British Sculptor, Photographer, and Installation Artist
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.
- 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.
Biography of Helen Chadwick
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 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 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."
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
Useful Resources on Helen Chadwick
- Helen ChadwickOur PickBy Mary Horlock, Eva Martisching and Mark Sladen
- Helen Chadwick: Constructing Identities Between Art and Architecture (International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art)Our PickBy Stephen Walker
- Helen Chadwick's "Ego Geometria Sum": a BiographyBy Lisa Le Feuvre and Leonie O'Dwyer
- Something the Matter: Helen Chadwick, Cathy de Monchaux, Cornelia ParkerBy Louisa Buck
- The Art of Helen Chadwick [DVD]By Illuminations Studio
- Of MutabilityBy Helen Chadwick
- Art history: Artists look at contemporary BritainBy Helen Chadwick
- Effluvia: Helen ChadwickBy Andrea Schlieker
- Stilled LivesOur PickBy Marina Warner
- Helen Chadwick: Wreaths to PleasureOur PickBy David Notarius, Sophie Raikes, Marina Warner
- Helen Chadwick: In Side UpBy Shelagh Keeley
- Body Visual: Helen Chadwick, Letizia Galli, Donald Rodney
- What a Swell Party it WasOur PickBy Andy Beckett / The Independent / June 2 1996
- Invading Your SpaceBy Waldemar Januszczak / The Guardian / November 18 1987
- Helen Chadwick Exhibition Cements Her Influence On The YBAsArtlyst / May 13 2013
- Gorgeously Repulsive - Helen Chadwick at The BarbicanBy Camelia Gupta / Culture24 / June 3 2004
- Helen ChadwickBy Tom Morton / Oct 10 2004 / Frieze Magazine
- Introducing Helen Chadwick's Provocative Art to a New GenerationBy Tara Aghdashloo / Bullett Magazine / June 4, 2013
- Helen Chadwick, Henry Moore Institute, LeedsBy Robert Clark / The Guardian / Mar 12 2004
- Vanitas II, Helen ChadwickBy Jonathan Jones / Oct 13 2001
- Helen Chadwick, Barbican, LondonBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / May 21 2004
- Helen Chadwick: Changing the Landscape of SculptureOur PickBy Sue Hubbard / Contemporary Arts no. 13 / November 1996
- Helen Chadwick ObituaryBy Louisa Buck / The Independent / March 18 1996
- Edinburgh Festival Exhibition: Helen Chadwick, Portfolio GalleryBy IaIn Gale / The Independent / August 28 1996
- Bubble, bubble, boil and trouble: Helen Chadwick's new show is a melting pot of chocolate and Germolene and bodily fluidsBy Tom Lubbock / The Independent / July 26 1994
- Helen Chadwick, Interim ArtBy Natasha Edwards / Artforum Magazine / January 1990
- Show people: Blood and chocolate: Helen ChadwickBy Geraldine Bedell / The Independent / August 21 1994
- Iwona Blazwick, director of Whitechapel Gallery, profiles installation artist and photographer Helen Chadwick, whose self-portraits interrogated the frailty of the human body.Our Pick
- Louisa Buck chairs a panel discussion examining the legacy and influence of British artist Helen Chadwick (1953-1996), with speakers including artists Cathy de Monchaux and Gavin Turk, curator Frances Morris and writer Marina Warner. This event marks the 20th anniversary of Chadwick's untimely deathOur Pick
- The Making of Helen Chadwick's Carcass, 1986, Tate, 2014
- Chadwick discusses the processes and ideas behind making Carcass, 1986