Helen Chadwick has always been a controversial artist. In her recent retrospective at The Barbican Art Gallery in London (2004) she was described as “one of the founders of British art as we know it today” (BIE 2004). Tom Morton, on the other hand, reviewing the exhibition in Frieze Magazine, described her work as “at worse, a vaguely hysterical irrelevance” (Morton 2004). While the exhibition press material emphasizes her importance and influence (BIE 2004), Morton is dismissive, suggesting her work is “no longer vital for artists working today” (Morton 2004). This essay will engage with this debate through a critical analysis of three of Chadwick’s works – Piss Flowers (1991-2), Ecce (1987), and Donor/Donee (1994), locating these works within their historical and critical context and considering their impact or otherwise on contemporary art practice. It argues, against Morton, that Chadwick’s combination of critique with playful humour, and her mixing of histories of conceptualism and feminism, has been an important influence on contemporary artists, and questions raised by her work are still being played out today.
For Piss Flowers (1991-2) Chadwick and her partner urinated into snow and cast the resultant patterns into ‘flower-like’ sculptures (Fig. 1). The work is interesting as it reveals many of the concerns and features of Chadwick’s practice. On one hand, the work, through its choice of method, evokes disgust. On the other hand, however, it is reconfigured into an object associated with conventions of beauty – the flower. The work seduces through the tactility, sheen and unexpectedness of its sculptural materials – lacquered bronze. On the other hand, through its title and its conceptual framing, it maintains an ironic humorous distance. These oppositions or paradoxes, between disgust and beauty, seduction and critical distance, humour and serious critique, are vital to the effect of the work. Chadwick’s use of urine as material for sculpture challenges the conventional representation of women as passive sexualized objects of the ‘male gaze’ (Mulvey1989: 22) by focusing on the physical reality of the body that is left out from such idealized representations. The transformation of the original performance into the flower sculpture takes this critique further, not only pointing to this excluded physical reality, but actively celebrating it in a joyous and humorous way. The use of the cast transforms negative space (the hole in the snow) into positive (the three-dimensional sculptural object), engaging at a formal level with what is being played with at a conceptual level – the representation of woman as empty, or lack, transformed into something positive and celebratory. Challenging the traditional role of women in art history as proposed by Berger, “men act and women appear” (Berger 2008: 41), Chadwick uses the action of her own body as a way to produce work as well as criticize the institutional framework that gives it meaning – the idea that flowers, like women, should not be disgusting but ‘pretty’.
By taking something that should remain in the body and presenting it outside of that body, she evokes the simultaneous fascination and repulsion that Julia Kristeva defines as ‘the abject’, “that opposed to I…The repugnance, the retching…The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me” (Kristeva 1997: 230). The use of urine in Chadwick’s sculpture challenges the boundaries of the body, as well as what is seen as acceptable in a specific culture. For Kristeva, this challenging of physical boundaries has a political effect as it challenges the social order while drawing attention to the process of separation inherent to the production of identity, “The abject is…what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” (Kristeva 1997: 232). Chadwick’s work can be productively understood in these terms, both in its position ‘inbetween’ modes of representation and meaning, and in the effect it evokes in viewers. She draws on Kristeva’s feminist use of psychoanalysis in a playful way in the work.
The work can also be usefully situated within traditions and histories of art. Its subtle humour can be seen as a way of undercutting the heroic masculine mythologies of Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock. Pollock described as “brooding” and “highbrow” discusses his own romantic position channeling forces around him, “when I am in my painting. I’m not aware what I’m doing” (Selberling 1999: 63). The combination of flippancy and monumentality in Piss Flowers suggests an irony lacking from this stance. Also, this combination of irony, playfulness, feminist critique and challenging representations of the body can definitely be seen to have had an impact on later artists. Sarah Lucas’ Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996, Fig. 2) for example, shows a similar mix of humour and politics. Lucas also challenges representations of the female body, adopting a masculine pose and threatening eye contact, challenging the positioning of women as objects for the male gaze. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the fried eggs on her breasts, turning back the gaze with the absurd humour of the visual pun – the fried eggs do actually look like breasts – rather than using any direct political comment. The very dry straight-faced literality of Lucas’ work, mixed with its everyday absurdity, draws directly from the oppositions at play in a piece such as Piss Flowers.
An earlier work by Chadwick – Ecce (1987) deals with similar themes but in a different way. The title again is important, making reference here to the call of the Virgin Mary to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. According to Christian doctrine, Mary remained a Virgin because she conceived via her ear upon hearing the word of the Holy Ghost (McKellar 2007: 205). Chadwell again focuses on the abject boundaries of the female body by using a photocopy of a disembodied ear, looking uncannily strange, taken out of the context of the rest of the body. Throughout her career, Chadwick worked with photocopies of her own body (Evans 1986: 146-8). This suggests an engagement with histories of representation. If, as has been suggested here, woman have traditionally been represented in a particular way for a particular set of male-dominated interests (Mulvey1989: 22; Berger 2008: 41), then the ‘direct’ representation of self-photocopying suggests a reclaiming of the means of representation, and technologies of distribution. Chadwick herself, referring to her work with photocopies, argues that, “I was able to construct images which couldn’t exist photographically in any other way” (James 2005: 10). On the other hand, however, the images produced, as in the image of the ear in Ecce, are often strange and disembodied, ghostly traces of an absent body, rather than a direct and controlled image. Evans proposes that this draws attention to “the impermanence of subjectivity” (Evans 1986: 148), but it could equally be read as an exploration of an expanded definition of the body, including the traces it leaves behind, and the uncertainties it evokes. As Chadwick has discussed, “the photocopy image doesn’t have the same degree of actuality as the photograph, being both more real and more false” (cited in Evans 1986: 147). This ‘more real’ and ‘more false’ is another paradox at play in Chadwick’s work, expressed in Ecce. Using the everyday technology of the photocopier, Chadwick not only creates an uncanny effect from the familiar, but also extracts a strange beauty, emphasised in the fragile lightbox presentation of the work, and given resonance with the reference to Christ emerging “like a ray of light through glass” (McKellar 2007: 205). Inverting the Christian doctrine, it is now the woman who has the power of ‘conception’ through the ‘ray of light’ of the photocopier. As in Piss Flowers, the viewer’s conventional associations of objects, materials and histories is disrupted and played with to uncanny and political effect.
The final work to be analysed here is Donor/Donee (1994), a piece made in what would turn out to be the last years of Chadwick’s life before she died in 1996. In this work, Chadwick shows how her work extended beyond gallery-based feminist critiques of representations of the body. The definition of ‘the body’ employed here is more complex and participatory, showing how it is constructed across a range of institutional, public and private spaces and discourses, not restricted to those of the gallery or museum. For the work, small cards, simply reading ‘donor’, were distributed for free around the city. In order to complete the work, the participant would have to take the card and go to a blood transfusion centre in order to exchange a pint of their own blood for the signed ‘donee’ card. Developing Chadwick’s work on the fluid boundaries of the body, the artwork is now located at the intersection of an exchange of fluids between anonymous donors and donees. Chadwick had been criticized for focusing too much on the use of her own body in her work (McKellar 2007: 209). This piece however removes Chadwick’s body from the work in order to produce a more dynamic definition of the body as a network of fluid exchange, taking place, to an extent, outside of her control. It develops her exploration into representations not of a particular body but as an abstract and not necessarily individual site of feeling (McKellar 2007: 209).
Through its use of anonymous networks of exchange as circulation of the artwork, Chadwick draws on traditions of conceptual art such as Cildo Mereiles’ Insertions Into Ideological Circuits (1970-76). Mereiles used adverts in newspapers, Coca-Cola bottles and banknotes as ways of distributing his artworks, through modes of circulation outside of his direct control (Tate 2009). As was discussed earlier in relation to Abstract Expressionism, Chadwick situates herself critically within past traditions, utilizing a similar network of anonymous distribution but making it more personal and directly connected to the body, its boundaries and its effects. Although this work lacks the seductive beauty, wit and humour of the previously analysed pieces, it develops her work as an intersection of conceptual and feminist traditions, introducing a participatory element, which further challenges representations and definitions of the body. Again, this can be seen to have influenced later artists. The American collective Ultrared, for example, have made public art work focused on processes of needle exchange (Ultrared 2000), using the exchange of fluids as a way of mapping the city through trajectories of a shared body. The situation of their work as a response to AIDS shows how contemporary artists have used strategies of feminism and conceptualism, evident in Chadwick’s work, and adapted them to other political concerns. The use of sound recordings by Ultrared shows how the legacies of Chadwick’s concerns are being explored using other media.
To conclude then, it is difficult to agree with Morton’s dismissal of the relevance of Helen Chadwick’s work. This analysis has shown that her work is interestingly complex, operating at a subtle intersection of humour and critique, of abjection and beauty, of seduction and repulsion, of irony and seriousness, and of concepts of self and other. She has clearly drawn on traditions of conceptualism in order to challenge representations of the female body, but rather than it working as didactic feminism, her work uses playfulness and wit to great effect. Piss Flowers operates at the level of both form and content, as an effective and humorous reconceptualisation of the female body. It can be read as an ironic critique of traditions of masculine heroism, such as Abstract Expressionism, and also as an important influence on later artists using irony as critique such as Sarah Lucas. Ecce, again uses the female body as its subject, this time using technology in creative way to reconfigure the body and draw attention to histories of gender and representation. Donor/Donee develops these themes, removing Chadwick’s own body from the work to produce another concept of body based on a network of fluid exchange around the city. This suggests a reworking of strategies of conceptual art, and has also been influential on more recent practices, such as the work of Ultrared. It can be concluded therefore, that rather than “a vivid souvenir of a world long gone” (Morton 2004), Chadwick’s work retains a resonance and importance in relation to strategies of contemporary art today.
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Fig 1. Helen Chadwick, Piss Flowers, 1991-2, bronze, cellulose, lacquer, installation photograph from Helen Chadwick – Trapholt, www.kunstonline.dk/ indhold/pics/chadwick_6.jpg [accessed 22nd March 2010].
Fig. 2. Sarah Lucas, Self-Portait with Fried Eggs, 1996, inkjet print on paper, 745 x 514 mm. Tate Collection, http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=147, [accessed 20th March 2010].
Fig. 3. Helen Chadwick, Ecce, 1987, leather, plywood, electric light and slide projection, 150x150cm. Henry Moore Institute Archive.
Fig.4. Helen Chadwick, Donor/Donee, 1994, card, 4x3cm. Commission by Fat for Outpost, 1994.