My dreams seep into an unprocessed soup: In Bed With Helen Chadwick

Susan de Muth
Tuesday 19 July 1994 23:02
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Helen Chadwick is an artist who works with unusual materials. Her latest exhibition, 'Effluvia', which opens today at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, includes a large fountain of melted chocolate.

I DIMLY recollect childhood dreams about tubs of excrement and the chocolate fountain is related to these. Chasing dreams, dredged up from the unconscious, is the starting point for creating something implausible. A work often begins as an impossible half-whim and you say: 'I'm going to make that happen'.

If I'm working with certain materials the squeamishness that I have managed to suspend during the day will come out in my dreams. I stitched a lot of little lambs' tongues together for one piece and the physical feeling of digging the needle through, trying not to tear the flesh, pervaded my sleep for a few nights afterwards. It was a rough roller-coaster ride and I would wake up exhausted.

Most of my ideas for works crystallise in that reverie between sleep and wakefulness, when you idle into neutral and follow funny little chains of thought that flow.

Sometimes they become so lucid that I jump out of bed to write them down. This is quite disturbing for David, my partner, who groans and complains, but I'm scared I'll forget them.

I've resisted the temptation to record my dreams. As soon as you try to remember them you start embellishing. I just let them all seep, unprocessed, into the same soup that everything else is fed into. And that soup occasionally farts out an idea.

I don't set much store by a psycho-analytical perspective on dreams. I try not to give them any superstitious significance, although my mother was famous in the East End of London for her ability to read dreams. She deliberately blighted that facility in herself when she correctly predicted some terrible tragedies. The only time I do worry is if I dream of a particular person - I have this ridiculous notion that someone in danger can send out a signal. I usually phone them the next day to see if they're all right.

I like to sleep more than I like exploring the night and consequently have few other nocturnal activities. I like socialising but the problem is getting there - I tend to forget about invitations. I wind down by watching a bit of rubbish television from bed or reading. At the moment I'm reading The Foul and the Fragrant, about the cultural perception of smell in the 19th century - it's fascinating.

I rarely have trouble going off but the quality of my sleep varies enormously. Because I'm under a lot of pressure preparing for the show I'm having very turbulent nights at the moment. Images of things I'm making are scrambled together with strange little fractional incidents that are generally things going wrong. I wake up frequently with a cloud of dreams around me into which I fall again.

A lot of my work relates to sex - something else I do at night. How to describe sexual pleasure in retrospect - and I want to - is an amazing problem. It would be farcical to try to express those states where the mind and senses are all scrambled up together - that you can also feel when eating or going to the loo - in spoken language. Art is one way to explore that synaesthesia of experience.

When David and I had been together for about a year we were living in different countries. There's nothing like separation to sharpen up desire and out of that sense of urgency the concept of the 'piss flowers' was formed when we met again in Canada. We heaped up piles of snow and first I would piss into it and then he would piss around my mark. I made casts of the indentations which were eventually exhibited as bronze sculptures.

That was a unique form of love-making, a metaphysical conceit for the union of two people expressing themselves bodily. And we've been together ever since.

(Photograph omitted)

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