Helen Chadwick



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Not on display

Helen Chadwick 1953–1996
Organic waste and acrylic or glass
Object: 2290 × 610 × 610 mm
Purchased 2018


Carcass 1986 is a process-based work made up of a transparent tower (originally fabricated using glass and more recently Perspex) over two metres in height, and filled with organic household waste material. Originally the artist collected the waste over several months from her neighbours on Beck Road in the East End of London. The work is formed through, and physically embodies, abjection, fashioned from the base material of rotting matter. It was originally conceived as one part of Chadwick’s solo exhibition Of Mutability (Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1986 and subsequent tour) that addressed the construction of the Ego – most especially through a large photographic installation, The Oval Court 1984–6 (Victoria & Albert Museum, London). As an emblem of death and mortality, corruption and decay, the tower that makes up Carcass reflects more closely the exhibition’s overall title, but also was held by the artist to be itself a form of body, ‘continuous with nature / deliberate mixing of pure + impure’ (Artist’s notebook in the Henry Moore Institute Archive of Sculptors’ Papers, Leeds) . By extension, the body here also stood in for a more general decay within the body politic – a social fragmentation played out within the fixed boundaries of the tower.

Carcass was only installed once in the artist’s lifetime, at the ICA, but was not included in the subsequent tour of the exhibition because the decaying waste matter had begun to leak from the original glass structure. It was re-installed posthumously at Tate Liverpool in 2014, when the decision was taken to construct the tower out of Perspex rather than glass to prevent such leakage. The tower is reconstructed each time the work is displayed and new organic waste collected.

Chadwick had envisaged Carcass as an emblem in the context of the Edenic life-cycle proposed in her Of Mutability exhibition and symbolised in The Oval Court. This installation presented a range of situations and experiences visualised through the siting of twelve life-size collaged photocopied prints of the artist’s naked body that appeared to float or dance within the environment of an imaginary oval pool, on which were placed five large gold spheres (the pool reflecting the proportions of a hand, but also thought of as a ‘fallen sky’ or a ‘mystic womb’ and the spheres being fingers, or ‘idealisations of touch’ [Barbican Art Gallery 2004, p.52]). Each figure was accompanied by animal and vegetable attributes. On the walls around the pool, and framing it, was a colonnade made up of printed drawings of Salomonic columns (derived from the Baldacchino in St Peter’s, Rome), each pair of columns being joined by a photographic image of Chadwick’s grimacing face weeping streams of tears made up of a cascade of vegetation – twelve faces in all. The rational architecture of column and sphere contrasted with the imagery of a pagan natural world in flux.

Overlooking this scene from an adjoining room was the tower of compost, Carcass, emphasising the cycle of regeneration and death that underpinned Of Mutability. In terms of the exhibition, the tower contained the rotting vegetable and animal matter imaged within The Oval Court, although collected from Chadwick’s neighbours’ households. What she could not predict, however, was how the tower of waste would react and what it might therefore look like as it changed throughout the display, something she explained in an interview ten years later:

what I hadn’t anticipated was the fact that there would be this fermentation process, particularly with the weight compacting the lower, older material down, and it was constantly percolating bubbles which you could watch kind of fizzing up. So ironically it became more a metaphor for life than The Oval Court, stretched out like a blue corpse in the next room.
(‘Interview with Mark Haworth-Booth’, in Portfolio Gallery 1996, unpaginated.)

Through the 1980s and early 1990s an engagement with the philosophy of the abject was common among many artists. Helen Chadwick’s representations of the body as an expression of the cycles of existence as manifested in Of Mutability, and her turn from body to meat as subject in works such as Enfleshings I 1989 (Tate T06876), Enfleshings II 1989 (Tate T06877) and Eroticism 1990 (Tate T07411), are evidence of the significance that the writings of the philosopher Julia Kristeva had at this time. The curator Mary Horlock, writing specifically about Chadwick’s work, observed that, with her book The Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection (1980, translated into English 1982), Kristeva:

sought to bring the body back into discourses in the human sciences, and used the abject to describe anything that disrupted ‘identity, system, order’, aligning it to the feminine, the maternal body, and associating it with specific objects or substances (excrement, flesh, filth, blood). The abject was a way of challenging social taboos and transgressing gender, and Chadwick’s use of rotting mater, bodily fluids and butcher’s meat all suggest disjunction and aberration in line with Kristeva’s thinking.
(Mary Horlock, ‘Between a Rock and a Soft Place, in Barbican Art Gallery 2004, p.40.)

Further reading
Marina Warner, Enfleshings Helen Chadwick, London 1989, illustrated p.63.
Stilled Lives, Helen Chadwick, exhibition catalogue, Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh 1996.
Helen Chadwick, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 2004, illustrated pp.66 and 75.

Andrew Wilson
November 2017

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