Helen Chadwick



Not on display

Helen Chadwick 1953–1996
2 transparencies on light boxes
Purchased 1998


Eroticism is a diptych consisting of a pair of oval-shaped cibachrome transparencies sandwiched between glass sheets, mounted on the wall and back-lit by fluorescent strip lights. Four brass fixings, visible on the front of each oval, hold the layers in place. It was made from a photograph of a human brain, set on flesh-coloured velvet, which was duplicated in reverse to create a mirror image. Chadwick took the photograph at a London teaching hospital by special arrangement in 1990. She was accompanied by a technician to supervise the delicate and ethical process of handling a human brain. A second photograph of the brain, in which the artist's hands are visible holding it, was made into a single, oval-shaped transparency and titled Self Portrait 1991 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh). Eroticism was made in an edition of three, of which this is the third. Chadwick has written of this work:

The oval locket of a cranium is opened to reveal an amatory vanitas more vital than the traditional melancholic emblem of mortality, the skull. Here singularity is doubled; two brains lie enraptured, exposed to our gaze, yet we witness the field of their activity, the turbulence of the fabric they lie on. Is this a single brain mirrored, or two individualities? An open locket or a bed? Is eroticism a reciprocal exchange between two or a blind narcissian projection of oneself towards an unseeable other?
(Quoted in De light: Helen Chadwick, [p.14].)

Between 1989 and 1991 Chadwick produced a series of eleven photographic transparencies, collectively titled Meat Lamps, in which she explored the relationship between consciousness and the body using visceral imagery. In Enfleshings I and II 1989 (Tate T06876 and T06877) she used photographs of raw meat, setting an illuminated electrical light filament in the centre of one to symbolise the energy of thought. In Eroticism a sense of energy is provided by intense blue light on one side of each brain, positioned centrally in the diptych as a glow resulting from the proximity of one brain to the other. Chadwick had originally intended to photograph the brain against black velvet, but was disappointed by the overwhelming sense of death this created. However, setting it on a crumpled piece of flesh-coloured velvet proved transformative. The similarity between the folds of cloth and the convolutions of the brain produces a sensual effect which, heightened by the blue light, transcends the usual physical and visual qualities of a preserved medical specimen. As the site of consciousness, the brain necessarily suggests the notion of the energy of thinking. However, viewed in this literal state, it unavoidably evokes mortal flesh. For Chadwick, the Meat Lamps depict 'equivalents … for a human organism' (quoted in Stilled Lives, [p.62]). The two-part structure of a brain, with the differing functions of the left and right halves, may be read as analogous to the opposite but complementary halves of an ideal whole traditionally represented by the male and the female. Separate and parallel, side by side but not physically connected, the two beings posited in Eroticism reflect each other exactly, suggesting the desire of Narcissus for his own reflection. The tension in this relationship is heightened by the double nature of the brain. It is aestheticised and 'enraptured' though the staging of the photograph, but this is only possible because it is dead. These dual aspects connect the danger of death with the projection and mirroring of sexual desire.

Further reading:
Thomas McEvilley, Richard Howard, De light: Helen Chadwick, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania , Pennsylvania 1991, [p.14], reproduced (colour) [p.15]
Effluvia: Helen Chadwick, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1994, p.13, reproduced (colour) plate 24, [pp.58-9]
Marina Warner, Louisa Buck, David Allan Mellor, Stilled Lives: Helen Chadwick, exhibition catalogue, Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh 1996

Elizabeth Manchester
June 2000/September 2001/October 2002

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Display caption

Chadwick’s work explores themes such as time and decay, gender and identity, and the erotic and the cerebral. In this work, the human brain is intended as an image of consciousness and love, in contrast to the skull, an emblem of death more commonly found in art. The double image can be viewed as a mirroring of a single identity, or as ‘two individualities’. The work therefore questions the nature of love: is it a reciprocal exchange, or blind narcissism, the projection of oneself onto an unknowable other?

Gallery label, April 2004

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