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Helen Chadwick Photo

Helen Chadwick Artworks

British Sculptor, Photographer, and Installation Artist

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

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 - Tate Collection



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 - Tate Collection


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

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

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