In 1993, an artwork by Rachel Whiteread was the subject of the biggest scandal in British art since the notorious Tate bricks affair of 1976, when the gallery was publicly pilloried for having squandered public funds on a sculpture by Carl Andre consisting of 120 firebricks. Ms Whiteread’s work was House, the concrete cast of a condemned terraced dwelling in the East End of London, which she had made under the aegis of the arts commissioner Artangel. House stood for only 80 days, but it was a remarkable lightning rod for debate, attacked and defended with equal fervour. The Liberal Democrat leader of Tower Hamlets council at the time denounced it with particular enthusiasm, calling it “utter rubbish” and “a little entertainment for the gallery-going classes of Hampstead”.
Others, though, greeted it as a masterpiece and called for it to have a permanent life (which was not the artist’s intention), comparing its destruction to the iconoclasm of the English Reformation. One critic wrote lyrically of the cast’s uncanny ability to draw the viewer into “the world of the photographic negative, with its phantom-like reversal of known fact; the world that Alice enters through her looking glass; the world that lurks behind the molten silver mirror in Cocteau’s Orphée”. Meanwhile, it was sucked into arguments about housing and the fabric of London, about the British and their relationship to art, about political extremism and multiculturalism.
The debate intensified that November as Ms Whiteread was named the recipient of the Turner prize – a month before House was demolished. Her win, and the media attention focused upon her, was the watershed moment for the award: it transformed the annual event from polite art world contest into colourful national spectacle, ushering in the era when the prize would be won by a succession of celebrated (to some, notorious) British artists born in the 1960s – among them Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon, Chris Ofili and Gillian Wearing.
Looking back, as Tate Britain unveils a retrospective of Ms Whiteread’s work to date, the events of the winter of 1993-94 seem as distant as if they were a story about the Victorians. It is unthinkable – in the era of a well-established rhetoric about cultural regeneration, about the importance of art to communities and individuals – that a sculpture of this type would not now be greeted enthusiastically, or at least with equanimity, by local politicians. Ms Whiteread’s House was, it turned out, the harbinger of a whole generation of new and striking public artworks from Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North (1998) to the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, host to a cavalcade of striking works beginning with Mark Wallinger’s poignant Ecce Homo of 1999. The museum-going public, meanwhile, developed a taste for the novel and the monumental through Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall commissions, such as the sodium-coloured sun and Turner-esque fog of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003).
Three decades’ worth of Ms Whiteread’s work, assembled with grace and harmony in the galleries of Tate Britain, vindicates the few wise seers of the early 1990s who predicted that her sculpture would have great longevity and would take its place in the canon. Her sculpture is formally rigorous, deeply intelligent and remarkably consistent in its plumbing of the possibilities of the cast object. More than that, though, it is capacious and generous, allowing viewers’ imaginations into its world, inviting rather than banishing associations and connections. If, in 1993, House offered an encoded commentary on ideas of home and homelessness, then Ms Whiteread’s work still has a political bite. Her casts of rucked-up mattresses and leaning doors present a reminder of the language of the street, of the urban deprivations that have not left us – have perhaps become more acute – a quarter of a century after House.
Ms Whiteread’s sculpture, it turns out, was always thoughtful, grown-up and serious. Now the British public has caught up with it.