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Helen Chadwick

British Sculptor, Photographer, and Installation Artist

Helen Chadwick Photo
Born: May 18th, 1953
Died: March 15th , 1996
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Right from early art school, I wanted to use the body to create a sense of inner relationships with the audience.
Helen Chadwick

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

Biography of Helen Chadwick

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.”

Important Art by Helen Chadwick

Ego Geometria Sum: The Labours III (1986)

Ego Geometria Sum: The Labours III (1986)

Ego Geometria Sum is a series of ten laminated plywood sculptures resembling nostalgic objects that each relate to Chadwick's past, including an incubator, a pram (seen here), a bed, a piano and a tent. They have been covered with the artist's own photographic portraits re-creating poses from the journey through early life. In a highly complex and multi-layered feat of representation, the artist then photographed herself again, posing naked with the already photographically overlaid sculptures, titling the final piece as The Labours I-X; this work is the third in the series.

Chadwick made the series in the mid-1980s, during a period of transition in her practice, when she shifted away from overtly feminist sculptures and performance, towards more poetic and autobiographical imagery. The series runs chronologically through a number of formative events in the artist's life, from birth, through childhood, and up until age 30 in adulthood. In this particular photograph, the pram symbolises the artist's reflection back to being a 10-month-old baby, a moment in time further emphasised by the image of her body positioned in an infantile pose, which has been superimposed directly onto the sculpture.

Chadwick deliberately concealed her face in all of the imagery, both in the images on the sculptures and in the follow-up performances whereby she holds them. She does so likely in order to transform herself to become more universal and anonymous, allowing viewers to project their own experiences of childhood and memory onto the works. Throughout The Labours, initially titled Growing Pains, the artist seems to be struggling under the weight of her own personal experiences, relating to the Herculean "labour" and effort involved in reconciling and re-constructing challenging memories and experiences from the past, in order to grow and move forward.

Each sculpture in Ego Geometria Sum relates to the geometric pattern of the spiral, an attempt to create some structure and rational language around the complex (and often irrational) process of memory, growth, and change. Chadwick said, "I had to make Ego Geometria Sum as a way of trying to define the past, so that I could then use this as a springboard into something else. So Ego Geometria Sum is very classical in its philosophy in that self is reduced to ten supposedly immutable forms which represent the pattern of growth..."

Indeed, the "classical" aspect of the work, the fact it often appears to be a difficult physical task to hold up these sculptures, recalls the image of ancient female caryatides elegantly reaching to hold up the Acropolis. The American photographer Francesca Woodman also depicted herself as a caryatide. Woodman made a series of pictures called Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1980-81) whereby she attached self-portrait photographs to the pages of an existing geometry book. The intention was the same as that of Chadwick's, to borrow a clear, measurable, and already understood language in order to better comprehend the unfathomable, hidden, and mysterious self.

Carcass (1986)

Carcass (1986)

Carcass is a tall clear tower over two metres high, tightly packed with rotting domestic food scraps. In the build up to installing the work for the first time, Chadwick spent several months collecting waste from her neighbours in Beck Road, at the heart of East London. The sculpture plays with the dual relationship between repulsion and fascination, and by elevating usually disregarded "rubbish" to the status of being presented inside a tower and in a gallery; the artist entirely flips and transforms a typical worldview. She says loud and clear that it is in the overlooked/hidden/ignored where true meaning lies.

The work was originally installed as part of a solo show at London's Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), titled Of Mutability, which explored the natural processes of death and regeneration constantly happening all around us. The tower of compost took on an unprecedented life force throughout the exhibition which Chadwick later described, "...what I hadn't anticipated was the fact that there would be this fermentation process, particularly with the weight compacting the lower, older material down, and it was constantly percolating bubbles which you could watch kind of fizzing up. So ... it became more a metaphor for life." Later in the exhibition, when the glass cracked, gallery staff tried to remove the tower from the space sideways, but the lid blew off, spraying fermenting garbage across the whole gallery. It seems therefore that the work was uncontainable in many a direction.

The work clearly addresses themes of the "abject", or that which is "rejected" or "cast-off" in this sculpture, a popular subject for artists and writers from the 1980s and beyond. The subject of "abjection" was coined and developed in the writings of Julia Kristeva, who drew attention to normal parts of life, which are commonly repressed by polite society, such as bodily fluids and waste. This was a concept greatly inspired by the previous work of Georges Bataille. London based curator Mary Horlock has linked Kristeva's thinking with Chadwick's practice, writing, "The abject was a way of challenging social taboos and transgressing gender, and Chadwick's use of rotting matter, bodily fluids and butcher's meat all suggest disjunction and aberration in line with Kristeva's thinking."

In 2014, Carcass was again installed at Tate Liverpool and curator Gavin Delahaunty further considered the pleasurable, decadent, and hedonistic excesses of this sculpture, saying, "In the glass tower the material moves and unfolds; it has a life of its own as it starts to compost and it allows new life, or new organisms, to generate. When I look at it, there's a baroque feeling to the sculpture, in that it has drama, tension, energy, and a sort of sumptuousness."

Loop my Loop (1991)

Loop my Loop (1991)

Long strands of blonde hair are carefully intertwined with pig intestines in this back-lit, color cibachrome photograph of a constructed object. Chadwick plays with the duality of attraction and repulsion here; the hair typifies the classical archetype of female desire while the glossy pig intestines are a reminder of our basal, originary, and animal qualities. When delicately interwoven into a series of Baroque swirls, Chadwick reminds us of the intricate networks of raw and decorative aspects that make up our identities. The sculpture recalls an umbilical cord, and especially with the smears of blood, the potential suffocating possibilities of difficult birth. Although never having had her own child, this seems an important theme in Chadwick's oeuvre, also relating to Labours as the title of her previous work.

From the early 1990s onwards, Chadwick moved away from depicting her own body in her work - which she felt was still too closely tied to Feminism - in order to promote a more universal outlook. She said, "I felt compelled to use materials that were still bodily, that were still a kind of self-portrait, but did not rely on representation of my own body." She started to regularly work with fleshy meat and animal products as material and subject of her work, and as such invited us to consider a series of binary opposites including the grotesque versus the beautiful, and the body versus the mind.

Chadwick was heavily influenced by a number of contemporary writers at this time, including French intellectual and literary figure George Bataille, who wrote about our innate attraction to the repulsive in Visions of Excess. Glasgow based writer and curator David Hopkins points out the relationships that a work such as Loop my Loop has to wider culture, arguing, "Distinctions upholding the human above the animal no longer held. However Chadwick made such transgressions playful, celebratory." He also points out her relationship to the mass media, stating, "(she) answered a yearning for experiential authenticity in the face of an increasingly mediated reality." Such ideas had a profound influence on the Young British Artists throughout the 1990s, most notably Damien Hirst's infamous animals in formaldehyde.

The work is also closely related to some Surrealist sculpture, including Mimi Parent's Maitresse (1996), a golden plait that has become a punishing whip, and to Mona Hatoum's Corps Etranger (1994), the record of an endoscopic journey through the artist's own body. Finally, and humorously "Loop my loop" sounds like a sexual request, something playful, private, and mysterious that only an artist would have the courage to reflect upon in the public domain.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Helen Chadwick
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Helen Chadwick
Influences on Artist
Friends
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    Mick Hartney
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    David Notarius
Helen Chadwick
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends
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    Maureen Paley
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Helen Chadwick

Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie

"Helen Chadwick Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
Available from:
First published on 16 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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