Photo: portrait of the artist. In background: Ego Geometria Sum, 1982-4. © Helen Chadwick Estate. Photo: Edward Woodman.
Camelia Gupta travelled to London to immerse herself in the work of a truly influential artist, though 24 Hour Museum readers should note that some of the work may not be suitable for children.
Running until August 1 at the Barbican Art Gallery, Helen Chadwick: A Retrospective is the first major survey of one of the founders of British art as we know it today.
Helen Chadwick’s (1953-1996) art is an exploration of desire, lust, identity and humanity. She described the feelings her work provoked as "gorgeously repulsive, exquisitely fun, and dangerously beautiful".
The Meat Abstracts demonstrate Chadwick’s subtly disturbing formal techniques, allying the clarity provided by light-boxes with visceral compositions of lumps of meat.
They present a contradictorily 'clean' art of excess and dissolution, refusing easy oppositions.
Photo: Meat Abstract No. 8, 1989. Polaroid photograph. © Helen Chadwick Estate. Photo: Edward Woodman.
This strategy is immensely effective and the sharpness of the images allows no escape from the imagery; I find them nausea-inducing, bringing me back to my own relationship with my innards/borders…
The overload is pushed to extremes in the wonderful Cacao/Wreaths to Pleasure. A vast circular container, with a distinctly phallic erection in its centre, is filled with chocolate, through which air forces itself to the surface, producing bubbles reminiscent of the 'mud, glorious mud' of a hot spring.
The sounds of plopping and bubbling underline the associations with mud and excrement, which in combination with the utterly overpowering smell make this a dizzying experience.
I’m feeling sick and suffocated by the richness. The beautiful becomes toxic.
Photo: Cacao, 1994. Chocolate, aluminium, steel, electrical apparatus. © Helen Chadwick Estate. Photo: Edward Woodman.
It’s like being trapped in a sadistic chocolate factory and you can almost hear Chadwick giggling under the sound of the bubbling chocolate. I find it hard not to giggle myself, there’s something wonderfully beguiling about the endlessly slopping spectacle.
There’s a huge amount of wit and sly humour in this exhibition. The notorious Piss Flowers, alien in appearance and stark against an astroturf lawn were produced from imprints taken of patterns made by Chadwick and her lover by pissing into snow.
The pistils of the flowers, pointing up into the air, are produced by Chadwick (the female body produces a hot, strong and focussed stream of urine) whereas the delicate tracery is the result of her partner’s more diffuse 'male' pissing.
This produces an incisive reversal of traditional genital relations and with it, phallic superiority.
Serious themes are not smothered by po-faced solemnity, instead they are illuminated by games.
Photo: Piss Flowers, 1991-2. Bronze, cellulose lacquer. © Helen Chadwick Estate. Photo: Anti Kuivalainen.
In an accompanying film, a friend points out that Chadwick was deeply in love with her partner; the flowers are also a touching record of a shared moment.
The exhibition continues at the Woodbridge Chapel with a restaging of her 1988 site-specific piece, Blood Hyphen.
Climbing the stairs of a small chapel to the pulpit, you poke your head through a false ceiling. You find yourself in a dark space in which a single red laser cuts through smoke to strike a large transparency (images of cells taken from a cervical smear test).
Connotations of God and the body, dissection and disease, physical and spiritual introversion, clash to produce a powerful atmosphere that refuses to be pinned down.
Photo: Blood Hyphen 1998/2004. Site specific installation with laser, smoke, photographic transparencies. Woodbridge Chapel. © Helen Chadwick Estate. Photo: Edward Woodman.
In Chadwick’s work we find a fierce, rigorous intelligence allied to a visceral, sensual, formally inventive practice (which is executed with a healthy dose of raspberry blowing).
This is a combination that is all too rare and marks her as one of our most important artists, whose concerns/methodology anticipated a whole raft of later British work. Obvious 'descendants' include The Chapman Brothers and Mona Hatoum.
However influential she is, the exhibition also seems oddly of its time. Her work is far less coy about its seriousness than the current crop of art 'stars'.
The fascinating documentary accompanying the show opens at Chadwick’s memorial service, at which artist Anya Gallaccio scattered hundreds of flowers.
Guests were asked to take them away so that "everyone left with a piece of Helen".
Photo: Wreath to Pleasure No.1, 1992-3. Cibachrome photographs, powder coated steel, glass, aluminium faced MDF. © Helen Chadwick Estate. Photo: Edward Woodman.
Submerging yourself in her world and taking "a piece of Helen" away is an exhilarating experience, a sensual and conceptual adventure…
Admission to see Blood Hyphen at Woodbridge Chapel, Woodbridge Street, London EC1 is free and the installation is open Thursday to Sunday between 14.00 and 18.00.
Guided tours depart on foot from the Barbican Art Gallery every Sunday at 15.30.