It is said that those whom the gods favour die young. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock and James Dean have all achieved iconic status. But would this have been assured if we had had to witness their dull levelling into middle-age? Does untimely death – the erasure of the still nubile body, the restless imagination brimming with unfulfilled promise – ensure like some dreadful Faustian pact, certain artistic canonisation?
It is only months since the artist Helen Chadwick died unexpectedly on Friday 15th March 1996, at the age of 42. The art world was reduced to a state of shock that one so apparently energetic and youthful, “with her smooth, light, bendy epicene body and her signature Louise Brooks haircut”, as her friend Marina Warner described her, should have been so tragically snatched from their midst. She was described in The Sunday Telegraph as “one of Britain’s leading modern artists”, in The Independent as “one of contemporary art’s most provocative and profound figures”. Though she appears to have had a heart attack or some rare virus, the notion is fermenting that she died of overwork, of dedication to her art. Friends were grief-stricken. Her funeral, according to Judy Collins, curator of twentieth century art at the Tate, and one of the organisers, had all the sense of occasion and theatre Helen would have wanted. “It was”, she says, “a bit like a Greek drama.”
To write about an artist’s work so soon after her death is a delicate affair. Those who loved her – and there were many, both men and women, talk of her generosity of spirit, and her influence as a teacher – naturally want to ensure her place within the pantheon of art history, and some have written passionately and eloquently about her work as a result. I hardly knew her. I met her only twice, briefly, at private views and was struck by her immaculate, boyish, Peter Pan elegance and her small stubby artisan’s hands bedecked with silver rings. But we only exchanged social niceties. So it is to her work that I must return in trying to evaluate this all too brief life.
The first work of hers I saw and wrote about was Ego Geometria Sum, 1982-84. Titles were important to her. She valued erudition and read widely, sometimes in arcane and obscure realms. Here, as she was to do again and again, she confronted the mysteries of the life-cycle. The Pythagorean thesis that a number of regular geometric solids could account for all Nature’s constructions was the central tenet of this installation. Ten sculptural polyhedral treated with photo-emulsion bore the imprinted image of her naked body. Each object - an incubator, a font, a pram, boat, wigwam and bed - acted as a Proustian trigger, stimulating memories and sensations from her childhood. Around these hung ten photographs showing her as the naked Atlas bearing the heavy sculptural forms, while in Labours she appeared to be struggling with the weight of accumulated memory or, curled in a foetal shape, about to give birth to her own image. It was as if she was striving to find some mathematical formula to synthesise loss with her self-fashioning as an artist.
Her opus magnum was the ambitious installation created for the ICA, Of Mutability, 1984-86. Made of two parts, The Oval Court and Carcass, it extended her preoccupations with the body and mortality. The Oval Court consisted of twelve naked women – made from photocopies of her own body laid on a Canon photocopier – floating and twisting within a pool of amniotic blue. A marine version of an eighteen-century painted ceiling, it illustrated her fascination with the fantastical interiors of Austrian and German rococo churches. Where Ego Geometria Sum contained, these swimmers broke free from the remembered restrictions of childhood into the limpid waters of post-pubescent pleasure in an aqueous ‘Garden of Delights’. Literally bathing in a ‘stream of consciousness’, theirs was a dance of carnal desire, a cornucopia of forbidden pleasures. For floating beside the artist were the forms of a skate, a lamb, a goose, a crab and rabbit. Chadwick’s lost innocence and androgynous eroticism were high-lighted by a pair of white school-girl socks and frothy trails of ribbon and lace. Like some macabre Ophelia she floated, a string of pearls about her neck, bubbles billowing from her mouth, surrounded by animal forms representing her various alter egos. Having washed, groomed and cleaned these torpid carcasses with a lover’s attention, a necrophilic bond was created. She spoke lovingly of the monkfish’s mouth and the skate’s ample genitals. Her body cascading towards the lamb proffered it her lips, while the goose’s head reached towards her breast, its webbed feet brushing her stomach in a simulacrum of Leda and the Swan. In a virtual act of sympathetic magic she ate, after the completion of the work, those carcasses still fresh enough to be consumed. In the original installation photocopied images of undulating columns formed a colonnade around the periphery of the pool. At their apex was the artist’s weeping face. The apparent grief at being driven from this paradisal space is all the more poignant with the knowledge of her untimely death.
And, as if in counterpoint to the idealised body of The Oval Court, a large vitrine filled with fermenting waste matter stood in an adjacent room. The glass column of Carcass functioned as a metaphor for bodily process and acquired a strange beauty during the transformation from wholeness to putrefaction as the bubbling mulch slowly turned to a noxious pigment. Daily acquisitions of rubbish recorded, like the strata of rock, the unique history of the work within real time. Both pieces were heavily influenced by the Vanitas tradition of painting where morbidity is seen as the price of decadence and material desire.
Whereas The Oval Court presented the playground of an autonomous, sexually potent goddess as an alternative to the predominantly patriarchal, Judaic-Christian myth of the Fall, Lofos Nymphon, 1987 used a more Kleinian schema. Here, in a series of photographic projections, Chadwick appeared on the balcony of the family home with her Greek mother set against a backdrop of Athens. Both women were naked; the small, boyish body of Chadwick clinging to her ageing mother’s sagging flesh in an apparent desire for reunification with the denied utopian space of the nursing breast.
Chadwick moved beyond the female body with Meat Abstract and Meat Lamps, 1989. Here she transcended gender to discuss inner and outer and the androgyny of sexuality which denied the western philosophical view, held from Aristotle to Freud, that woman is synonymous with nature. Within these works Chadwick rejected an Apollonian vision of beauty for the Dionysian. As Camille Paglia claims in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickenson, “Dionysus was identified with liquids – blood, sap, milk, wine. The Dionysian is nature’s chthonian fluidity.” Essentially pagan the chthonic is where sex and sado-masochism meet. The hourglass form of The Philosopher’s Fear of Flesh, with its slippage between the human and animal – two tear-shaped pendants enclosing a male stomach and a plucked chicken’s breast – were reminiscent of a momento mori or reliquary enshrining the desiccated bones or foreskin of a saint. In Glossolai Chadwick created a cruelly revengeful, ‘below the belt’ attack on the linguistic dominance of patriarchy, spending two days stitching together fleshy lamb’s tongues, which she referred to as “a hundred tiny penises”; thus endorsing Nietzsche’s claimed in Beyond Good and Evil that “almost everything we call ‘higher culture’ is based on the spiritualization of cruelty”.
And no doubt she knew, when making Nostalgie de la Boue, 1990 with its hairy anal orifice and circle of entwined earthworms, of Bataille’s claim in The Solar Anus that “ the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form”. In Bad Blooms this imagery is extended, albeit more playfully, with her cibachrome photographs of floral wreaths and various viscous fluids. In these exotic nosegays – strange matings of buttercup and orchid, Swarfega and Germolene with their fleshy plum and oyster centres, their phallic stamens and cunts of white fur – she played games with traditional sexual signifiers, delighting in images of bisexuality.
Chadwick’s most notorious work was her Piss Flowers made with her partner David Notarius during a residency in Alberta. Peeing in the snow the flow of her urine made, when caste, an erect penile shape, in antithesis to the softer pistillate forms created by Notarius: an inversion of human genitalia. But this game of icy sexual politics failed to produce objects with the equivalent impact of her earlier work. Whilst the literary and psychoanalytic associations of her chocolate fountain Cacao were fairly obvious - earth, shit, coprophilia – creating a suspicion that main role of these pieces was a desire to shock.
Last year Chadwick worked in the Hunterian Museum and the Wellcome Pathology Room at the Royal College of Surgeons. There, in an echo of the carnivalesque bestiary she’d employed in The Oval Court, she photographed medical specimens – infants and pickled foetuses beyond the outer reaches of what passes for normality – for her series Cameos. Selecting a Cyclops baby, chimpanzee and pygmy, she was, according to Marina Warner, in her element. “She found no revulsion to overcome, but found her imagination began instantly to play on [the Cyclops’] features with a kind of passionate sympathy like love.” For Chadwick these discards of human reproduction were reminiscent of the hybrids of myth – dragons or three-headed Chimera - onto which humanity projects its fear of difference and otherness. Like Beauty towards the Beast, she felt both moved and titillated by their difference, by the very qualities that made them repellent to others. These unformed faces with their soft spongy flesh, these ‘monsters’ to whom every mother fears giving birth, floated in their formaldehyde in a suspended state of becoming. Within these grotesque forms she touched upon the Darwinian paradigm of the survival of the fittest and on nineteenth-century fears of miscegenation, not to mention late twentieth-century debates surrounding abortion rights and our preoccupations with genetic manipulation and bodily perfection.
There is a great irony that just before her death she was investigating the very beginning of life, having been given permission to work in King’s College Assisted Conception Unit where she was drawn by the parallels of ‘artificially’ creating in vitro eggs for fertility programmes and the manipulations involved in making art. This continued her preoccupation with mapping the self through the cartography of the body and echoed her use of internal organs in earlier works such as Self Portrait, 1991. There, her small stubby hands framed a human brain, echoing Hamlet holding Yorrick’s skull. Implicit were all those fundamental questions about the nature of individuality. What is the essence of me as opposed to you? Unnatural Selection pushes these questions back to the moment of conception. As she wrote in Lofos Nymphon, “as a modern, with no centre, no core of belief, it is possible to encounter the void of Origin, to give it form and a body, and so return to the site of beginning”. This was her preoccupation when she photographed human pre-embryos that would otherwise have been left to perish. Within these images the maternal body is ever absent, raising one of the most disquieting questions of our age about the cultivation of foetuses outside the womb.
In these final works she created a vision of the pre-embryo’s interdependency, whilst presenting it as a valued jewel. The lozenge of Monstrance is reminiscent of a momento mori ring in which the plaited hair of the dead is set with tiny seed pearls beneath a dome of glass; the pearl string of Nebula and the cluster of Opal all make reference to the scientist’s grading and selection of viable cell clusters, done with the naked eye in the manner of a jeweller selecting flawless gems. In Christian ritual the ‘Monstrance’ is also the chalice in which the host – the body of Christ, present but not actual - is venerated. In Nebula the transparent beads, containing both cells and fragile dandelion heads, glimmer in the surrounding blue like the Pleiades floating in the emptiness of cosmic space. While the soap bubble forms recall the Vanitas tradition that emphasised the transience and fragility of earthly life, and stress, with a poignant irony that these last works, made just before Chadwick’s death, involved looking at the moment of creation.
Now that she has gone it is too soon to say how her work will stand up over time. Some of it was beautiful, intelligent, daring and iconoclastic; sometimes it seemed thinner, narcissistic, less sure of its intellectual footholds. As a woman artist, working and teaching over the last two decades, she has challenged the way we think and feel about the body and extended the boundaries in which it is described. Her charismatic presence was felt by all those she taught and with whom she came into contact giving permission to many younger women artists to be expansive, bold, dashing and brave.