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doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(04)16326-5

Body matters

Colin Martin a

a 32 Woodstock Road, London W4 1UF, UK


Helen Chadwick: A Retrospective

An exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, London, UK, until Aug 1, 2004. Then at Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester, UK, Sept 18–Nov 21, 2004; Kunstmuseet Trapholt, Kolding, Denmark, Jan–March 2005; and Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden, June–Aug 2005.

Blood Hyphen

A restaging of a 1988, site-specific installation by Helen Chadwick at the Woodbridge Chapel, London, until Aug 1, 2004.

My Personal Museum

An exhibition from the Helen Chadwick Archive at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, UK, until June 6, 2004.

In the early 1980s, when Helen Chadwick (1953–96) began making her name, she was also lifting the profile of contemporary art in the UK. By the time she died aged 42 years from heart failure, she had paved the way for the subsequent generation of Young British Artists (YBAs). But, unlike some YBAs, who seem most assured of a place in the history of publicity, Chadwick's reputation is based on artistic integrity. Although she provoked her share of outraged headlines, her written records show how deeply she thought about her subject matter during her short career.

In Chadwick's early work, she used performance art or images of her naked body to explore issues around the self. The surfaces of Ego Geometria Sum—geometric shapes suggesting objects used at different stages of growing up—are covered with photos of Chadwick at the age to match each stage. Increasing dimensions evoke bodily growth and developing self-awareness. The tiniest object, a rectangular incubator, is a reference to Chadwick's premature birth; a larger, shallow cylinder with a quadrant removed is a pram. Geometry is the framework for this allegory of her life, classifying and regulating its stages, from premature neonate to mature woman.

Time's passing is again evoked in The Oval Court, but here with astrological imagery. Chadwick made this huge, 12-part collage by positioning her naked body, dead animals, and plants on a large photocopier. Laid on a raised, rectangular platform, the composition resembles a bathing pool reflecting an ornate Rococo ceiling painting. She intended its freer style to represent “the self as flux”, in contrast to the constrained, trapped self in Ego Geometria Sum.

Feminist criticism contributed to Chadwick's 1988 decision to stop portraying her naked body. “It immediately declares female gender and I want to be more deft”, she said. Although she continued to explore body and self interrelations, she began using images from the body's interior. In Viral Landscapes (1988–89), she overlaid photos of the Welsh Pembrokeshire coast with pictures of cells scraped from her body orifices. She also incorporated images based on abstract patterns created by dragging canvases through waves onto which she had poured oil paints. Like other artists in the 1980s, stimulated to examine viral interactions by the emergence of AIDS, she saw the flux between virus and infected organism as a metaphor for an individual's relationship with the world. In a metaphorical leap, she located this flux in the littoral zone between sea and land.

Not all of Chadwick's work is equally profound. Piss Flowers (1991–92) are sculptures made by urinating through flower-shaped templates into snow, pouring plaster into the resulting cavities, casting them in bronze, and enamelling them white. Chadwick commented: “in a way it was more wicked to call it art than to do the thing in the first place.” This was hardly a new idea; in 1917, Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) exhibited a porcelain urinal entitled Fountain, arguing that any object is a work of art if nominated as such. Cocoa (1994) also courts notoriety. Molten chocolate oozes down a pole that rears up from a noisily flatulent, sweet-smelling, cloacal pool; part phallic, part faecal, but basically wind signifying little. But in 1995, her artist-in-residency in the assisted conception unit at Kings College Hospital, London, photographing IVF embryos rejected for implantation, re-established Chadwick on her serious track. She used the photos in Unnatural Selection, a series on which she was working when she died. Chadwick learnt that doctors choose embryos for implantation based on “best” morphology, thereby neatly closing the circle between scientists and the aesthetic considerations of artists.