A LOT of pompous nonsense has been written about Helen Chadwick. Private Eye was able to devote an entire Pseud's Corner to the ramblings of critics of her latest exhibition. The accompanying catalogue is an unintentionally comic wallow in psychobabble and four-syllable words. And most observers have made a connection between Cacao, the eerily bubbling chocolate fountain which forms the centrepiece of the show, and excrement - a connection Chadwick herself can't see, and which mildly exasperates her.
'People say, 'Oh yes, of course] She meant poo, not chocolate.' But if I meant poo, I'd use shit. I suspect it's a peculiarly British thing, this fixation with the caca and pipi elements; this country has its own peculiar lavatorial obsessions. I wasn't intending it to look like excrement. It's meant to look like chocolate . . . and maybe clay, or primal soup.'
Chadwick may have only herself to blame. Her fascination with waste products is widely known (she once exhibited a glass column of rotting organic matter which sprang a leak, releasing a terrible smell through the ICA). The other major piece in this exhibition is Piss Flowers, 12 bronzes created from plaster casts made after she and her partner, David Notarius, urinated in the snow in Canada.
Most of her work deliberately plays on images that teeter on the revolting, or are conventionally deemed unseemly. An oyster is photographed in an oval bed of flowers, looking like a clitoris, inviting a lick and a swallow. A series of works collectively titled 'Viral Landscapes' feature Chadwick's body-cells enlarged and smeared over photographs of the Welsh coastline. And she gave Piss Flowers its title specifically because she wanted people to think about the gap between these strangely arresting, even beautiful, shapes and the way they were made.
So it is not surprising that some people saw excrement in the vat of chocolate glooping away in the Serpentine: Chad wick's images of pleasure are often unsettled by suggestions of excess and decay. But a lot of the criticism has made her work sound drearily, relentlessly shocking. It is true that she is fascinated by bodily functions (and by the crudity of flowers 'because they are the sexual organs of plants, and people conveniently forget that') but she handles these obsessions with an engagingly ribald humour. The penile structure in the centre of the chocolate fountain, Cadbury's Dairy Milk rippling down it, seems an invitation to clamber in and lick - though she herself sees it, like the Piss Flowers, as more of an invitation to sit, 'like when you go into those grottoes in France and the proliferation of stalagmites is so lewd, so obscenely funny'. And Chadwick's attitude to her work is anything but reverential: she reports that doctors have been able to identify the different cells (some taken from a buccal smear, some from a cervical smear, some from a spot) in 'Viral Landscapes', and says what she really wanted were 'heroic samples - heart, breast, kidney. But I couldn't get anyone to give me a biopsy.'
Chadwick, a pixieish figure with a Cleopatra haircut, was born in Croydon in 1953, to a Greek mother and an English father. She has one brother, who is now a shepherd on the South Downs, and thinks the conjunction of a mixed marriage with a Croydon semi in the Fifties meant 'something had to go a bit adrift'. When I ask what did, she says, 'the garden. We became a refuge for all the lame and damaged wildlife - a duck that couldn't swim, a ferret, a goose. The neighbours complained, but I think the health inspector was rather beguiled by it. At any rate, he didn't slap on a death order.'
She went to Croydon High School, where she thought she wanted to be an archaeologist. But at the last minute she abandoned a place at university to go to art school, first at Brighton, then Chelsea. She didn't think she would ever become an artist, but she started exhibiting, 'thinking I'd do it for a while, and I evolved into an artist. I got invited to show. I'd talk about what I was doing and it seemed to catch the imagination.'
She arrived in Chelsea at the same time as punk, and found its preoccupations dovetailed neatly with her own. 'I was making rubber casts of women's
bodies as fetishised ugly-erotic clothing - art as clothes. Then I had women
demonstrating domestic appliances which were their bodies: strapped into replicas of machines. It was a fairly obvious comment on the idealisation of women and domesticity.'
Chadwick's work has always been much written about. This year she will exhibit in Essen, Barcelona and Sao Paulo, and the Serpentine was packed last weekend. Her pieces sell for anything from pounds 500 for a tiny bronze to pounds 50,000 for the chocolate fountain. 'The prices are at that level because I do sell occasionally, but I'm not very popular with collectors, perhaps because it's difficult for people to decide what they feel about the work.' There isn't any prospect of a sale of the fountain, partly because it's so smelly,
but more importantly because it's so prone to breakdown. Chadwick supplements her income by teaching: we met at Chelsea College of Art, where she had just finished a session with postgraduate sculpture students.
Art has not made Chadwick rich. She and Notarius (an American, who works in computers for an oil company) live in the upstairs half of a terraced house in a narrow street in Hackney. She works downstairs, and (they have no children) ploughs most of her earnings back into her work.
'It may have been mischievous to piss in the snow, but it was damn hard work to end up with the 12 bronzes. Piss Flowers took two years, largely because I had to find pounds 12,000 to make them.
'I sold myself to the BBC to make a programme about Frida Kahlo, a sort of personal journey. So I had to live the consequences of that element of fun. In the same way, when you're looking at them, I hope you can see the serious as well as the mischievous, transgressive aspect.'
Helen Chadwick's 'effluvia' continues at the Serpentine Gallery, London SW7 (071- 402 6075) to 29 Aug.
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