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Helen Chadwick

British Sculptor, Photographer, and Installation Artist

Helen Chadwick Photo
Movements and Styles: Body Art, Performance Art, Feminist Art

Born: May 18th, 1953

Died: March 15th , 1996

"Right from early art school, I wanted to use the body to create a sense of inner relationships with the audience."

Summary of Helen Chadwick

Helen Chadwick was a speedy forerunner in the slippery realm of corporeal women's art. With an impressive career sadly cut short by an untimely death, Chadwick was engaged throughout with unusual subjects and materials. She did not shy away from any aspect of being human - not even the anus, piss, or the tongue - and thus revealed her interest in the "abject" and in the presentation of aspects of bodily life usually considered inappropriate for public viewing. Chadwick worked frequently with raw meat to highlight the notion of woman as a consumable product, and to negotiate the difficult concept of truth in contradiction, whereby no pleasure comes without pain, and no birth without death. She even, towards that end of her career began to investigate IVF, a topic only recently, and decades later, revisited by artists.

Overall, Chadwick was a clear feminist, feeling "cast off" by patriarchal culture. Alongside the likes of Marina Abramovic and Mona Hatoum and continuing the good work of Carolee Schneemann and Judy Chicago, she was determined to expose an all but lost woman's view of the world. Like Hatoum, Chadwick worked across multiple media before such fluidity of practice was commonplace. Her work can be shocking, but not intentionally as with the likes of the next generation of British artists, more simply because her interests made it so. Interestingly, Chadwick taught in the most reputable London art schools between 1985-1995, and as such had an acute influence on the emerging generation of Young British Artists (YBAs), and most particularly, on Sarah Lucas.

Key Ideas

Chadwick was on a mission to dislodge the imposition of idealised femininity, to reject the constructed and prescribed notions of gender, and instead to consider the union and merging of opposites, male and female included. In the Kitchen (1977) was a performance whereby the artist dressed up as a series of home electrical appliances, including an oven and a washing machine, and in turn successfully showed the ridiculous and restrictive impact of living by a rigid, gender-binary system.
Chadwick was an intellectual artist, captivated in particular by the idea of the "abject" coined by French theorist, Julia Kristeva. She was interested in the breakdown between self and other, combining the strange and the familiar, and in marrying attraction to repulsion. As such, the artist fittingly explored a lifelong interest in how to depict the complex and boundless bodily experience of sex. She often depicted the female labia framed in a circular, oracle-like form much like the plates served at Judy Chicago's Dinner Party (1979). In Chadwick's 1992-93 series Wreath to Pleasure, she seamlessly combines, sex, death, and spirituality.
Chadwick's recurrent use of perishable and edible materials to make work, for example chocolate, rotting food matter, and meat, aligns her practice to the likes of fellow British artist, Anya Gallacio, and to the American, Janine Antoni, as well as to the older feminist generation devoted to the exposure of flesh and our innards. Both Gallacio and Antoni have worked repeatedly with chocolate, and Antoni interestingly also with urine. An interest in oral pleasures, as well as in the freedom and fetishtisic aspects of fluid release are all explored in Chadwick's career as she courageously gives her private libido a public audience.
We see the legacies of Surrealism at work strongly in the career of Helen Chadwick. In her work, Adore; Abhor (1994) Chadwick displays two vaginal shaped fur covered plaques on the wall, one completed with the single word, 'Adore', and the other with 'Abhor'. The piece strongly recalls the work of Meret Oppenheim's Object (1936), the fur teacup. The seductive and sexual power of hair as in Chadwick's Loop my Loop (1991) sculpture was an important recurring motif for the Surrealists. Furthermore, the repulsive feature of entwining pig's intestine with golden locks aligns her practice in particular with the dissent faction of this movement, with the philosophical vision of Georges Bataille.
Chadwick's work often has a performance and/or prop based element to it, and as such she grappled with how to preserve and document ideas that could otherwise disappear with time. Alongside a host of other impressive performance artists active during the 1970s and beyond - including Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta, and Francesca Woodman - Chadwick successfully made photographs of sculptures and encounters with natural objects, which did not have the same intensity of meaning and power in the aftermath as they did in the actual moment that they were conceived. In turn, there is a lesson in Chadwick's work that we cannot really capture a life always in flux, only make our best attempts.
The witty and original sculptures <i>Piss Flowers</i> from the Jupiter Artland, Bonnington, Edinburgh

When critic Waldemar Januszczak met Helen Chadwick on the eve of the Turner Prize in 2004, he said: “She is not at first sight a woman you would suspect of unsettling sensuality and compulsive soul-bearing, a Latin mistress perhaps or a geography teacher, clever and a trifle stern.”

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