Helen Chadwick

Circular photographs of embryos, dandelion clocks and a cataracted eye hang like jewels beaded upon a necklace.
Helen Chadwick, Nebula, 1996, Body Visual.
Photographs of bubble-like embryo's presented in a perspex oval.
Helen Chadwick, Monstrance, 1996, Body Visual.
Helen Chadwick looking inside a microscope, and sucking on a tube.
Helen Chadwick, Body Visual, Working with embryonic tissue at Kings College, 1996.
Helen Chadwick preparing specimens for viewing in the microscope.
Helen Chadwick, Body Visual, Working with embryonic tissue at Kings College, 1996.
Helen Chadwick preparing specimens for viewing in the microscope.
Helen Chadwick, Body Visual, Working with embryonic tissue at Kings College, 1996.
Helen Chadwick preparing specimens for viewing in the microscope.
Helen Chadwick, Body Visual, Working with embryonic tissue at Kings College, 1996.
Helen Chadwick preparing specimens for viewing in the microscope.
Helen Chadwick, Body Visual, Working with embryonic tissue at Kings College, 1996.
Nebula, Helen Chadwick, 1996
Monstrance, Helen Chadwick, 1996
Body Visual (cover)
Body Visual (cover)

Helen Chadwick was born in 1953, and studied at Croydon College of Art, The Faculty of Arts at Brighton Polytechnic and Chelsea College of Art.

In 1987, Helen Chadwick worked with Arts Catalyst curator Rob la Frenais to create the installation “Blood Hyphen” in the Clerkenwell Medical Mission.

Rob wrote of this installation in his blog;

“Wandering around the streets, looking for a site with Chadwick, we happened on a queue of elderly people outside a door. It turned out, anomalously in this now prosperous area that an almost Victorian institution existed here. Even since the founding of the NHS, the local clients of the mission came her for medical treatment in exchange for taking part in a prayer meeting. Helen Chadwick insisted we try to get a meeting with the doctor/priests who ran this place, and it turned out they were a unique small fundamentalist Christian sect dating back to the last century. We asked to see the adjoining chapel, and were astonished to find an interior where the pulpit seemed to extend right up to a sixties-style false roof. We asked to climb into the pulpit and discovered that by removing a panel, you could put your head into the top part of the artificially divided chapel and see the gallery above, complete with traditional pipe-organ with an extraordinary, melancholic light coming in, giving the roof interior an almost gothic air.

Helen Chadwick had had the idea for the staging of an artificial ‘miracle’ and to our amazement – over a series of tense meetings (including prayers), over a period of months – persuaded the doctor/priests to consent. The result was a major installation of immense power, that commented both on the artists concerns and the extraordinary resonance and history of the site.

Oliver Bennett described it in the ‘New Art Examiner’:

“Blood Hyphen explored this artist’s relationship to religion and femininity… A red laser beam, representing the link (or ‘hyphen’) between the blood of Christ and procreation, shone from a crescent in the wall, cutting through the top bit of the chapel, to land in a photograph of cells, referring to high-tech healing processes for cervical cancer. In the darkened interior of the chapel, it had a similar beatific radiance to stained glass and a feeling of erotic abstraction that would have delighted St Teresa of Avila” (Bennett 1989 62-65).

Interestingly, this installation was recreated perfectly as part of the Barbican’s posthumous retrospective of Helen Chadwick’s work in 2004. The recreation was part-financed by the Wellcome Trust and reframed as a ‘sci-art’ project.”

In 1987, Chadwick was also nominated for the Turner Prize.

In 1996, Helen Chadwick worked with scientists and staff at the Assisted Conception Unit of Kings College Hospital as part of The Arts Catalyst “Body Visual” exhibition. The ”Body Visual” exhibition also included a publication under the same name.

In the “Body Visual” publication, Louisa Buck wrote an essay entitled “Unnatural Selection”, explaining the theories behind the work Chadwick made for this project;

“Human pre-embryos, that would otherwise have been left to perish, are suspended in formalin, their development thereby terminated, and then manipulated by the artist. They are photographed in various compositions, sometimes as solitaires, sometimes interspersed with other organic matter. In these literal and metaphorical still lifes, distinctions between nature and culture, art and science, dissolve and are fixed in the medium of photography, which itself can be seen as a form of suspended animation.

Chadwick has always drawn on an extensive range of materials and methods in order to capture and freeze physical effect. But whether she is casting lambs' tongues in bronze, photographing flowers clustered on the surface of domestic fluids, urinating into snow, or fabricating a fountain of molten chocolate, the physical act of making is always crucial, both as a process of investigation and a means of posing questions. She could have obtained her images of pre-embryos from a picture library, but felt it was essential to become fully engaged with the procedures of IVF in order to experience the fragile negotiations that revolve around human fertility and to reflect them in her work.”

“Invisible to the naked eye, when viewed through the lens of a microscope with light passing through their shadowy subdivisions, the organic pre-embryos shimmer like crystal; and in her three photopieces – the clustered 'Opal', the lozenge of 'Monstrance' and the necklace of 'Nebula' – Helen Chadwick makes a close correspondence between the fragile translucent pre-embryos and precious jewels. Both, it turns out, are assessed and graded by the human eye.

(Chadwick said) “I wanted to play with the aesthetics of value, where the faceting or polishing of gemstones is contrasted with the natural cleaving of cells into further divisions.”

During her residency at King's she discovered that, like precious stones, pre-embryos are scrutinised and valued according to Platonic ideals of order and regularity.”

“Presented as a precious jewel, the embryo is reinstated as a priceless possession, not the by-product of a clinical process but something to be treasured – and mourned. In Christian ritual the “Monstrance” is a vessel in which the host – the body of Christ – is exposed for veneration, and “Unnatural Selection” stands as a testament to the generosity of women and their partners who agreed to donated their fertilised eggs for artistic rather than scientific research.

Arranged in ring clusters, brooch lozenges and beadlike strings these delicate, translucent embryonic baubles recall the vanitas tradition: “homo bulla, man (is) but a bubble”. Just as 17th century Dutch vanitas paintings used still life arrangements and cautionary mottos to speculate on the impermanence of our flesh, so, in its ability to defy death and to evoke the deceased, the photograph can be seen as the vanitas of our times.

“We are reminded that the photographic image can also magically conjure up memory and ease loss; whether nostalgically in the baby album or as a momento mori. Marina Warner has described the photograph as a “magical summons aiming to enshrine identity, creating a memorial which pleads for deathlessness and issues a challenge to time.” and Helen Chadwick's comment evokes a similar sensation: “To observe the embryo down the eyepiece of a microscope at the time of fixing feels like a Victorian's view of an early photograph, except here it is life itself that is being fixed, not time.”

“In Chadwick's photopiece “Nebula”, the necklace of human beads is disrupted by elements of human and vegetable matter. There is a strong visual association between the fragile gossamer spheres of dandelion clocks and the filmy, almost colourless embryos (as well as with the individual dandelion seeds and human sperm); they can also be read as a delicate botanical equivalent to the potential of a human embryo. In “Opal”, the knots of human hair, suspended in clear bubbling saliva, have their origins in Chadwick's experience of the suction pipette, and they act as an abject visual and bodily counterpoint to the jewel like aspiration of the embryos, the hair sharing with these precious stilled lifes as a peculiar intermediate limbo status. The Victorian custom of wearing funereal rings and brooches displaying the painstakingly twisted and braided hair of lost loved ones, also springs to mind, with Chadwick's contemporary viscous knots drawn on the tender, talismanic power of these emblems of affection.”

“At the centre of Nebula's string of embryos and seeds dangles a cataracted human eye. This ocular pendant, pearly white yet sightless, is a splendidly null medallion to the pathos of the terminated embryonic possibilities that surround it; its introspective gaze a reminder of the fundamental role of sight throughout the process of in vitro fertilisation. In “Story of the Eye” Georges Bataille forges an erotic and profane link between egg and eye, similar in shape and substance, first sucked, then blinded and broken wide open; Chadwick sets off a similar psychic chain reaction in the volatile relationship between the beads of Nebula's pendant, which extend through various permutations of whiteness, roundness and milkiness, culminating in the pearly quality of a dead eye'.

The “dead eye” can be read as a paradigm of the relentless eye of science, a symbol of our desire to probe and examine beyond horizons where sight can normally operate. Medicine originally developed sophisticated techniques for visualising the human feotus without having a specific clinical reason for doing so; and we are enthralled by our earliest stirrings in the same way as we are captivated by images of the jewel-like 'Egg' and 'Cat's eye' nebulae of dying stars sent back by the Hubble telescope from the edge of the universe.

'Unnatural Selection' engages with this insatiable human compulsion to look. But if offers another perspective to the supposedly disengaged, empirical eye of medical science. By harnessing the intricate, intimate procedures of IVF to the artistic impulse, Helen Chadwick radically and fantastically reclaimsthe pre-embryo not as a frozen specimen, but as a subjective presence, full of creative – if problematic – solutions to the ethical conundrums raised by current medical practice; instead her loops, knots and clusters point to different and often conflicting needs and expectations.

“In hoc momento pendet eternitas” - in this moment hangs eternity – is the motto inscribed on a note held fast by a skull in a vanitas still life by Pieter Sion [d.1695] which contrasts fine luxurious objects with such symbols of mortality as flowers and fruit. Helen Chadwick also employs humble emblems of the passing of time to speculate on the value of transience and an inevitable movement towards entropy and death. But her metamorphosis of the pre-embryo into a precious jewel marks a transition to a vitrified transcendence beyond individuality, beyond life.

Eternity hangs in these stilled moments; just as the eye at the centre of Nebula's garland of possibilities is not blind but a wondrous pearl, a response to the friction of irresolvable conundrums, it's white expanse less a blank and tragic space than an opaque mirror in which we might reflect upon the frailty and contingence of our transfigured origins.”

Helen Chadwick died in 1996 due to a viral infection which is said to weaken the heart and prevent it from pumping. However, in her absence, the message of her work is all the more poignant.