Helen Chadwick, artist
Helen Chadwick studied on the sculpture course at Brighton Polytechnic from 1973 to 1976. She went on to complete an MA at Chelsea, and then quickly became a kind of proto-YBA (young British artist), making installations addressing the power/gender relations inherent in specific environments. She gained celebrity with her autobiographical installation Ego geometria sum(1982-4), included in the 1985 ‘British Art Show’, and confirmed it with her 1986 ICA installation, Of Mutability, and a Serpentine show, ‘Effluvia’, in 1994. Her Piss flowers, 1991-92, produced by casting the traces of her and her partner’s urination in Canadian snow, brought her media notoriety on the scale of Carl André’s bricks, or Tracy Emin’s ‘Bed’. She was one of the first women to be shortlisted for the Turner Prize, in 1987. Helen died suddenly of a rare virus in 1996, at the tragically early age of 42.
At Brighton, Helen was officially a sculpture student, but she usually hung out in Alternative Practice, one of the many successive names for the course that would become Critical Fine Art practice. Her degree show performance was a tour-de-force. Female fellow-students were dressed as, and played the parts of, beds in their various functions: the child’s bed, the honeymoon bed, the birth bed, and so on. Most scary, and cathartic, was the rape bed, played chillingly by Georgina Godley, later to become a prominent fashion designer. The whole thing was recorded on Super 8 mm film by three members of staff: John Hilliard, David Dye, and myself.
Helen’s ‘Model institution’, a distillation of a dole office, toured the country during 1981 in a van, almost like a rock band, and it had a showing at Brighton Polytechnic. The work consisted of a row of five cell-like booths: those for the supplicants were furnished with oversized stools, to make the users feel small and helpless, while the parts behind glass had just tape players reciting the kind of officious litany one would associate with such humiliating circumstances.
Helen returned to Brighton Polytechnic in 1984, to teach on the expressive arts course, where she was brilliant, if abrasive: her criteria for excellent work were somewhat more advanced than those of the students, and this brought about some stimulating debates. A tiff with the management, over her need to take time off to prepare her next solo show, forced her resignation in early 1986. The show, at the ICA, cemented her reputation. Our loss.
By Mick Hartney