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Helen Chadwick - Biography and Legacy

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

Biography

Childhood

Helen Chadwick was born in a quiet Croydon suburb of London. Her mother was Greek and her father was from East London; the two had met in Athens during the Second World War. In 1946, the couple moved to a bungalow in Croydon where her father earnestly began a new career as an estate agent. According to Chadwick, she was a fragile baby born prematurely, and she revisited the psychological impact this experience had on her through autobiographical artworks made during the 1980s.

The wild, unspoilt territory of Littleheath Wood was situated behind the family home and here Chadwick developed a close affinity with nature, making mud pies, wandering in the woods, and later bringing home a motley crew of stray animals to keep as pets, including a ferret and a goose, much to the dismay of the neighbours. She grew up with one older brother who would later become a sheep farmer in Sussex. From time to time they would all visit her mother's large, boisterous family in the Greek mountain village of the Peloponnese, who would lavish the young artist with attention.

At school in Croydon, Chadwick continued her deep connection with nature, excelling in biology and geography, but somewhat surprisingly, failing O-Level Art (now called GCSE and the standard examination that 16 year olds in England take). In one school report, her art teacher described Chadwick's wayward creativity; "Helen has an independent nature and has worked in her individual manner, but she needs to concentrate for longer periods." Chadwick's mother frequently took her daughter to art exhibitions in London where she came across work by the great masters of Modern Art including René Magritte and Francis Bacon. As much as she enjoyed the art, Chadwick was particularly fascinated by her mother's reactions to the work that their saw together; reactions oscillated between attraction and repulsion, and as such the outings may be partly responsible for Chadwick's interest in duality.

As a teenager Chadwick secured a place to study archaeology and anthropology at Exeter University, but before setting off she experienced a change of heart. With her parents recently separated, partly in a bid to stay closer to her mother, she chose instead to enrol for an art foundation course at the local Croydon College.

Early Training and Work

Whilst a student at Croydon College, the young artist quickly discovered that her talents lay less in traditional drawing and painting, and more in the generation of unique and eccentric ideas. Already secure with a working language that would develop over time and become more sophisticated, Chadwick remembered making curious assemblages in unconventional materials such as jelly, chocolate, and liquorice. The ambitious young artist even garnered a positive reception from the local press, with some comparing her work to the international Fluxus movement, an artistic attitude with strong affiliation to Dada before it, which had indeed influenced her ideas.

In 1973 Chadwick accepted a place to study for a full-time art degree at Brighton Polytechnic. Described as a strong character with a distinctive, punk image she quickly developed a notorious reputation, amassing followers and fans. Chadwick's work became even more experimental as she worked across media in film, sculpture, performance and video, uniting her ideas with an obsession for Body Art. Ian Potts, her former tutor, later recalled, "Her works were very experimental but she was in charge of the experiments." Looking back on this time, Chadwick stated, "Traditional media were never dynamic enough ...right from early on in art school, I wanted to use the body to create a set of inter-relationships with the audience."

Chadwick's degree show in 1976 represented a culmination of these ideas; it was radically feminist in subject and also demonstrated the scope of her ambitions as an artist. She staged a half hour performance titled Domestic Sanitation, in which she and three friends wore skin-like latex costumes and exaggerated, uncomfortable shoes to perform activities associated with women including hovering, dusting and gynaecological probing. One of her lecturers, filmmaker Mick Hartney, was so impressed by Chadwick's idea that he offered to help film the performance.

Riding on the success of her degree show, Chadwick went on to study an MA at Chelsea School of Art in London the following year. Along with a large group of bohemians including sculptor Debbie Duffin and the musician Genesis P-Orridge, she set up home as a squatter in London's semi-derelict Beck Road, a row of Victorian terraced houses originally intended for demolition. The sense of community developed by the artists that moved to this street was so strong that they collectively persuaded the Inner London Education Authority to start renting rather than destroying the houses. As a result, the place became a busy hive of home studios where artists would share materials, techniques and ideas, developing close familial ties.

By the late 1970s Chadwick's mother had returned to Athens and her older brother had moved to Sussex. Alone in London, Beck Road became her new home, and the one in which she would stay in for the rest of her career. In 1978, the soon to be influential London gallerist, Maureen Paley moved to Beck Road while still a student at the Royal College of Art. She and Chadwick quickly became friends, and Paley later recalled her first impressions, saying, "Helen was already a star. She had her Louise Brooks hairstyle and red lips. I said, 'Who's that girl?'." In Chadwick's first London show, In the Kitchen, Chadwick persuaded Paley and several other friends to wear canvas costumes based on kitchen appliances, expressing the popular feminist concerns of the time and critiquing the stereotypical role of the woman performing domestic chores. Paley later converted her home on Beck Road into the gallery space Interim Art, before relocating to Dering Street, Central London in 1990, and then to Herald Street in Bethnal Green in 1999, where it remains today. The gallery changed its name from Interim Art to Maureen Paley in 2004 in celebration of 20 years since opening.

Mature Period

Throughout the 1980s Chadwick continued to live and work within Beck Road's thriving artistic community, where artists developed a "make do and mend" attitude, living cheaply and supporting each other with art and redecorating projects, even removing walls and floors from their properties to make them more suitable as studio spaces. In 1985, Chadwick took up a teaching post at Goldsmiths in London. Her art shifted away from agit-prop Feminism towards greater autobiographical imagery, exemplified in Ego Geometria Sum (1986), a series of plywood models based on objects from her past such as a bed, piano or tent, that had "held" her in some way, that were in turn coated in photographs of these objects and of Chadwick naked.

In 1986, The Oval Court was shown at London's Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), an installation combining photocopies of Chadwick's writhing naked body with various fruits and animals against a vivid, Yves Klein Blue backdrop. In the same space she displayed Carcass, a glass tower of rotting garden and domestic detritus gathered from her neighbours at Beck Road. When the tower split and exploded ten gallons of fermenting brown slime into the gallery, Chadwick attracted a frenzy of media attention; the following year she was the first female nominee for the prestigious UK Turner Prize.

In this same transformative year, Chadwick was offered a teaching post at Central St Martins in London, which she accepted and maintained until 1995. In 1990, while installing a show at the photography festival in Houston, Texas, Chadwick first met the local art technician and artist David Notarius and the pair fell in love. Notarius moved swiftly to Beck Road he and Chadwick were married a year later. Together, the couple developed Chadwick's house on Beck Road into a home studio where they could both live and work cheaply. Chadwick took on further teaching posts at Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art and Tiffany Black, one of her former students remembers, "She was a figurehead." Her reputation as an artist continued to grow with commissions, residencies, and sales throughout Britain and Europe. In 1991 Chadwick and Notarius made the sculptural installation Piss Flowers together in Canada, with both urinating into the deep Canadian snow and making plaster casts of the cavities left behind.

Late Period

In 1993, Chadwick prepared her most ambitious solo show to date, Effluvia, held at the Serpentine Gallery in London. There she exhibited some of her most important works including Piss Flowers and the large chocolate fountain Cacao. The show attracted a huge amount of attention from the public and the press, catapulting her to a level of international stardom for which she was not quite prepared. She spent large amounts of time fixing technical problems that happened at this seminal exhibition, including unclogging the sediment in Cacao by sticking her arms into the hot goo.

Notarius recalls a time at home with Chadwick when a film crew began shooting an adaptation of Jude the Obscure on Beck Road and the telephone line was broken, saying, "We weren't getting any calls. It was great... A lot of the time she'd be working and she'd say, 'I wish I could just drop all this and go to Greece.'"

True to her desires, and as an escape, Chadwick bought a ruined house above her mother's childhood village in the Greek Peloponnese and she started to frequently stay there in the summer months. Chadwick's former lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic, filmmaker Mick Hartney, remembers bumping into her there while on holiday with his family, saying, "I saw a side of her that was quite unexpected. She would take my youngest son Tom down to the beach every afternoon and tell him a Greek myth. He was besotted."

Back in London, Chadwick was busier than ever, continuing with projects and commissions. She took on a residency in 1995 at the assisted conception unit at King's College Hospital in London; she was taking photographs of IVF embryos that had been rejected for implantation, and as result started to produce a series called Unnatural Selection. Just days after finishing the series, Chadwick died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. She was at the height of her career, leaving behind shocked and bereaved loved ones, and a phenomenal legacy.

Legacy

Helen Chadwick was a pioneering British artist who expanded the boundaries of Body Art - from the principally performative and shouting to be heard practice of the 1970s - towards a more intellectual, complex, and sensuous language. Drawing upon universal, but also deeply personal languages, she explored the meeting and union of various dualities, including pleasure and disgust and male and female and in doing so pushed her work into unchartered territory, which remains worthy of further research.

Chadwick is importantly recognised by many as a forerunner to the Young British Artists generation that emerged throughout the mid- to late-1990s in London. Her subversive use of the female nude, in which she says, "I was the subject and the object and the author," has had a long lasting effect on contemporary art, filtering through into work by artists as diverse as Rebecca Warren, Sarah Lucas, Jenny Saville and Tracey Emin, all of whom upturn the acceptable gender norms of femininity.

Chadwick is widely revered by artists, critics, and curators alike, often for her use of highly visceral and unconventional materials including chocolate, urine, rotting rubbish, and animal innards. Aside from subject matter, her experimental methods and the literal "stuff" that she used to make things had a profound impact on some of the UK's most famous artists. Whilst the element of shock in the work of Chadwick is always more of a by product of the artist's workings out, as well as a reaction to her choice of material, other artists were inspired to place shock value right at the centre of their artistic projects. As such the sensationalist figures including Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, and Chris Ofili, soon followed, all pushing the boundaries of body art to examine and consider audience response and reactions.

Most Important Art

Quotes

"Right from early art school, I wanted to use the body to create a sense of inner relationships with the audience."
"I've never felt a sense of embarrassment or shame about the body. I seem to have more ease about it than others. I've always thought of the face as being more problematic as the face of personality. Whereas the body is a much more comfortable house."
"As you grow older you are more conscious of mortality. And of time passing, of pleasure turning into grief. And of the two being inextricable, one from the other."
"I'm disappointed that a false rationalism is used as a stick with which to measure what I'm doing. When I am looking to cross the taboos that have been instigated. I hate being hauled up as an example of negative women's work."
"I dimly recollect childhood dreams about tubs of excrement and the chocolate fountain is related to these. Chasing dreams, dredged up from the unconscious, is the starting point for creating something implausible.
"A work often begins as an impossible half-whim and you say: 'I'm going to make that happen.'"
"If I'm working with certain materials the squeamishness that I have managed to suspend during the day will come out in my dreams. I stitched a lot of little lambs' tongues together for one piece and the physical feeling of digging the needle through, trying not to tear the flesh, pervaded my sleep for a few nights afterwards. It was a rough roller-coaster ride and I would wake up exhausted."
"Most of my ideas for works crystallise in that reverie between sleep and wakefulness, when you idle into neutral and follow funny little chains of thought that flow."
"I've resisted the temptation to record my dreams. As soon as you try to remember them you start embellishing. I just let them all seep, unprocessed, into the same soup that everything else is fed into."
"A lot of my work relates to sex ... How to describe sexual pleasure in retrospect - and I want to - is an amazing problem. It would be farcical to try to express those states where the mind and senses are all scrambled up together - that you can also feel when eating or going to the loo - in spoken language. Art is one way to explore that synaesthesia of experience."
"I don't set much store by a psychoanalytical perspective on dreams. I try not to give them any superstitious significance, although my mother was famous in the East End of London for her ability to read dreams."
"...the quality of my sleep varies enormously. Images of things I'm making are scrambled together with strange little fractional incidents which are generally things going wrong. I wake up frequently with a cloud of dreams around me into which I fall again."
"You cannot spend a significant portion of your artistic life making explicit nude revelations about yourself without becoming aware of your work's ability to excite. Not if you poke about in the dimly chartered corners of the id where sex drive, childhood memory, sense of place, the appetite for security, fear of dying and a host of other subcutaneous human motor forces squelch around the subconscious like mud wrestlers."
"I'm not playing with fire. I'm playing with what has rarely been used as an arena for art."
"I'm trying to make images of a kind of physical identification of the self through exploring physical matter - and by implication mortality, desire, all those kinds of words, all that kind of vague region - because it's a kind of space that none of us can really know for ourselves and because, for many people, it's a troubled terrain."
"I want to catch the body at the moment when it's about to turn. Before it starts to decay, to empty."

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