Rachel Whiteread's solo exhibition at Belvedere21, which has travelled from the Tate Britain, presents a wide range of her sculptural practice since the early 1990s.

It is the first time such a show of her work has been put on in the city, where fittingly, special emphasis is given to her memorial for the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust. And reflects the many sides of an artist who says, "I take away from what is already there".

Untitled (House), 1993 (demolished on January 11, 1994) Concrete, wood and steel Commissioned by Artangel, sponsored by Beck’s. Photo: courtesy of the artist

It took Whiteread five years, and many nervous times, to make the Holocaust Memorial. Conceived as a library in stone, its books all turn outward and look identical. Whiteread met with resistance as she worked on it, not least because the political wind in the city changed during the process. Yet the 1993 Turner Prize winner is used to bumpy rides when it comes to public sculptures.

"I am happy with the memorial – just the way it happened was very painful," she said. But this happens a lot. If you make work that is not completely straightforward, and it deals with things that are charged and evoke a great amount of human emotion or political interest, it can become a very hot topic. When I came back to Vienna to prepare for this exhibition, the nationalist People's Party had just been elected. That is not an isolated event, it happens worldwide. So it is still important for the monument to be here."

Exhibition view © Belvedere, Vienna, 2018 Photo: Jurriaan Benschop

Isn't it a problem for the artist that works such as the Holocaust Memorial narrow the meaning of her art down to something so specific, even before people look at it? You could argue that this is against the spirit of art.

"When I had finished the memorial, every few months I was asked to think about doing a proposal related to something grim. But I didn't want to become the artist that makes memorials. I come from a family with a strong political awareness, which gave me moral codes, although I wouldn't say that I am a political artist in the traditional sense. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in the USA, I had been asked to think about a memorial. But the site is too loaded. Immediately after such a horrible event, you can’t react to it. These things need time; they are very difficult anyhow. America has an enormous legacy in art, and politically it is not an innocent country."

In 2016 Whiteread made Cabin – a piece in New York within eyeshot of the absent WTC. It is located on Discovery Hill at Governors Island, where she installed a cast taken from a New England style shed.

"It is a fantastic place; the cabin stands on the waterside in a municipal car-free park. I love to go there with the boat, including the idea of the journey. From the island you can look out, on one side you see the Statue of Liberty, and you turn your head and see the site of the former World Trade Center. The situation feels like someway between the Unabomber and Walden," she said.

The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was a nature-centred anarchist who lived secluded in a cabin in Montana and embarked on a 17-year bombing campaign in opposition to modern industrialised society and how it destroys nature, killing three people and seriously injuring many more in the process. Walden was a 19th-century book by the American Romantic poet Henry David Thoreau, reporting on the two years he spent in a hut near the water, having turned his back on city life. "Both the ideas of threat and poetry came together while working on Cabin. And also hope, promise, and life," Whiteread said.

Apart from monumental commissions, Whiteread makes sculptures that function as pieces by themselves. Many are on display in Vienna, such as a whole series of (Untitled) Torsos; casts in resin, bronze or plaster, each showing the inside of a hot-water bottle.

Much of Whiteread's works have a domestic origin, and she made her first sculptures based on the space within a wardrobe where she used to hide as a child. She has also made pieces based on the space under a bed or chair, making the immaterial space around objects the focus of her work.

The so-called shy sculptures are another type of work; they are situated in remote areas, where few people live, like the Gran Boathouse (2010) by the edge of a fjord in Norway. "There was a bank in Norway that wanted to make a collection of work, to help communities that do not have much culture. They did not want it in a building but in the landscape. They asked artists to make works in various places all over Norway. I said I wanted to do something with this small building. In this case, it was a smooth process, the mayor was very nice and people in town love it."

Is Whiteread, with her shy sculptures, seeing art ideally as a place for retreat, away from the conflicts and contradictions of the modern world?

"No, absolutely not," she said. Or rather, there are different sides to my work. One of my first projects, House, 1993, engaged with the history of housing development in London's East End in the Thatcher years. It was developed in the eye of public attention. I can really confront things and argue, and be angry, and then there is another part of me that is much more reflective, quiet and shy, and that likes to take walks in nature. I realised two works, Shacks, in the Mojave desert in California, near the Joshua Tree Park. I just love the idea that these things exist, even if they are largely unnoticed. I am hoping that the Boathouse or Shacks will become a bit like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the Lightning Field by Walter De Maria. People undertake a journey to see those works. When I make a few more, I might make a book or map, so you can go and see them all."

Following up on House, does the artist think that the rigorous Thatcher years, in which she grew up, logically anticipated the current situation in the UK, turning its back on Europe?

"What Thatcher did was ruthless to the country; she sold everything off. She developed the Canary Wharf in London, the financial district, and she wanted to establish a green corridor to connect this area to the city. For this, a group of Victorian houses had to disappear. Most of the houses were cleared; except one where this 65-year-old man lived, who refused to move until he got another Victorian house to move to. Eventually, they found him a new home and I could use the site temporarily to make House, which materialised the spaces inside the house. Years later David Cameron set the whole Brexit referendum up as a winning possibility for the Tory government. But when that did not work out, he wasn’t really interested anymore. He left an absolute mess behind to a prime minister who initially supported the UK remaining in the EU but is now in charge of seeing through Brexit. It is very complicated and depressing. At the same time, it is interesting to see how the whole process has reignited political interest in young people, who are massively supporting the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn." 

Even though Whiteread's pieces may look rough or reluctant to be pretty, and they are derived from existing situations, still it seems aesthetic choices are well considered and important.

"Of course, it is also about aesthetics; there is a creative and artistic language that I home down to the poetic. Room 101 is a good example. There was this room in the old BBC building, renovated about ten years ago. I was asked to think about making something, it had been George Orwell’s office, as he worked for the radio. Orwell hated it; he loathed bureaucracy. In his book 1984, this room 101 appears as the room where all terrible things happened. I took that idea and went to see the room. Back then it was completely full of electrical wires, galvanised metal, tubing, so I ripped all of that out, and got the room back to a state where I wanted it. It should look as if it had been bombed or attacked. So I had to make all of those choices and decisions before I started to cast it. Those are aesthetic choices."

At Trafalgar Square in London Whiteread made Monument (2001), which is essentially doubling the form of a high plinth that once had served as the base for a public sculpture, and since the late 1990s has been a space for an annual public art commission. More commonly known as Plinth, it looks somehow like a refusal to make a sculpture.

"It was a very expensive refusal," Whiteread says laughing. "It was something like a dumb response, I wanted to make something that is just there, and not there at the same time. Now the area is pedestrianised, but at that time the square was full of traffic, buses, people, it was a place for demonstrations, for parties, to sing in the New Year. To me, it felt interesting to make a pause, a stop. Where my things come from, is often a place of reverie. I take away from what is already there."

A leading thought underneath the works and a flipside of their poetry seems the awareness of death and things disappearing. "Death has always been something I am quite aware of, even though I would not call myself morbid. Probably being the child of parents who grew up in the Second World War, I was informed by it. My father was evacuated; he had a very sad beginning to his life, he was abused."

Miroslaw Balka, the Polish sculptor with whom Whiteread has exhibited in the past, once said that, in his view, materials have a soul. Does she feel that way too?

"Some do. I don't think resin has a soul. As a sculptural material, I love what it does in terms of light and heaviness. Maybe plaster has a soul. There is something about plaster that is incredibly special. It is really ancient; it comes from rock that is turned to powder, you add water it becomes liquid, heats up and dries, and pours the surface away from the object you are casting from – every minute detail. It is almost like alchemy. Shallow Breath (1988), a cast of the space under a bed, is the first piece I made after my father died. That is probably as close to what we are talking about."

Rachel Whiteread's exhibition is on show at Belvedere 21, Vienna, until 29 July.

Rachel Whiteread. Photo by Anita Corbin. Courtesy of the artist.