Conversation with Rachel Whiteread for the Gagosian Quarterly


LUCA CIPELLETTI On the evening of March 17, 2020,more than seventy military trucks were seen moving piles of coffins from Bergamo to other parts of Italy, since the local crematoria were already overloaded.These shocking images alerted the entire planet to the fact that covid was not confined to China but was in fact the most devastating global pandemic of the last hundred years. The world was unprepared to fight such a difficult battle, and Bergamo became a symbol, the epicenter of the pandemic in the Western world.In 2021, you were invited to create an exhibition in Bergamo. For decades now you’ve been working with the concept of memory—the memory of buildings,their architectural elements and furniture:staircases, doors, windows, chairs, mattresses—the memory of souls. When you received this invitation,what were your preliminary thoughts before traveling to Bergamo?

RACHEL WHITEREAD When I was asked to make this exhibition, there wasn’t a preconceived idea—I wasn’t invited to make a memorial for those who died during the covid pandemic, for example. If I’d been asked to do that, I probably wouldn’t have accepted, to be honest. These things are so emotive and complex. And for me, when I make a memorial,I have to feel it’s the right moment in time.The pandemic was still so fresh and so complex in everybody’s minds at that point; no one had really figured out how to deal with it, and no one really knew the sort of emotional and physical damage it had done to the world.So when I went to Bergamo, I went with a very open mind. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just wanted to go and have a look. I journeyed therewith my colleague and we were shocked, actually,by how people reacted. The city had been so wounded by what had happened that they hadn’t in any way come to terms with it. In the hotels, in the restaurants, in the shops, walking down the street, we were treated with a lot of suspicion. It was really odd, and I was very surprised because I know Italy extremely well and I’d never felt like a sort of alien there.So when we went to see the space at the Palazzo della Ragione for the first time, within fifteen minutes of walking into the place I knew what I could make happen there. I knew that I could do something that might aid in the healing of such a catastrophic scar.

LC When you went to Bergamo, you met Lorenzo Giusti and Sara Fumagalli, the director and curator of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo, as well as the local authorities. Just as important, you had the chance to meet the citizens of Bergamo and to grasp the aftermath of the battle.What was your feeling after visiting the site, and how did your preliminary idea develop?

RW The original idea was to keep the space open.In a lot of Italian cities in the summer, as you know,there are public spaces that are used almost like salons, there are poetry readings and musical performances and all sorts of things happening there. When I left Bergamo and returned to my studio in the UK, I was thinking about that, and about how people could and would move around the space.Initially I wanted to use as many chair pieces asI could. The chair pieces are motifs that I’ve used for a very long time. They stand for an architecture of the people, in a way—I wouldn’t say they’re stand-ins for humans, but they have to do with how we’ve developed in the world. They seem to be a very good way of trying to bring a form to the very abstract notions of disease and catastrophe.

LC You made sixty stone pieces, each the shape of the space beneath a chair. You’re primarily known for casting but in this case the pieces were carved or cut from the stone, using two different forms. How new is this for you?

RW I normally cast things, but I’ve made hand carved works before as well. I knew that in Italy, master craftsmen have been dealing with stone for centuries. It has to do with the way in which Italy was built, the way in which the architecture of the surrounding area and the cathedral and the square were built. Obviously when these things were constructed five hundred years ago, they were built by hand, and now we use machinery. But there are experts who really know how to make the stone sing and play. Right from the beginning, I felt it could be very much a sort of concerted effort by the entire community to join in and make this together. People really got on board and wanted to be a part of this healing situation for the whole community. I was very touched by that, actually; I felt that it had hit a nerve, and that it was powerful and the right thingto do for the situation.

LC As an architect, I have projects in the Bergamo area and I’m familiar with the local stones you used, all with beautiful names. They’re very Italian words and sound like the names of the people portrayed in the medieval paintings in the ancient palazzo housing your exhibition. More important, these local marbles, which were used in the actual building of the palazzo, are sort of multipliers for the two different forms you used for your sculptures. Each form was made using all four marbles, but sometimes with different finishes—smooth, sandblasted, etcetera—giving you the opportunity to generate an incredible number of pieces that are both very similar and slightly different.This seems connected, in a way, to the idea of humanity in its similarities and its diversity.

RW I’d say that my objects and sculptures have away of representing humanity—from the mattressesto the chair spaces to the bars, they’re all objects that we’ve made for our bodies to use. From very early on, I’ve tried to develop that idea. The different materials that I’ve used over time as well—I always push the materials. I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to reflect the diversity of humanity with the materials, I think it’s more that the materials are reflecting the diversity of materials [laughs].

LC You clearly have a deep feel for materials and textures, yet you don’t seem to allow yourself to beseduced by over attention to look, surface, shine,color, or extravagant materials. The various stones used in Bergamo, and the slight variations in their surface finishes, are things one notices in the quiet of looking. Their beauty reveals itself slowly, would you agree?

RW Yes [laughs]. You know, to me a lump of plaster is one of the most beautiful surfaces in the world. Other people might think it looks like a bit of white chalk. I think it’s very much how the individual interprets the world, and I don’t like to over complicate a surface. I like to try to use a material for its materiality. I occasionally color things and I occasionally patinate things, but that’s to bring out other elements. For me the beauty of something lie sin its imperfection and in its ability to be what it is—to be honest. It’s about an honesty and a depth. I suppose it’s how I kind of live my life.

LC The way you arranged the pieces in the enormous hall of the Palazzo della Ragione was incredibly powerful: they were in groups of varying sizes,some aligned in front of architectural elements or frescoes. What was the relationship of these groups to the space? Was it related in any way to the distance we were forced to keep from each other during the pandemic?

RW Originally I thought maybe the show would be titled “Two Meters Apart,” or something like that—that was such a rigid rule that almost the whole world was following during the pandemic,so I had that very much in mind for part of the work.But I was also very influenced by looking at the piazza outside the museum, which Le Corbusier said was the most perfect piazza in the world and that no stone should be changed. It’s an incredibly beautiful thing, with a fountain in the middle that serves as a focal point. I would stand there and just watch people gather: there would be someone with a flag taking a tour group through, there’d be school children walking across in lines, there’d be a little family unit with a buggy . . . there was always a theatrical element going on. And you know, I’ve always been very intrigued by the way people look at sculpture, because it’s such an interactive thing—people are kind of curious and inquisitive and they may look under something, or lie on the floor to look at something. So I think I was trying to somehow develop those ideas and put them together. I was also thinking about Renaissance paintings where you have groups of figures and the perspective is slightly skewed—you maybe have five people in the background standing very rigidly next to each other and then maybe one slightly forward.As an artist of my age, when you’re someone who has been working for so long, you have this incredible lexicon of ideas drawn from your experiences of looking at art and culture around the world, and all of that stuff goes in. I always try to talk to my kids about that when I’m showing them around—ton ever take an experience for granted when you’re looking at something because it all adds information to the next thing you look at. We’re very lucky as humans to have memory, in that we can always work with it and play with it.

LC Something magical happened every time I walked into your exhibition. The installation inevitably created many layers of conversation: the conversation between the sculpture and the volume of the room or the paintings along the wall, the conversations between the pieces themselves when the room was empty. As soon as a visitor came in, they became another actor, allowing another layer of conversation. The structure was very theatrical,but open-ended—you left visitors completely free to experience the installation in their own way.

RW As humans, we’re animals of great curiosity and fearfulness and joy and sadness—you know,we have all of these emotions. I’m not religious but I go into churches a lot; they’re among the most ritualistic,almost theatrical places, and you see how people behave looking at things. A lot of it is a sort of felt reaction, a lot of it is something people do because they feel they ought to, or through great belief or whatever those things are. And this piece for me was probably the most, in a way, religious work that I’ve ever made.When I made the piece, I just sort of made it and left, because I knew that it was going to be very emotive for me. When I came back for the opening,I just sat there and watched people, and they were coming in and they were crying and they were sitting down and then they’d be chatting to someone else and then someone would be laughing. You know, it just meant so much to so many different individuals. It was very moving.

LC Memorials are often depictions of specific events or individuals. Your memorials in Vienna and Bergamo refer not to specifics but rather to a presence, or indeed an absence. They’re representations of things you recognize but that don’t physically exist: the space around books in a library, the air beneath a chair. This seems an appropriate way to bring attention to the incomprehensible number of people who died in the Holocaust or because of covid. How do you approach an issue like this?

RW When I made the memorial in Vienna, I’d lived in Berlin for eighteen months, and I think if I hadn’t had that experience, I would never have tried to approach such a complex subject. When I lived in Berlin, I’d been to a number of the Holocaust sites and camps and was very affected by it.I’ve always tried to understand what makes a place,and in Germany I observed the deep shame over what had happened and the attempt to learn from it and sort of heal what had happened. I also went to look at the site of the Normandy landings, looking at bunkers. I’d been to see Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in America. I always do a lot of research. I’m sort of curious, but I also see that it’s part of my job. If I’m going to interpret something that was so devastating, I need to be armed with the information to try and transcribe that experience.

LC After millions of deaths and more than two years of lock downs during the pandemic, it seems,weirdly, that there aren’t any lessons that have been learned and that everyone is now back to a so-called normal life. What are your thoughts about what happened? Did your life change? Did your work change?

RW I think my life changed to a certain degree,and I’m still struggling to try and hold on to that—you just think, well, certain things matter and other things don’t, and you just need to be more mindful of those things and be more present for the people that you love and want to be present for. This extraordinary thing happened, and everybody I know feels like time has sped up in a way—it’s like there are twelve gears, suddenly, and we’re all going along in twelfth gear. I’m really trying to find a way of slowing that down. It’s not healthy; we can’t work at that speed. It’s something that young people in their teens and twenties are really struggling with—they don’t really know how to fit into this new world, which is about working from home and not really interacting with people in the same way. There’s an enormous amount of mental-health problems among young people because of what happened. And older people. It did an incredible amount of damage, and I think we all need to learn from this. We have a great responsibility to the younger generations to slow down. We’re all responsible for it, as we are for climate change and everything that we’re doing to our planet. It really,really needs to change.In terms of my work, I think it’s too early to tell,really. I normally work in periods—I’ll do certain things and then I’ll kind of move on. And I don’t feel like I’ve left that period and moved on to the next one yet. I’m trying to think about the next half of my life—no, not half but third, maybe [laughs]. The last third of my life.I suppose one of the things the pandemic made us all think about in a way that we never had to before is our mortality. covid certainly hasn’t disappeared. I hope people have learned some lesson sand we react differently in the future.

But, you know, as humans, we’re very stubborn.

Incredibly intelligent, but also incredibly stupid. We’ll just have to see.