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Artist Rachel Whiteread, the first woman to win The Turner Prize

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Brighton alumni, Rachel Whiteread was the first woman to win the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993. Her work is described by Tate as ‘minimalism with a heart’.

Rachel Whiteread, from the series 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin

Born in Ilford, London in 1963, Rachel Whiteread was influenced by her father’s fascination with urban architecture, whom she credits with enabling her to ‘look up.’ Her mother, an artist working at home, illustrated for Rachel the intersection of home and studio, life and art.

From 1982 to 1985 Rachel studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic, now the University of Brighton. She went onto study sculpture at the Slade School of Art in London. As a postgrad young artist, Rachel spoke of living hand-to-mouth. Creativity was provided through objects found on the street, at home or bought for next to nothing second-hand. Rachel explains, ‘they were things that were very much a part of my everyday life and language.’ An example of this are the casts of hot water bottles made during this period – an ordinary, everyday item, heightened to poetic understanding of the intimate and physical relationship between inanimate objects and humans.

The 1980s were marked by high levels of homelessness exemplified by Cardboard City at Waterloo, London. The artist said that the objects she worked with, ‘felt to me like lost human beings,’ that they had, ‘the presence of destitution and sorrow,’ which reflected the situation of homeless people.

Her project Untitled (House) is a response to the demolition of older London housing for redevelopment. For Rachel it highlighted the, ‘ludicrous policy of knocking down homes […] and building badly designed tower blocks which themselves have to be knocked down after twenty years.’ Untitled (House) was a life size cast of a condemned terraced house in the East End of London. It took Rachel and her assistants three months to create a concrete cast of the entire inside of the three-story building. So heavy was it, that it had to be exhibited at the original house location. The artist makes solid the space which we move around and inhabit that is invisible to the naked eye. The piece’s power was further amplified as it stood alone while the housing around it was demolished.

In poetic defiance, on the same day that the local authority finalised demolition of the work, after a heated debate to allow it to remain, Rachel Whiteread won the 1993 Turner Prize. She was the first woman to win this prestigious award, of which her portrait celebrates in Anita Corbin’s 100 First Women Portraits exhibition.

The sculpture was destroyed in January 1994, but the artist had made a significant impression on the art world. It has been stated [about Whiteread] that, ‘nothing remains, but the indelible impact on British art and sculpture going forward.’

In continuation of work created in public spaces, the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial a.k.a. Nameless Library was unveiled in 2000 in Vienna. It is a cast of an inverted library. During the four-year process, the Holocaust was still not being taught in Austrian schools. The sculpture sits in a square in the city’s old Jewish ghetto. Art historian and scholar Whitney Chadwick states the large number of the memorial’s contents which are inaccessible reference the large number of Holocaust victims and their life stories, now absent, invisible and closed. Chadwick describes the work as a ‘counterweight to a long tradition of heroicizing monuments.’ Like Untitled (House), this sculpture acknowledges absences of humans and the intimate interaction with valued objects and spaces.

Rachel Whiteread was awarded a CBE in 2006 and in 2019 a Damehood in recognition to her continued services to art. Her work is held in many notable institution collections including; Tate, London, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Writer: Lisa Hinkins, MA Student, Museum Gallery Explainer and artist.