Ego Geometria Sum (1983-6) consists in its entirety of ten laminated plywood sculptures, their surfaces covered with photographic images, and ten accompanying photographs. Initially titled ‘Growing Pains’, it charts the artist’s development from birth to the age of thirty through ten key stages of her life. These are embodied in ten geometric sculptures based on everyday objects of nostalgic significance from her past. Shadowy photographs of Chadwick’s naked body are superimposed with photographs of the original objects and other related elements on the geometric forms. Following the mathematical structure of a spiral, the sculptures correspond to dates increasingly far apart. When the work was first exhibited in the mid 1980s, at Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth (1983) and at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London (1986), the sculptures were installed in a spiral layout. The earliest, formative years of the artist’s life are accordingly represented most comprehensively. An incubator represents the artist’s premature birth, a font the artist at three months, a pram is the artist at ten months, a rowing boat marks two years, a wigwam five and a bed represents the artist at six and three-quarters. School years are represented by a piano for nine years, a gym-horse for eleven years and a perfect cube, subtitled High School, for thirteen years. Finally, the years fifteen to thirty are represented by a rectangular column, Statue, which is the height of the artist at the age of thirty and bears a life sized image of her standing body. The accompanying photographs, The Labours I-X, show the naked artist holding or lifting each sculpture in front of theatrical drapes. They progress naturally, following the increasing size of the objects, from views of Chadwick on her knees tenderly cradling the ‘incubator’ and ‘font’ in The Labours I and II, to the culminating image of the artist bracing her body as she lifts the life-sized columnar representation of herself in The Labours X. Chadwick later explained:
I had to make Ego Geometria Sum as a way of trying to define the past, so that I could then use this as a springboard into something else. So Ego Geometria Sum is very classical in its philosophy in that self is reduced to ten supposedly immutable forms which represent the pattern of growth ... At that time I was looking to suggest that in the space beyond the forms, in those spaces that the forms did not occupy, was some sense of memory, but in a way that was very much defined by classical philosophy: the music of the spheres and the idea that in numbers you can approach divinity. Although I was trying to capture something quite immaterial (memory), the means by which I did it were quite rational.
(Quoted in Cocker, p.1.)
In all the photographs of her, both on the sculptures and in The Labours, Chadwick’s face is averted from the camera and only her cropped dark hair is visible above her body, which is bare but conspicuously ornamented with metal bracelets, rings and a crucifix on chain around her neck. The absence of visible facial features emphasises the confrontation between body and geometry, which takes on an anonymous aspect. The title recalls the mythical labours of Hercules, sentenced to perform a series of twelve tasks demanding great strength and courage to atone for killing his own children in a fit of madness inflicted on him by the jealous goddess Hera, in Classical legend. Chadwick’s use of it suggests that an attempt to define and encapsulate personal history, in the orderly method represented by mathematical structures, may be a Herculean task. The earlier title, referring to ‘pains’, would seem to corroborate this. In the photographs on the sculptures the artist’s body is often contorted into unnatural positions to fit onto the geometric structures. In The Labours, the awkward bulk of the geometric forms contrasts with the artist’s slender body grappling to support them, underlining the difficulty of reconciling objective facts with personal memory.
The combination of sculpture with photography was central to Chadwick’s practice. Going against the grain of mainstream 1970s and 1980s feminism, she used her own body in her work in order to express her subjectivity in physical and metaphysical arenas. She wrote: ‘Photography is my skin. As membrane separating this from that, it fixes the point between, establishing my limit, the envelope in which I am. My skin is image, surface, medium of recognition. Existing out there, the photograph appears to duplicate the world, disclosing me within its virtual space.’ (Quoted in Enfleshings, p.109.) The photographs representing The Labours were taken by Mark Pilkington. Tate’s version is an unique set made to be exhibited, hung between peach-coloured curtains, with the sculptures in the original installation. Nine of the photographs also exist as a smaller-scale edition.
Marina Warner, Enfleshings: Helen Chadwick, London 1989, pp.9-25
Self Evident: the Artist as the Subject 1969-2002, exhibition brochure, Tate London 2002, p.11
Emma Cocker, ‘Interview with Helen Chadwick’, Helen Chadwick, exhibition catalogue, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull 1998, pp.1-2