Helen Chadwick

British Sculptor, Photographer, and Installation Artist

Born: May 18, 1953
Died: March 15, 1996
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.


The Life 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.”

Progression of Art


Ego Geometria Sum: The Labours III

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.

Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom



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."

Organic waste and acrylic or glass - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Loop my Loop

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.

Cibachrome transparency, glass, steel, electrical apparatus - Richard Saltoun Gallery, London


Piss Flowers

Twelve white, flower-like forms sprout upward from the ground resembling modified mushrooms, or the sites where magical stalagmites form. Each "flower" has a flat, plate-like surface, with one central column surrounded by rocky, uneven markings, mounted onto a pedestal shaped like a hyacinth bulb. The sculptures appear to grow from the earth bringing life, but also, interestingly appear as grave markings. With sexual energy abound due to the erect central protrusions; descriptions of an organism as a 'little death' comes to mind and the so-called opposing forces of pleasure and pain are united. Furthermore, the piece also exposes once again the recurring theme of the tower already seen in both The Labours and in Carcass.

Chadwick made the work in collaboration with her husband, David Notarius, while undertaking a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada in 1991. Both artists took it in turns to urinate into the same section of freshly laid deep Canadian snow and then Chadwick made casts of the cavities left behind. She explained, "We heaped up piles of snow and first I would piss in it and then he would piss around my mark. I made casts of the indentations which were eventually exhibited as bronze sculptures."

On completion, each flower contains the traces left by the two artists working in harmony together. Perhaps to defy preconceived ideas, the central, phallic column was in fact made by Chadwick's urine, whilst the softer, bumpy marks surrounding the central column were made by Notarius; this is a scientific result occurring due to the fact that female urine is hotter on expulsion. Therefore with a cheeky irreverence, and in a very original way, Chadwick subverts binary gender divisions and upturns traditional male / female stereotypes. The flowers themselves contain both masculine and feminine elements, which Chadwick believes are within all of us. She playfully referred to Piss Flowers as, "Vaginal towers with male skirt / gender bending water sport." This is true of an actual flower also, that the male and female reproductive organs are fittingly combined.

In her lectures and essays Chadwick often made reference to Herculine Barbin, a 19th century hermaphrodite whose memoir was published in 1980. Chadwick cited the importance of Barbin's text in highlighting the societal need for a more flexible, liberal, and accepting attitude towards fluid gender roles. Such ideas were radical and influential, feeding through into the "ladette" culture of the 1990s, particularly Sarah Lucas' unique brand of self-portraiture.

Bronze, cellulose lacquer - Richard Saltoun Gallery, London


Wreath to Pleasure No 12

This richly opulent, luminous photograph is part of series of thirteen artworks titled Wreaths to Pleasure. Each piece within the series takes the same circular form, documenting a hidden world of sensual pleasures. Dried flowers have been arranged into sexually suggestive vaginal shapes and then suspended in a range of pleasant and poisonous liquids including Windolene, Fairy Liquid, Swarfega, germolene, and tomato juice. The fluidity of the bubbling liquid conflicts with the solidity of dried flowers, and once again Chadwick seamlessly combines life, death, and spirituality.

These circular, aqueous arrangements resemble biological or cellular material seen through the round hole of a microscope from above. They also recall Judy Chicago's influential Dinner Party piece (1979) and present the female genital form within a similar round oracle, designed at once to protect like a shield and show great powers like the orbs of sun and moon. This said, the forms within are ambiguous, not obviously female at all, but more of a dual sex combination of genders. This approach reveals Chadwick's general openness and curiosity towards gender fluidity. The works also reflect on the artist's ongoing fascination with flowers, which she loves greatly "because they are the sexual organs of plants, and people conveniently forget that."

Chadwick herself referred to the wreaths as "bad blooms", which are both seductive and repellent, combining dry and wet surfaces into unusual forms that are strangely familiar yet unsettling. The circular shape is suggestive of the infinite cycle of nature constantly regenerating, whilst the fact that the works are called "wreaths" makes an obvious association with death and mourning. London-based gallerist Richard Saltoun writes, "Chadwick examines the notions of desire and repulsion, life and death, beauty and ugliness by analysing - almost with a scientific approach - the fluidity of our existence and the matter that constitutes it." Such unusual combinations of "non-art" materials resemble Karla Black's excessive, hedonistic works, which bring together substances including make-up, soap, cellophane, and plaster into vastly scaled installations. Chadwick however, does tend to use natural materials and as such her work is better aligned with the likes of Anya Gallacio and Janine Antoni.

Photograph, Cibachrome print on aluminium faced MDF in a glazed powder coated steel frame - Richard Saltoun Gallery, London



In 1994, Chadwick set up a hot, bubbling fountain of molten chocolate in the Serpentine Gallery titled Cacao. The huge circular container was filled up to near waist height, with a pole in the centre pushing the chocolate and the air through and around in a continuous cycle. Some viewers made a comparison between the huge vat of chocolate and excrement, but Chadwick suggested otherwise, saying, "I wasn't intending it to look like excrement. It's meant to look like chocolate ... and maybe clay, or primal soup."

Cacao is sensory and immersive, filling the gallery space with an intense aroma and the sound of thick, gloopy bubbles rising to the surface. Much has also been made of the spouting, phallic form in the centre of the work and its sexual allusions, suggesting the overwhelming powers of libido and desire. Indeed, Chadwick is not the first artist to give a rotating chocolate machine sexual connotation. The artist Marcel Duchamp explored a similar theme in his repeated 1913 drawings of Chocolate Grinders, seen in confectioner's shops in France.

As with much of Chadwick's work, initial pleasures seem to be quickly drowned in indulgence and excess; here the sickly sweet, hot liquid becomes overpowering and starts to induce nausea, as might greed, gluttony and other hedonistic indulgences. Inevitably comparisons can be made with Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which similarly teeters on a tightrope between danger and desire. Resembling also a church font, like those that contain consecrated water for baptism, the environment created also becomes potentially religious or ritualistic, and certainly spiritual. Such is an interpretation further supported by the oracle-shaped, iconic, framed pieces on the walls surrounding the installation.

Indeed, the font could even be the one to drink from to achieve eternal life and beauty, like in a fairy tale. If slightly far fetched, the endlessly regenerative nature of the work though does echo themes of continuity and growth present in many of Chadwick's other works, suggesting that desire and an active libido are essential ingredients in the continuity of life. Chadwick described Cacao aptly as, "a pool or primal matter, sexually indeterminate, in a perpetual state of flux".

Chocolate, aluminium, steel, electrical apparatus, 300 (diameter) x 85 cm - Serpentine Gallery, London, 1994, Momart Ltd, London

Biography of Helen Chadwick


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.

The Legacy of Helen Chadwick

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.

Similar Art

Sex Obsession Food Obsession Macaroni Infinity Nets & Kusama (1962)

The Dinner Party (1979)

Grater Divide (2002)

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Cite article
Correct article