Inside Out

By Stella Santacatterina, 9 February 2005

Helen Chadwick’s interest in the flux of being and the blurring of multiple boundaries made her far more than a precursor to the yBa’s. Stella Santacatterina reviews her recent retrospective at the Barbican

Helen Chadwick sadly died very suddenly in 1996 at the young age of 43 and at the moment an artist usually enters their mature phase. The Barbican’s retrospective therefore is a homage to the work she achieved in her short lifetime, as well as a testament to the extent of her influence on the following generation of artists. The retrospective brings together some 70 of her most significant works, unfolding like a film of her artistic life as one moves from room to room, and in which the feminine aspect of her creativity emerges through an oscillation between a conceptual tightness and a softer, more erotic sensibility.

Her work investigated with didactic rigour the ambiguous relationship between nature and culture, between creativity and the quotidian, between a domestic and a universal dimension, between the sacred and the profane. Her themes are not easy ones to approach; feminine identity and its ancestral link with ritual and the preservation of the species can too easily risk falling into the commonplace. Chadwick, however, approached them with an apparent lightness of touch and a playful provocation. From this attitude emerged her ‘feminine thought’ which, in contradistinction to the masculine, is always a contextual thought because it extends itself in every direction and takes into account multiple, cultural and eclectic social situations. This all-embracing tendency was also reflected in her experimentation across a wide range of material and processual possibilities, from the inorganic to the organic, from sculpture and photography to multimedia installations.

Early work of the first half of the ’80s, such as Ego Geometria Sum, 1982-83, involved an interrogation of feminine identity and the use of the female body in art history. However, rather than subscribe to Anglo-American feminism’s prohibition on images of the female body as overdetermined by masculinist objectifying discourse, Chadwick provocatively made performative use of her own body as a tool, disturbed and manipulated, to open a dynamic dialogue with the space. In this sense she often appeared as an actor, as a victim, her body a mask, unfolding and changing in order to interact with other elements chosen for their beauty or sensuality. In these respects her work can be more properly linked historically with the strategies of artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Gina Pane, Yoko Ono and the opening of a direct corridor between art and the everyday advocated by Fluxus, Yves Klein, Manzoni and the early Arte Povera of the 1960s. In the installation Oval Court, 1984-86, photocopies of her body in sensuous poses drawn from sources such as Boucher’s Mademoiselle O’Murphy, Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and the Leda and Swan motif, are intertwined with ribbons and animals, and scattered with sculptural golden spheres in a neo-Baroque excess of visual and tactile pleasure. Chadwick’s allegorising strategies removed any possibility of reading her work according to a physiological or psychological representation; rather, the work suggested a narrative of which we are not consciously aware and whose conclusion brings our thoughts to another reality. As Norman Brown said, ‘Being doesn’t belong to its owner. He and his body are simply the hook upon which, for a time, a collective product is suspended.’ 

Ego Geometria Sum and The Juggler’s Table, 1984, introduced elements evocative for the artist of her own past – everyday images of a front door, a child’s bed, a pram, a piano, a font, a tent, her own naked image pasted onto plywood geometric forms – thereby restaging the ideal in a personalised dimension, or perhaps trapping the subjective in the image of the ideal. Chadwick referred to the installation Ego Geometria Sum as a ‘personal museum’: relics or memorabilia of a fragmentary archive tracing the entropic and metamorphic trajectory of her own early life. In Kleinian theory, the drive to make art is nothing less than the attempt to recreate the lost and shattered object of desire. A related linking of eroticism, death and mourning permeates much of her work, but above all in Piss Flowers, 1991-92 – bloom-like casts of pissing in the snow by the artist and her male partner, Wreath to Pleasure, 1992-93, a series of medallions of Cibachrome photographs of dried flowers, and Cacao, 1994 a continuously bubbling chocolate fountain. All these works blur the boundary between male and female genitalia, and hence the culturally fixed notions of gender; but it is their perpetual circular motion that alludes to the endless flux of desire that never touches the thing itself. This movement of the object of desire was most directly addressed in Mishima’s influential film In The Realm of The Senses, in which the woman expresses the impossibility of reaching fulfilment by severing her lover’s penis.

Towards the end of her life Chadwick’s work became increasingly concerned with more social expressions of the ambiguities of death, mourning and pleasure, as they were reconfigured through the diseased and medicalised body following the discovery of invasive viruses like AIDS. The series of photographs entitled Viral Landscapes, 1988-89, combines the traditions of the Romantic coastal landscape with images of her own stained human cells taken from the cervix, the mouth and the ear. They scatter across and contaminate the surface of the landscapes uncovering the abject body that is the repressed face of the sublime. In some respects Chadwick’s use of bodily excretions and internal body parts recalled her earlier student work: a handmade book with satin and human hair in the form of a vagina. In the Cibachrome light-boxes Eroticism, 1990, a human brain resting on luxurious fabric, Self Portrait, 1991, a brain cradled by hands, and Loop My Loop, 1991, a knot of intestines and silky golden hair, there is an exvagination of the interior of the body to the exterior, alluding to the fragile boundaries of body and self, and capturing the perishable and abject nature of soft tissue in the frame of art as if it could effect some alchemical transformation to eternity.

Chadwick’s themes, imagery and overall approach to the materiality of art prefigure what was to emerge as the dominant tendency in British art during the 1990s. Indeed, in the late 1980s Chadwick was an influential lecturer at both Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art when the yBa generation were still students, as well as having a high profile in the London art world – she was the first woman artist to be nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987. In retrospect, it is astonishing how far her ideas were subsequently marketed and exploited in the tabloid press by younger artists (and their supporters) as their own provocative breakthrough in art. And yet, from Damien Hirst, Sam Taylor-Wood, Tracey Emin to Marc Quinn, and so forth, we see a disturbing spectacularisation of what for Chadwick was a passionate and personal enquiry into the conditions of contemporary existence. Unlike this cadre of artists, Chadwick was not concerned with sensationalism or the infantile transgressive mode, but with a search for the moments of intersection between art and life.   a

Helen Chadwick: A Retrospective, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 29 Apr – 1 Aug 2004, and touring

Stella Santacatterina <stella AT> is a curator, writer and freelance lecturer based in London