able to build massive areas and then go to the bridge and take it all down again. It was like playing with giant building blocks. I had a letter the other day from an 83- year-old woman about it." She had meant to write at the time, to say how much she admired it.

Whiteread admits to being sceptical of some of the other commissions. "I don't think all the artists have responded well: it's been about 50:50. You can deal with it in a very theatrical way, as Eliasson did – that was like being at Glastonbury. Some of the others that have been more participatory I've struggled with." JJ

2006 Carsten Höller: Test Site

Höller had visitors queueing and screaming and slithering down his spiralling slides. It was fun, though there were those who wondered whether it was really art. But art, Höller tells me, is changing its character, like it or not. In the 1970s, projects such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty were of minority interest. In London, Höller says, "every newspaper wrote about Test Site, and every taxi driver knew about the slides. British popular culture embraces something like this in a way other countries don't."

So the Turbine Hall became a playground. Höller doesn't believe that the hunger for spectacle signals the death of art: it's just a logical consequence of what came before. "It is a very tricky, strange development," he says. He was overwhelmed by the public's response and concerned by the uniformity of much of the coverage. "I was trying to make a serious architectural contribution – and to ask, why don't we use slides everywhere? I was also dealing with the space, all those grids and straight lines. Putting the slides there was an artistic, even poetic intervention. The spirals relate to natural growth and form. No one mentioned this. I wanted to make the people part of the work, but you didn't have to use the slides. Standing and watching could be like looking at a painting by [Hieronymous] Bosch."

While it is becoming a bigger challenge for each new artist who takes it on, Höller is adamant the series should continue. Other countries now mount similar projects, but "this is the first one. And you can't pretend this is just an ordinary space. It's one of the few spaces in the world that has this fantastic possibility. There is no way back." AS

2007 Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth

When Salcedo was designing Shibboleth, a long crack running the length of the hall, she imagined it would be quiet and elusive in impact. "I thought it was an extremely humble piece. I saw it as an angry piece, but basically defined by a radical absence. I imagined it was going to be overlooked by visitors." So she was startled by both the blanket media coverage and the intensity of the public response, ranging from fascination to dismissal, as people came to gawp at (and even fall into) Tate Modern's hole.

It started with politics. "I am a third-world person [she is Colombian], and came as such to this modernist, industrial space that has become one of the main – if not the main – cultural centres in Europe. Many questions were raised: questions about the relationship non-Europeans have with European modernity, and with European culture in general. I had to bring to that public space the obliterated history of defeated peoples."

Excavating the floor with a team of engineers was not difficult. "I had been making anti-architecture for several years, so the scale was not an issue. I am not a solo singer. For the past 13 years, I have been working with architects and engineers." The more difficult part was the response from press and public: "There were all kinds of interpretations – some quite insightful, others full of cynicism. Most articles remain obsessed by the supposed dangers of the piece. I think that was the easiest way out of thinking about the issues it addressed."

Is the Turbine Hall a place where serious ideas can be raised, or does its reputation for spectacle get in the way of true engagement? "I believe the accidents that took place were the result of a lack of attention," Salcedo says. "Art is about experience, and that experience will reveal itself only when the viewer silently contemplates the piece. Neither I nor Shibboleth can be blamed for that terrible lack." JJ

2008 Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: TH.2058

Set 50 years into the future, Gonzalez-Foerster's wry take on art and the apocalypse filled the Turbine Hall with the patter of a biblical deluge, super-sized sculptures seemingly swollen with rain, metal bunks strewn with disaster literature and a big-screen montage of end-of-the-world film clips.

Walking around the hall now, she says that "working with the scale of the space is like the difference between a short and a feature film". Her blown-up copies of works such as Louise Bourgeois's spider were realised by a props team from Pinewood Studios. Gonzalez-Foerster remembers: "The hall looked like a giant puppet theatre. There were so many cables holding the sculptures. I discovered a new group of people: riggers!"

What happened when the plastic curtains that marked the entrance were finally parted by her cast of imaginary refugees, the public? "After one month, almost all the books had disappeared," she says. Nearly 1,000 of them, by Jorge Luis Borges, JG Ballard and others, had to be replaced. It was the many photographs posted on Flickr that proved the high point. "This was a big editing moment, connecting different fields of culture. For a lot of visitors, it became their own montage." The critics, she feels, tended to pass over the references. "They wrote a lot about the beds. Why the beds? For me, they're only part of it, like the chairs in a cinema."

Already, TH.2058 has inspired two new works. In its final week, the installation served as the set for Gonzalez-Foerster's film Noreturn, in which a group of children get locked inside a museum; the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas put TH.2058 in his latest novel, Dublinesca. This was one of the best things, she says, "that something dealing with fiction [has gone] back to fiction". Skye Sherwin

2009 Miroslav Balka: How It Is

Balka took his title from a terse, late work by Samuel Beckett and analysed each of the earlier projects in order to develop his own. "What other artists have done is part of the deal. It's good that some of the branches of possibility are cut off. In a way, my project was a dialogue with Olafur Eliasson's. I created a sort of negative situation to his. London is open and international: I wanted to create its opposite. You have to deal with spectacularisation, but I wanted to show and not show, " he says. "It's a serious task."

He didn't spend much time observing the way people engaged with his big steel box and its impenetrably dark, felt-lined interior. "I just wanted the last day to be over. I had anxiety dreams that someone would switch on the light." How It Is will now be recycled. The artist jokes: "I had an idea to send it to the desert in New Mexico, to stand in the sun with nothing but snakes and stones around it."

Balka's next project will involve showing his own work alongside that of northern Renaissance painters, including Hans Baldung and Matthias Grünewald. "After How It Is, I wanted to return to a relationship with humility. I like the word humility. I don't know if something like this will happen again in my life."

What's fascinating about the series, Balka says, is the growing conversation between artists. "Ai Weiwei is a great choice for the next commission [in October this year], because he doesn't come from the western, essentially European tradition – which even Bruce Nauman and Doris Salcedo belong to. It's time for the Chinese tiger to jump over the bridge of the Turbine Hall." AS

Send us your photographs

Email your best shot of a Turbine Hall installation to your.pictures@guardian.co.uk – we will print a selection in G2. By submitting your photograph you agree to our terms and conditions (see guardian.co.uk/terms). Tate Modern celebrates its 10th birthday with a free festival of art and music, 14-16 May. Details: tate.org.uk


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November 14 2009

'Anyone can be Rembrandt'

Since he made his name in the early 90s, Damien Hirst has been less an artist than head of a multinational. In the process, he's earned an absolute fortune, if not critical respect. But why should he care?

Damien Hirst stares into his portrait of a skull. This is the new Damien Hirst – Hirst the solitary painter rather than Hirst the art world's flamboyant marketing magician. He has painted these pictures with his own hands, rather than employed minions to produce work under his name, as he has done in the past. But, he says, this is also the old Hirst. After all, like most artists, he started out painting rather than conceptualising and mass-producing. "I gave up painting by 16," he says. "I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then."

I give him a look. But Rembrandt was a genius?

He shakes his head. "No, I don't believe in genius. I believe in freedom. I think anyone can do it. Anyone can be like Rembrandt."

Hirst is a master of the potty soundbite. I wait for a smile or wink, but it doesn't come. Instead, he gets into his philosophical stride. "Picasso, Michelangelo, possibly, might be verging on genius, but I don't think a painter like Rembrandt is a genius. It's about freedom and guts. It's about looking. It can be learned. That's the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings."

How far away does Hirst think he is from producing a Rembrandt? "A long way. But then again, there's no need for that sort of thing today." He's got a touch of the Arthur Daleys about him – the chutzpah, the patter, the self-belief.

It's mid-October and Hirst is giving me a guided tour of his upcoming exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London. Being Hirst, it's bound to be controversial. For starters, he's paid £250,000 of his own money to have his work hung here against the same striped blue silk wallpaper beloved by Marie Antoinette. What's more, he's pitting himself against the likes of Rembrandt and Titian hanging in neighbouring rooms. And then there are the paintings themselves. For two years, he has painted alone in his garden shed in Devon. He didn't show them to anybody, didn't think they were any cop, discarded them one by one, until he finally came up with some he liked. But as he leads me round the exhibition, I'm not quite sure how to react. He's  right when he says he's a long way from Rembrandt. Perhaps a little further than he thinks. I say they're spooky – it's the best I can come up with by way of a compliment. At times, they seem more like illustrated CVs than paintings. All the traditional Hirst signifiers are there – skulls and sharks, dots and butterflies, crude nods to his hero Francis Bacon by way of spidery white lines, and the usual references to death and decay. There's certainly no mistaking who these paintings are by.

Hirst has been battling with painting for years. He's always wanted to do it, but could never quite face up to it or get down to it. "The spot paintings and spin paintings were trying to find mechanical ways to make paintings," he says. "And I just got to a point where I thought I can't avoid it any longer." Technically, they might have been paintings, but he felt he wasn't getting down and dirty with his oils and his soul, like a true artist should.

Damien Hirst remains the figurehead of Britart, the movement of British artists whose work was bought and championed by Charles Saatchi in the 90s. In 1992, he first came to prominence at a Young British Artists show at Saatchi's old gallery on Boundary Road in St John's Wood, London. The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Something Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine, became Britart's signature image.

Hirst was the star of Saatchi's Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, an event that was more of a coronation than an exhibition for the new generation of British artists. Post-Sensation, Hirst and his contemporaries (the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marc QuinnMarcus Harvey, et al) became the new punk establishment. Britart was bursting with enfants terribles, and Hirst seemed the most terrible of them all. It wasn't simply the pickled cows and sharks; it was the swagger, the swearing, the rock'n'roll attitude. He even wore tinted glasses like Bono. He became as well known for his partying and his pill-popping as he did for his art. Then he discovered cocaine and became even louder. A night out for the Britpack was not really a night out until Hirst had taken down his trousers and waggled his willy in public.

The funny thing is, Hirst was never meant to be the poster boy for the movement. He had always thought of himself as the back-room boy – more an enabler than an artist. In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths, he curated an exhibition of his contemporaries' work called Freeze. Another irony is that the young Hirst had been rather conventional – not nearly as wild as he wanted to be. He was born into a working-class family and grew up in Leeds. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his mother, Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice bureau, brought him up with a fierce sense of the right and proper. The true punk at his school was Marcus Harvey, who went on to create the scandal of Sensation with his portrait of the child killer Myra Hindley. Hirst adored Harvey, who was two years older. "I wanted to be like him. He was just mental. He wore a kilt and had a tiny blue Hitler moustache on his chest. I remember being incredibly jealous because my mum would cut up anything I went out in that was bad. She'd just say get back in the house. My mum made Never Mind The Bollocks into a plant pot – she put it on the gas, with a rock in the middle, and it just went whooosh! – because it said bollocks." Today, she lives next door to Hirst and his family in Devon.

He was not an academic boy, only just squeezing into sixth form, where he did two A-levels and ended up with an E in art. He was initially refused entry to Leeds College of Art & Design, but eventually got a place. He was later turned down by St Martins, before studying at Goldsmiths. When he first moved to London, Hirst worked on a building site for two years.

He was 23 when he curated the Goldsmiths show. It featured some of his own work, but his cluster of painted boxes went pretty much unnoticed. In 1991, he got his first solo exhibition – In And Out Of Love featured rooms with live butterflies, hatching, flying and dying, with dead specimens stuck on canvases. From early on, his curating skills were evident in his work – the labelling, the titles, the layout, the display cabinets. To an extent, the presentation was the art.

In the late 90s, he became Britain's own mini-Warhol, embracing celebrity, mass manufacture – and money. No British artist seemed so obsessed by the relationship between money, art and value. For Hirst, concept was all. If he'd had the idea (even if others claimed to have had it before, as they often did), that was enough. He loved the notion that he could attach his name to work he had not laid a finger on, claim it as his own and make millions. It was funny, ludicrous and hugely profitable.

Things reached their apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your perspective) in 2007, with For The Love Of God, a human skull, recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds, that cost an estimated £14m to produce. Again, Hirst's timing was perfect, the symbolism acute – after two decades in which art had become the supreme commodity, money was now also the subject of art. There was nothing left to say. The work sold for an estimated $100m, although it later emerged that the consortium that had bought it included Hirst and his dealer's gallery, White Cube.

Earlier this year, he ditched the gallery system altogether and sold a load of work at a massive Sotheby's auction that raised a reported £111m. He seems to be trying to create a new business model for the art world. Hirst thinks it's about time his dealer, Jay Jopling, was given a tougher ride by artists. "He always said I've got your best interests at heart, but he doesn't really. It's like he's got a harem, and I've got to be monogamous, and you just go, 'Fuck that' after a while." (Hirst has always liked his swear words.)

It was after the diamond skull that Hirst retreated to his shed. And it was after the auction that he realised paintings would be the next thing he exhibited. "The auction was definitely the end of something. A brutal change for me – go out with a bang." He admits, reluctantly, that Britart is a product of Thatcherism, but insists he has no politics and says he has never voted in his life.

Hirst verges on the evangelical when it comes to money. He says that he has spent so long trying to make Sarah Lucas, his favourite contemporary British artist, appreciate the value of money and herself. To no avail. "She'd be like, 'I don't give a fuck, give me what you want' and I'd be like, 'You should sell your work for more' and she'd say, 'I don't care. I'm not interested in all that shit.' I was like Sarah in the beginning, but then I had to give a fuck at some point." He comes to a frustrated stop. "I kind of admire her for it," he adds wistfully.

He was jealous when he found out that Rachel Whiteread's work was selling for £100,000 at a time when his was going for £20,000-£30,000. "I remember telling Jay to put my work up to £100,000. And he said to me, 'But I can sell anything you make' and it dawned on me: 'It's cos you're selling it too fucking cheap.' He said, 'It's going to alienate your collectors' and I said, 'I don't care, just do it.' We didn't look back. When he sold something for £100,000, something changed – you get taken seriously by a whole new group of people and they start buying."

Isn't there a danger that the money becomes all-consuming; that the sole measure of a piece of art is what it sells for? "You just keep an eye on it. Selling out is very different from dealing with cash." What is selling out? "My business manager always says you've got to make sure you're using the cash to chase the art, not the art to chase the cash." Hirst would argue that his diamond skull is an example of cash chasing the art.

Has he ever sold out? "I think I've got very close. There was a point I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings for ever and laughed all the way to the bank."

Was he taking the mick out of the art market? "No. You can take the piss out of art, but I don't think you can take the piss out of the art market. All markets are serious."

So why did he stop mass-producing? In the end, he says, he found it too depressing – it began reminding him of his own mortality. "With the work I was doing, I couldn't see a route to the end of my life. I was doing these sculptures, and the people who work for me have always stayed the same. Then I thought, as I get older, they're going to get older and fucking older… And then I'd be getting old and have to get young people working for me so they could lift the sculptures."

Also, the paintings were no longer relevant to him. "The spot paintings were all about immortality. They're just a total celebration of when you're twatted, when you're taking drugs, when you're under the table. In that moment, you feel you can live for ever. Then you just get to the point where you think you've got less time in front of you than behind you."

There's a story about the spot paintings, possibly apocryphal, that I love – that Hirst started selling kits to make up the paintings for tens of thousands of pounds. In other words, he was charging people a fortune for painting them themselves. Hirst grins. Of course it's true. It came about when a man said he'd like to buy a spot painting painted directly on to a wall and Hirst asked how he planned to do it. "He said, 'Oh, just make me a certificate and give me some paint and tins. So I went through it in my head and worked it out – the certificate certified ownership of the artwork, the artwork must be painted by an authorised representative and the spots are these dimensions, these colours, and the spot painting can't exist in two places at the same time. I bought my own tins, mixed the colours, put it all in a box, a brush for every tin, so you get 150 tins and 150 brushes, compass, pencil and a certificate."

He must have thought that was funny? He shakes his head. "Every time I had a new idea, I realised it had been done years ago. Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, all the minimalists, they all had certified artworks."

Hirst was recently estimated to be worth £200m. What does he do with all his money? Well, there's his rapidly growing art collection, his many houses, his cars, his office. "I've got a lot of projects, and there's lots for charity as well." Hirst tells me which charities he supports, but he's hardly gushing about it. I can't help sensing he prefers the bad boy image and isn't overly keen to destroy it with heartwarming tales of do-gooding. But a number of his friends tell me of the times he has helped out when they've been in trouble.

He's more likely to tell you about the horrible things he's done. His friends confirm this side to him, too. Although he doesn't reckon he sold out, he did come close to destroying himself with drink and drugs, notably cocaine. He got clean only three years ago, and says for a long time he was insufferable. "The problem is, at the time I thought I was cool, but now I look back and think I was a twat." Shortly before his great friend Joe Strummer died, the musician had had enough of him. "He was going, 'Ignore him. Everybody ignore Damien. He'll go away.' I was just talking spew."

He tells me about a recent conversation with a friend. "I said, 'When I met you, I thought you were really cool' and he went, 'I thought you were a twat.' I went, 'What?!' And he said, 'I thought you were arrogant and stupid and pushy.' Lots of people say that's the impression I give off. I can't quite work out what I do – maybe I just show off – but it always surprises me. I think we're getting on like a house on fire. Maia [Norman, his partner] says it about her friends – they were intimidated by me or I was aggressive or arrogant or they don't like me. 'Who is that twat?' "

And when he was doing drink and drugs, he says, he was hideous. How? He can't remember all the details, so he turns for help to Jude Tyrrell, director of Hirst's company Science Ltd.

Tyrrell: "You were more in your face when you were on the booze and coke."

Hirst: "Yeah, you wanted to give up a few times."

Tyrrell: "No, only once."

Hirst: "Was that the knob out in Dublin?"

Tyrrell: "No, the knob with the chicken bone was fine. It was that girl's 18th birthday party. It was a posh boutique hotel and Damien was there, very drunk and abusive. It was just the kind of thing you don't want to see. Had he continued as he was, I don't think anybody could have stuck around. Also, he would have lost the art. He just wouldn't have been able to do it. He'd be staying up for two or three nights, and I'd have BBC news arrive, and I know how much that costs, and I'd be sending them away because he'd just not turned up."

Why does she think Hirst acted like this? "With everybody else, you think it's because there's shit in their lives. Damien I honestly think did it because he loves life – for purely hedonistic reasons."

And the chicken bone? That's an entirely different matter, says Hirst. "I went to a Malaysian restaurant and I had chicken, and I got a thigh bone from the chicken and kept it in my pocket and back at the hotel I put it in my foreskin, so I had a bone sticking out of the end of my cock."

Tyrell reminds Hirst, aged 44, that he has missed an important detail: "You were in a bar when you were doing it, and this American woman took offence."

Ah, yes, says Hirst, his memory clearing. "She stormed out in disgust, and next day she sued for $100,000. She claimed she'd been traumatised."

That was the last time he exposed himself in public. "I became aware that, in a room full of people and at $100,000 each, it could become very costly. We settled for 8,000 Irish punts."

How did Hirst manage to straighten himself out? "I just got sick of myself." What did his partner, Maia, make of him throughout this period? "We were both battered." She was as bad as him? "Yeah. If we hadn't been, I don't think we'd have stayed together."

Hirst and Maia have three sons. The oldest, Connor, is 14, Cassius is nine and Cyrus four. Hirst worries that their lifestyle affected Connor badly. "He's a bit quieter than the other two, and sometimes I think it's because of that."

We're looking at some white roses on a blue-black background. This is one of his favourite paintings in the exhibition. How important is it to him that the show is well reviewed? "Jay [Jopling] always seems to want to get people to be pleased, but I always say I try to ignore the good press so then I can ignore the bad. If you like the good and try to ignore the bad, you can get fucked up. But you make it for yourself at the end of the day, and that's who you've got to satisfy."

A couple of weeks later, we meet up again at Hirst's London offices, which double up as a beautiful, if unofficial, modern art gallery – a Jeff Koons silver sculpture on the ground floor, Warhol's electric chair upstairs, Hirsts galore. He is wearing different blue-tinted specs (he has some 50 pairs), the customary hoodie and trainers, and is explaining why he wasn't cut out to be a curator. "Dealing with the ego of artists is mental." Who's got the biggest ego among his British peers? "Er, me? You need a big ego to be an artist. I suppose you need a big ego to deal with the shit reviews I've been having for this show."

The Wallace show has received a real mauling; I've rarely read such scathing reviews. The paintings are described as "embarrassing", "shockingly bad", "Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole", and Hirst labelled "a jumped-up pretender".

Did the reviews surprise him? "Well, I kind of expected them," he says, "but I suppose secretly you do hope they won't be as crap. The worst thing is, I've had phone calls from people who've treated it as a death – phoning up and asking, 'Are you OK?'" He grins. "A couple of the reviews made me laugh. [Guardian critic] Adrian Searle said, 'I failed at painting, too.' I thought that was a cracking line. He rejected me at St Martins."

Has it dented his confidence? "I've had all the confidence dented for two years in the studio, so I've looked at the work and gone through all the doubts and come out the other side. In a way, it was personal and quite aggressive. What got people's backs up most was that I was doing it in the Wallace, in the context of these great artists. But it's early days for me painting. I don't think I've arrived. I don't think I'm as great as they are. These are the first paintings I'm satisfied with… But the Wallace are well happy. The viewing figures are through the roof, sales in the shop are massive."

Some critics have suggested that the exhibition is a joke, that he has deliberately produced bad paintings, knowing that they'll still sell for huge sums. "Maybe it is… who knows? There's an element of that in everything I do. Someone once said to me, 'You could sign a dog shit and sell it' and I said, 'Why would I?' And then you think, if you did, it would be art. Manzoni blew up a balloon and called it Artist's Breath and sold it. And people go, 'Are you taking the piss, or is it for real?'"

He says there's nothing more boring than an artist wanting to be taken seriously, and it's true there is a playfulness to most of Hirst's work, but the bottom line is the paintings are for real; he does want them to be taken seriously. "I didn't think, right, I'm going to make paintings now and I don't give a fuck what they look like because we're going to make loads of money. That's not what they're about. They've got to be good."

Has he learned anything from the reviews? "No. I like what Warhol said: you don't read them, you weigh them." Perhaps he couldn't win, he adds. "It's the hallowed area of painting. The same guys who are saying to me these are shit are the guys who've said you're crap because you can't paint. So you paint and they say you're crap now you're trying to paint."

That's not strictly true. Many of those who were most damning about this show loved his earlier work, particularly the dissected cows and pickled sharks. The concept was so fresh, the lines so clean, the appearance so startling. I ask where he got the ideas from. "School. Even then I was doing that sort of stuff in art with frogs. And there were skulls and pine cones and bits of bone. It was like a nature table with things in formaldehyde. So we'd always draw from that."

He talks about the inspiration for Mother And Child Divided. "It was about my mum and sister, who had fallen out at the time. It was a funny take on that."

But this is all in the past, he says. The future, for him, is painting. He shows me the work that will form his next exhibition, Nothing Matters, opening later this month at the White Cube. There are more skulls and sharks and dots, but the colours are brighter – reds and greens. He's also introduced a few new motifs: deckchairs, windows, splattered crows.

Does he think this show will get better reviews? "I think it'll be another kicking," he says. "It's only a few weeks later and it's similar stuff, so they're just going to say, 'He won't go away!'"

And, he says, they'll be right. "The paintings are going to get better and better and better, and they're not going to go away. There's no way back for me. I've just got to barrel on through. If you want to make it easy for yourself, you can say there's a whole history of great artists who've been slagged off, so you can just embrace that, can't you?"

Hirst tells me he watched a documentary about Francis Bacon the other night. "I loved the way he talked about the Popes. He said they were failed paintings. I loved that. He said he tried to combine the Eisenstein shot of the nanny screaming with the Velásquez painting, and it was a disaster. He said, 'I don't even know why I tried.' I thought what a great thing to say – his greatest paintings, to talk them down like they're shit. That way, no one can slag 'em off." He pauses. "I should have done that."

But Hirst has never been one for regrets, and he chucks a final Warhol quote at me to prove the point. "Warhol said a brilliant thing. He said if anybody slags anything off, make more."

• No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, by Damien Hirst, is showing at the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1 until 24 January 2010. Nothing Matters is at the White Cube, London N1 from 25 November-30 January 2010.


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