OBITUARY:Helen Chadwick

Helen Chadwick was one of contemporary art's most provocative and profound figures. A perfectionist who revelled in excess, an awesome intellectual who applauded irreverence, Chadwick was the most important artist of her generation, and a crucial inspiration to a multitude of younger artists.

From her early edible body casts made in the Seventies as part of the Flux movement, to the hermaphrodite blooms of her bronze Piss Flowers, made from casting the patterns of male and female urine in snow, Helen Chadwick made her art splice the sensuous with the cerebral in a quest to bend, stretch and dissolve age-old certainties of who and what we are. Whether she was casting lambs' tongues in bronze, photographing flowers clustered on the surface of domestic fluids, working with digital technology or commissioning specially woven carpet, she revelled in fusing a mass of unconventional materials and drawing on sources that range across myth, science and anatomy - in order to express and celebrate a world of flux, fluidity and possibility.

Helen Chadwick's work may have dealt with ambiguity but it was never of itself ambiguous. Probably her most notorious recent piece was Cacao, the suggestive fountain of molten chocolate that formed the centrepiece of her one-woman show "Effluvia" at the Serpentine Gallery in July 1994 (and which put British art on the front pages of Brazil's newspapers when the piece was installed at the Sao Paulo Biennal that autumn). But this unforgettable work, which showed Chadwick using all her destabilising powers of seduction and revulsion, and defied any single response or reading, was just part of a long and complex investigation into how art can capture sensation and reflect states of being, but still be vitally accessible.

Long before the current artistic obsession with the human body as a means for exploring identity, Chadwick had declared that "my apparatus is a body x [multiplied by] sensory systems with which to correlate experience", and from the mid- Seventies she tapped into her own physical form to extend and dissolve accepted limits of physical and mental existence. In "Of Mutability" (exhibited at the ICA in 1984-86) collaged photocopies presented her naked figure floating amongst a cornucopia of animal and vegetable matter, while her "Viral Landscapes" (1988-89) employed computer technology to superimpose microscopic images of Chadwick's own body cells across epic photographs of the Pembrokeshire coast. Here was proof that the computer could be used in a way that replaced the technological with the subjective.

More recently however, she had employed other vehicles for exploring the personal and the physical. Last year the Tate Gallery purchased Enfleshings 1 (1989), one of her series of "Meat Abstracts" and "Meat Lamps" which present raw meat and offal in exquisite illuminated photopieces that represent the stuff that makes up us all. In April 1995 she had her first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with her "Wreaths to Pleasure" (1992-94), a series of 13 large circular photopieces which show arrangements of vividly coloured flowers floating on the surface of domestic fluids. These "Bad Blooms" - as she also called them - where black-red roses float on a creamy bath of ice-blue household paint, or an orchid comes to rest in a puddle of window cleaner, mix and merge apparent distinctions beween organic and toxic, fluid and static, clean and dirty, in a characteristically exquisite Chadwickian celebration of unholy alliances.

Helen Chadwick was exhibited world-wide both in solo and mixed shows, she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987, she received countless awards and commissions and her work is in major collections both in the UK and across the globe. She was a consummate professional who involved herself in every aspect of the production and presentation of her work with a ruthless and minuscule eye for detail, just as she was always, even when wrestling with the pump of a chocolate fountain, immaculately, almost impossibly, stylish in appearance.

But Chadwick's perfectionism and love of paradox did not impinge on her emotional and intellectual generosity. With that severe haircut framing a mischevous (sometimes almost demonic) grin, she was a pristine hedonist, a wicked impish maverick who was tremendous company as wel as being a loyal friend of limitless generosity. Chadwick was half Greek (she was born in Croydon and studied at Brighton Polytechnic and Chelsea School of Art), and whenever her punishing schedule would allow she and her partner and collaborator David Notarius would escape from their terraced house in Hackney, east London, and return to these roots in a small house in rural Greece. However, Chadwick always insisted that she represented the Dionysian rather than the Apollonian side of her classical heritage, and this was reflected in the visual, vivacious and sensory extravaganzas presented both in her work and her life.

This abhorrence of absolutes and eagerness to push at the boundaries of our existence had just taken Chadwick into her most sensitive territory yet: that of human fertility. Shortly before her death (she died unexpectedly on Friday of heart failure) she had completed a residency at the Assisted Conception Unit at King's College Hospital where she had immersed herself in the intricate processes behind assisted conception in order to present a series of remarkable and exceptionally beautiful photopieces. These microphotographs of human embryos, placed in a jewel-like arrangement with other images from the natural world, are a sensitive, subtle and poignant examination of the fragile potential of human life. They are also a fitting testament to a life which was still so full of potential.

Louisa Buck

Helen Chadwick, artist: born Croydon 18 May 1953; died London 15 March 1996.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin