The Burden Of Physicality - interview by Chris Blackford

British avant-garde artist, Helen Chadwick, was the first person to be interviewed for Rubberneck. Prior to 1986, the magazine's contents had been primarily reviews-based, so I wanted the next issue to be a more ambitious statement, to include a few interviews with important and, above all, idiosyncratic figures in the arts. Helen Chadwick was, therefore, an obvious choice; her recent Of Mutability exhibition at London's ICA had generated considerable controversy because of its use of unusual materials. In fact, throughout her career her work was never far from controversy - some of it, I daresay, courted, the rest whipped up by the popular press which, surprisingly, took an interest (albeit sensationalist) in her complex, often beguiling images. However, beneath the controversal surface, her work possesses a lasting beauty, often created from the unlikeliest of materials.

The interview that follows was recorded at Birmingham Art Gallery in 1986 while Chadwick was artist-in-residence there. It was originally published in Rubberneck 3, but since only 300 copies of that issue were printed it has been out of print for the best part of 13 years. This was also my first interview and, as somebody untutored in journalistic technique, I was naturally apprehensive (having borrowed a cumbersome and temperamental tape recorder didn't help matters, either). I needn't have worried. Helen Chadwick was the ideal interviewee. Controversial she may have been, but this rising star of the avant-garde was also courteous, attentive, unpretentious and extremely lucid - a fine communicator. I enjoyed the interview very much (despite the tape recorder playing up) and consequently gained the confidence and impetus to do more. I was also rather chuffed that she wanted to know more about Rubberneck and what plans I had for it.

Helen Chadwick's sudden death in March 1996 at the age of 42 robbed Britain of one of its most original visual artists of recent decades. This short interview is republished here by way of a tribute to her. (Chris Blackford, January 1999)

What was the initial inspiration, the starting-point for Of Mutability?

HC Of Mutability came from a poem by Spenser which is part of the Faerie Queene. Of Mutability is a small piece at the end which talks about how things are subject to change. More to the point, my work is to do with the burden of physicality and sentience, and how desires and pleasures are very fleeting. How all human experience seems to be very frail, like a bubble. So I wanted a title that wasn't too literal, but if you like, made people conscious of this cycle of changing, nature changing, experience changing.

And the part of the exhibition you call Carcass, this is a metaphor for human change?

HC Yes, it was meant to be a way of looking at the body; and the column full of compost was a way of thinking about your own body standing there. The fact that it's subject to death and decay.

Using compost as a material for a work of art is certainly unusual. How did this come about?

HC Well, I've been using all kinds of living organic matter, both animal and vegetable, in the other part of the exhibition, The Pool, where I was photocopying directly from vegetation and animal bodies. Of course, what happens is that one has to work quite rapidly because these things decay. I suppose just through the business of the animals becoming more and more corrupted so I couldn't work with them any more, and the leaf matter shrivelling, I became interested in that passage. I wanted to produce a counterpoint for this delicious world of desire and the senses that was much more specifically to do with how frail things break and decay, and how they become foul. What was surprising when the column was first built and all that material put in it, was how incredibly beautiful it looked.

This tension was certainly apparent when one looked at the photographs of the work.

HC Yes, a kind of paradox really. That which is foul, is really so exquisite.

This, of course doesn't apply to the other work in the exhibition, The Pool, which more obviously conveys images of sensuality and beauty. How have you used the theme of mutability here?

HC To put it simply, the main part of the work is a blue surface that is supposed to stand as a metaphor for a pool, and resting on it are 12 figures made by using photocopies. Each of those 12 is an exploration for me of some kind of physical sensation, or some aspect of desire. So I used my body to make them directly; so they're partly autobiographical, but they're also great fictions and portraits, because they actually come from my body. They are also very much a way of picturing something you can't see, because it's to do with an impulse, something internal. The gold spheres on the surface of the pool act as a counterpoint to all the changing, floating, swimming images of myself in all these aspects of desire. I wanted to give the sense of immutability, something never changing, something eternal.

I found your use of the photocopying machine as a means of creating images of passion and desire interesting, incongruous even.

HC Yes, it seemed very incongruous to use Hi-tech equipment to produce a place of desire. But I was interested in sabotaging the conventions of business machinery, computer technology, as a way of producing the irrational, states of feeling, out of it. That seemed to me to be a way of subverting it, and of making it alive, a creative tool. I feel, like a lot of contemporary artists, distrustful of the conceit of the artist's hand. This talented hand, able to tosh off these beautiful creations.

Your current work-in-progress, which also involves photocopying, is based on an 18th century painting in the Birmingham Art Gallery, Allegory Of Misrule, by Johann Platzer. I read that you intend to show the central figure transcending the conditions of male dominance and oppression. Would you describe it as a feminist work?

HC Feminism is to do with politics, problems of power and relationships. In Of Mutability I was concerned with issues of desire. In this image I am concerned with a more exterior, objective sphere. I think of this work as being cautionary. In the same way that the original allegory is about misrule, I wish to make an allegory for misrule. I feel it is very much a feminist issue because of the work that a lot of women are doing now. I think very much of the women at Greenham. I would like to show this central figure, this woman, as struggling with the burden and oppressive knowledge of the inevitable consequences of this society. So the figure is both a self-portrait in one sense, because it's a way of me coming to terms with my fears for the future; but at the same time, she stands in that position of conscience that many many women in our society stand.

I identify society as being male. I identify the fears, the destruction as being male caused. But I don't want the work to be seen as a propagandist message, there are placards that can do that job. Although the issue is an external one, a public and collective one, I would hope that it would work on the individual in a private and intimate way. That it would, if you like, prick their conscience. R

Text © Rubberneck 1986 & 1999; owner of photography copyright unknown

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