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Transcript of 'Viral Landscapes' podcast

Thank you for coming. For those of you who don't already know who I am, my name is Ann Bukantas and I'm the Curator of Fine Art at the Walker.

What I'm going to be talking about today is this piece behind me, 'Viral Landscapes', by Helen Chadwick. We acquired it from Helen Chadwick's Estate earlier this year and it is being shown for the first time in the galleries that we refurbished earlier this year.

For me, it's an exciting acquisition for the collections. Not least, because of Helen's significance, but also because she regarded it as one of the best things that she'd done. I think it's a masterpiece of late 20th century British art and I'm absolutely delighted it's in the Walker's collection.

What I'm going to do is tell you a bit about Helen. Something about the work that came before the 'Viral Landscapes', because it became, pretty much, a turning point in the middle of her career. I'll have an opportunity to show you quickly at the end, if you'd like to see images of the work that came after this. All the publications that I'll show you are still available, but some of them are only available only on a certain website.

You'll probably all be familiar with the work of artists like Damien Hirst and the controversy, in some instances, that surrounds work that they've produced involving things like carcasses of animals and so on. It's still something that is controversial today and attracts a lot of media coverage and public interest.

Helen was actually one of the artists that was instrumental in producing that sort of work. Artists like Hirst and his contemporaries were actually deeply influenced and inspired by the work that Helen Chadwick did. I'll be showing you some images relating to that shortly.

She said in her extensive notebooks that she regards (and this is a direct quote) 'we are energy and matter (meat) and that is our fleshhood'. This whole visceral energy and material that she used very much reflects that very strong feeling that she had.

I've already intimated she's one of the most influential artists of the latter part of the 20th century. She throughout her career had a very strong feminist dimension to her work, but it also had in it quite a wry sense of humour. Particularly in her early career a use of her own body that actually attracted to her increasingly a lot of negative debate and criticism from artists who in turn regarded themselves as feminists because they thought in a way she was perhaps betraying that.

She certainly wasn't an artist without controversy. She used quite deliberately a very, very diverse and challenging collection of materials in her work. I'll be speaking about that in relation to the 'Viral Landscapes' in a while, but I'll shortly be showing you images of work that have included flowers, chocolate, fur. She used household cleaning fluids. She used raw meat. She used urine. She also made images of body cells and human embryos.

She particularly enjoyed pairing opposites, using one to heighten our experience of another. An image that might seemingly be seen as disgusting she might want to present as something that was an image of great beauty. She looked at things like desire by producing images that perhaps some people considered repellant. All the time putting one thing in opposition to another and that's certainly something that she did with this piece.

She was also renowned for being a fantastic perfectionist. The archive of her notes that I'll mention later is something that goes into tremendous detail, almost forensic investigation, surrounding every single piece that she produced. She wanted the end result to be perfection in itself in a way in order to get her ideas across and this piece is absolutely no exception.

Just to give you some general biographical detail on Helen. She was born in 1953 in Croyden in London. She studied first at Brighton Polytechnic in the 1970s. Then she went to Chelsea College of Art and Design and she subsequently was a lecturer at Chelsea, at Goldsmiths, at St Martin's and at the Royal College of Art. Given pretty much anybody who's significant in the British art world today went through one of those colleges they came into contact with her or her work at some period. That again is an indication of her influence.

She throughout her career won numerous awards. She undertook a lot of residencies and in our instance a commission which wasn't something she was necessarily all that happy about but, as I said, it did really change the direction of her work. She exhibited increasingly throughout the UK and internationally. Sadly, Helen died in 1996, she was aged only 42, from a heart virus which subsequently people have commented was really quite poignant and ironic given she spent a latter part of her career really investigating viruses and the impact they had on us as humans and the interaction had with their host and with the natural environment.

Unfortunately, Helen's surviving work was also in the Momart warehouse which was the subject of a devastating fire in 2004 and ten of her artworks were lost. It was good fortune that the Barbican were about to organise an exhibition of her work and only shortly before the fire a lot of it had been moved out of the warehouse and taken to the Barbican art gallery and thank goodness that was the case. Some of her important pieces were sadly lost along with a lot of other artists' work.

I've mentioned that in her early work she used her own body and she used that in a number of ways. Initially, in common with a lot of her contemporaries, she was using it in performance and if you'd like to just pass that book round while I'm talking just rejoin your attention to an image here drawn from one of her performances.

In her early college career, she was looking at quite common themes for the time, exploring sexuality, the idea of human identity. But also, she was developing quite a keen interest in the senses and how as individuals we experience the world around us. She'd stated as she was developing her performance pieces that she felt that traditional media were never dynamic enough so simple things like drawing, oil and canvas, she didn't feel were the right ways for her to express and explore what she wanted to examine.

She, therefore, turned to using her own body, particularly through performance and she felt in particular that that was a way of involving the audience directly in her work.

Bearing in mind she was working at this time in the mid to late seventies there was also quite a punk ethic in some of her work. She was using elements that might be construed as bondage. Things like latex and rubber costumes which was she was incorporating into her performance, so there is quite an element of eroticism in her work. Again, that was something that came to attract criticism from people who perhaps pursued a more hardline feminist approach and felt she was somehow betraying that.

Because she did use herself in her work, and Helen was a very, very beautiful woman, her work was undeniably feminine in its gender and that was something that she eventually came to turn against.

I'm going to have to steal the book back off you now! With got here just an image of Helen in one of her earlier performances. What I want to show you now is some of her early work really to start this progression towards 'Viral Landscapes' and a series of works that are regarded as amongst Helen's most influential early pieces really mark the point at which she started to develop an interest in, not only that continuation of using her own body, but also in using sculpture and in using photography.

I'll hand that to the front row there and the series of works you are looking at are called 'Ego Geometria Sum' which translates as 'I am geometry'and this group of works date to around 1983.

The underlying themes she was studying at the time included mathematics and investigation of mathematics and its relationship with the human body and the idea that the human body could fit into a sort of geometry. What she evolved were these pieces of sculpture which she felt that her own body could be physically mirrored within. The other theme that that group of works pursued related to Helen's own life story. A group of, I think, ten sculptures that traced all the significant periods in Helen's own life. From her premature birth right up to her mature age at that time.

When you look at the pieces you will see that one of the shapes for example is in the shape of a pram. Another is in the shape of an incubator. Another is in the shape of a font. What she did was posed her own body and using photographic emulsion actually transferred those images like a photographic print onto those outline sculptural shapes.

That particular group of works was I think probably the first time people really started to sit up and pay attention and think this person is doing something really different, really significant and really has something to say and it was then that she really started to develop what you might call a following.

The next group of works which built on that came as part of a commission to produce an exhibition for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. As a collection if you like that group of works were called 'Of Mutability' and were made in 1986. For that particular installation, Helen was nominated for the Turner Prize the following year in 1987 and she was actually one of the first female artists to be nominated for the Turner Prize, it had been very much male-dominated up to that point.

Within the 'Of Mutability' installation there were a number of works that were seen to be particularly important and one of those which I'll just hold out some images of here is called 'The Oval Court'. I think a measure of how much an impact this work had was the fact that it was actually bought for the collection of the Victorian and Albert Museum as a result of the exhibition.

To make 'The Oval Court', what Helen did was she produced a number of almost life-size photocopies of her own body using blue toner rather than black toner in the photocopier. She ranged them around a room on a sort of plinth as if they were a pool and comparisons have been drawn between that pool and the idea of Narcissus looking at the reflection in the water. All around the room, forming also part of the same piece were a series of really quite rococo style wall decorations, images of her own face and, in addition, these large gilded spears which Helen has indicated were a sort of symbol of divine intervention.

Amongst in detail the imagery that formed those collages were the corpses of birds and animals, the sort of elements that you might find in a 17th century Dutch still life painting or a vanitas painting. So there were lots of references to traditional art history. Traditional art history was something that Helen studied really quite closely and was very important to her as a component in her work.

Another piece that came out of 'The Oval Court' is the coverpiece on this catalogue here which is called vanity. This is probably the work that Helen made that attracted more controversy than all from her feminist criticisers. It was her own response to 'The Oval Court' which showed her looking at it but reflected back in the mirror. She said at the time she was trying to find a visual language of expressing emotions like desire but it was completely misread. She was accused at one point of attracting men to go out and attack women.

It really was something that was quite disturbing and upsetting to her at that time that that was the response to her work. She also produced another piece, again another part of the ICA installation which was called 'Carcass' and it was a three metre high glass tower full of rotting vegetation which as the exhibition progressed got more and more rotten and completely stank out the whole of the gallery.

She was the first artist that had started to explore in that sort of sensual and sensuous way. She wanted people to be able to see it and smell it and almost taste it. That idea of decay. If you think about pieces like Damien Hirst subsequently did where flies and bluebottles were eating away at an animal carcass, they do have their origins in pieces like this by Helen.

She went on to produce a subsequent piece of work for another exhibition and the inspiration for the next piece of work was her mother and her mother's Greek heritage. She did a series of works that actually incorporated the image of her mother, but also in relation to this she produced an installation piece called 'Blood Hypeh'. And it is 'Blood Hyphen' that is the direct catalyst for the 'Viral Landscapes'.

It was made for an old chapel, I think a Georgian chapel in London. She used the upper floor of the chapel, the chapel building actually had a sort of false floor and through a slit she shone a laser beam and the laser beam drew the attention of the viewer to this projection. What's actually projected here are images of Helen's own cells that were taken from a cervical smear. That was really what started to become the turning point for her interest, not in using her external body, if you like, but actually going inside her body and I think that for her was a direct response to some of the criticism that her work had attracted where people were perhaps becoming obsessed with the gender element of her work rather than the issues she was actually trying to examine through it.

She felt that one of the best ways that she could stand back from that was to actually look inside herself and she became more and more interested in the potential that the inner self offered as a material rather than using her own naked body as she had done in the majority of her work before that. By the time she made 'Blood Hyphen' as well she was starting to become very, very famous. She was in a situation where everybody was waiting for her next move and that was something she was very very conscious of.

Moving on from this original piece here, she then was given an opportunity to take this burgeoning interest in the idea of cells and subsequently the idea of a virus and make a much larger scale work. The end result of that were the 'Viral Landscapes' and it is now regarded as by commentators on Helen's work but was also regarded by Helen herself as one of her most important pieces of work.

It was made in around 1988-9. At that time Aids was in the headlines. A lot of research was being done on the virus and Helen, in common with many of her contemporaries was really quite interested in that and wanted in Helen's own forensic way to really push her investigation of the nature of virus and the idea of virus can't exist without a host and the comparison she felt between the virus and the natural landscape.

She really wanted to take that as far as she could. She was offered a residency, if you like, under what was then the artists in national parks scheme which was in Helen's case managed by the Victoria and Albert Museum. She was sent off to Pembrokeshire National Park and she has said that she felt at the time that 'it puts one in the position of being a cultural tourist'. She was quite unhappy with the idea of being put in a position where she had to make a specific piece of work, inspired by in this case the environment she was sent to.

But she certainly wasn't one who didn't want to rise to the challenge and I think she did that in a magnificent way.

She thought that by taking on the commission it would make her address her audience again and not perhaps work in such a completely hermetic way as she was starting to do. She also thought that the challenge of working with such an unfamiliar place and in an unfamiliar way would actually be something that would be a really quite exciting challenge.

What she talked about is she felt it was about her actually negotiating with the physical world as she described it. At the same time it did enable her to really quite intensively start her investigations of biological systems, cells, viruses and things which really informed all her subsequent work.

In order to make the landscapes, there's a series of five very large scale photographic images and they're quite complex images. But once you start to understand how they were made they do start to come together and make a lot more sense. She went down to the coastline. She did various investigation into which parts of the coastline had visual impact for her. She then threw paint onto the waves. She took canvases, so ironically she was working with paints and canvas, she then threw canvases onto the waves to pick up the paint, in the same way you would do marbling with paper. Indeed in her notebooks she has made references to the similarities of the techniques she used here with something as simplisic as marbling.

The canvases themselves with these sort of sea paintings, whatever you want to describe them as, were then photographed. The photographs then became the basis for the representational landscape elements that you see here. She then started to think about those landscape shapes in relation to elements of her own body and she went through quite an interesting process in order to do that.

The process she followed is actually documented in her notebooks. Helen's notebooks are now in the collection of the archive at the Henry Moore Centre for the Study of Sculpture in Leeds. I think there are 90 boxes. It's an incredible archive. When I went there to see what there was on the landscapes there were pages and pages of notes. Some of them quite random, things that had just fired off in her mind. But there was specific references to how she orientated herself within this alien landscape. One of the things that she did was she had in her mind this painting of the dead Christ by the artist Mantegna.

What she did was she lay down on the coast with an inverted view of that painting. So she lay with her head to the ocean, but certainly with that pose in mind and what was really interesting for me was the pages that follow her notes about doing that are, and this isn't a photocopy of Helen's notebook, this is a photocopy of my notes looking at Helen's notebook.

She then produced a series of little diagrams and annotations next to them describing how she wanted to position herself on the beach. You've got a little body-like figure here and it says flat or with knees-up, lying on ground. Looking, as I've already mentioned at the shapes of the landscape, she started to make these visual notes about how the imagery of the landscape might subsequently be manipulated in order to give the end result.

So, hugely complex, like seeing the workings of somebody's mind on paper and trying to piece that together in order to get the sense of how exactly these pieces were made. One of the easiest of these images to get your head round in terms of how Helen was thinking is the fourth landscape which has this swirling, almost shell-like curve at the end over the yellow piece. What she started to do was to look for relationships between a landscape and elements of her own body and in some of the swirling forms of the paint on that image she started to think about her ear.

If you imagine how literally the shape of your ear follows that echoed in Helen's mind the swirling forms of the shape of the paint over that particular of that landscape. She went on to document relationships really quite extensively between different parts of her body and what these images made her think of. Particularly inspired by the idea of the senses because one of the things that had struck her as she lay down in that pose by the sea was how it was very much not a visual thing but it was about sound and it was about taste and it became very much about emotion.

She's recorded here mouth, tongue = taste. That's tied up with St Govan's head. I think this is this piece here. I did find it, and I'm still working on this, to find accurate documentation of which location is which part of the landscape. I've certainly still got work to do here.

The fourth one that I've just talked about she'd written ear, wax, hearing, labyrinth. The red piece in the centre there is blood and she likened that to boulders, the blood cells that you see overlaid that image reminded her of boulders.

The five parts of her body that she ended up using cells from in this work which was subsequently superimposed over these landscapes were from her mouth, from her ear, from her blood, from her cervix and from her kidney, from her urine.

She was very actively starting to put together the final image in her mind. In order to create the manipulated images that you see here which are the picture of the landscape, the picture of the paint on the waves over the landscape and finally the images of Helen's own body cells, she used very complex digital photo manipulation programs. The notes do suggest that Helen did a lot of that actual manipulation herself and they go into really quite exhaustive detail, noting what she needed to do, the sort of adjustments that she needed to make.

For example, she's recorded on one 'bring in more left and right, adjust magenta/cyan, cliff rotated 5 degrees'. Every single image has line after line after line of adjustment notes. She also made reference in her notes to specific art historical elements. She was doing a study, for example, of the frames of the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dyce and Hunt. What you actually see here in these large vaulted curved shapes is a deliberate attempt to mirror, if you think of those beautiful hand-made purpose-built frames that much Pre-Raphaelite painting has, Helen has deliberately wanted to make reference to that in the shapes that she's created in certain of the landscapes.

In addition to that, she'd made little notes to herself to do more reading, more studying on the work of the artists Turner, Sutherland, Piper. Those artists who have very much a romantic sensibility. Who were almost in the way that they viewed and produced their work, at one with the landscape. She really wanted to get into their psyche. By understanding that, put something of that towards helping her produce the works that she wanted to make here.

The size and scale and shape of each landscape is as deliberate as every other element and they're actually deliberately made to echo a medical slide. As I've said, they incorporate her own cells, they are self-portraits in that respect. They're in direct proportion to medical slides and they're also in part determined by a camera called a wide looks camera that was used to take those images. The photographer that Helen worked with frequently in her work was a chap called Edward Woodman, who was somebody who not only helped her produce finished work but also did a lot of the installation photography for her. It was important she worked with somebody she felt really understood and could get inside her work.

The frames of the pieces are as deliberate in her own way as the frames of those Pre-Raphaelite works. They were crafted by somebody in London who always made Helen's frames for her. They're angled steel and they're powder-coated. I think they're meant to have that slightly medical hard-edged thing underpinning some of the themes that she was exploring in the landscapes.

The photographs themselves are actually on aluminium or plywood. They're beautifully made objects, phenomenally heavy if you ask any of our handling team. We had quite a challenge putting them up.

The end result is a hybrid between photography, performance (because of course there was this performance element - throwing the canvases on the water (and the canvasses do still exist incidentally)). They're also very sculptural and they're also an installation in their own right.

Somebody has asked me previously if we're allowed to show them individually or in smaller groups and it is possible we can do that. We did ask about that when we acquired them. Certainly for their first launch pad at the Walker we did want to really be able to show them as they were intended on this fantastic scale with such considerable impact.

That's pretty much in terms of the Landscapes themselves, as much as I wanted to say, but what I want to do just before the end really is to show you some of the works that came immediately after this because I think the Landscapes are not only important in their own right but they do have a context which is what they led onto. I've already mentioned that Helen's interest in the idea of viruses and cells and that hidden beauty in them that perhaps nobody else would see was something that went on to obsess her in a way.

In order to explore that further and this is the work that she produced in what was to be the last few years of her life she took that element that drove her to learn how to do certain computer programs and things in order to produce these works, she took that a step further and started learning medical techniques and working very closely with doctors and scientists to learn how they worked with these absolutely microscopic forms in order to make her work, to make the next set of her work.

What we have as an end result is an absolutely beautiful group of works that take things that in some instances are really very uncomfortable to look at but make them into objects of quite extraordinary beauty and she worked with collections of medical specimens in jars so here I believe a still-born monkey and here we have a child that had been born with just one eye in the centre of its forehead and had ended up in a medical collection in London. Helen's used photographs of these to actually form these cameos if you like and really does want to present them as objects of tremendous beauty but at the same time, behind it, she was very interested in that idea of what is perfection? What is beauty?

That led to her studying structures such as pre-implantation embryos. These were unviable embryos that were about to be destroyed. The reason she discovered that that was the case was because embryos for implantation, human embryos were selected on the basis of their perfection. There were certain criteria used such as symmetry and that fascinated Helen. These didn't meet with that symmetry.

With this particular group of works, she mounted them in these beautiful perspex structures that were made after Helen's death because these were the works she was working on when she died. She based them on the ideas of Victorian mourning jewellery. You have here a brooch and a ring. These are quite large pieces with great physical presence and yet have their origins in these microscopic structures.

Before that some of the other works by Helen that you might be familiar with that came after the Landscapes were up there with her most controversial works were the 'Piss Flowers' which were made by her and her partner peeing in the snow and they then took casts of the holes in the snow. She then inverted them and made these fantastic bronze sculptures.

The trick that you always need to know about these are that the ones with the longest stems are Helen rather than David weeing in the snow. What you've ended up with is these fantastic bronzes that are just painted white. She didn't want the bronze itself to dominate. They end up looking like flowers planted on a lawn. She went on to create, still following some of the themes that the Landscapes had started looking at, the idea that things, natural forms of great beauty such as flowers, could be combined with their complete opposites such as in this case I think it's motor oil, to create things that were like still life paintings. Very beautiful but when you start to think about what you're looking at, you're looking at some chemicals combined with some of the most beautiful things that nature can produce.

That was very much in the foremost of her mind when she did that. The group together came to be known as 'The Bad Blooms' and I think that was something that Helen gained great amusement from. She also very notably produced to go with the flowers her very famous chocolate fountain which was called 'CACOW' and that was shown at the Serpentine gallery in London. I think it weighs about two tonnes someone once told me. It literally is a massive chocolate fountain full of molten chocolate, bubbling away. Again, the whole of the Serpentine gallery smelt of this beautiful, rich chocolate.

Some of you may have seen this recently in the Helen Chadwick exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery which followed on from its showing at the Barbican. Again it's that same idea when you think back to Helen lying on the beach and taking in the smell of the sea and the sensation of the sea and to her that was something very erotic and only a human could experience that.

The same sensations of sight and taste and smell, she was wanting to evoke when she made pieces like this. It's also hugely erotic. People were likening it to all sorts of physical processes. As well as what Helen wanted to liken it to which was the idea of a flower, a beautiful bloom in the way that the chocolate bubbled up.

I think that probably concludes, there's a lot of Helen's work that I haven't spoken about. Some of the more overt pieces that she made using raw meat and fur, all of which were end products, no animals were killed in the process of making Helen's work, that's certainly not something she would have done. If you do want to have a look through these publications, I'll leave them here for five minutes or so. I think you'll agree that she was a master of taking of things that none of us would ever contemplate making art from that were really quite repellent and disgusting at times and turning them into things of fantastic beauty that really do touch your senses in a way that Helen wanted people's senses to be touched. I think she somehow wanted to get across the experiences that she was feeling making it. She loved getting her hands on things. She loved the physical act of actually making these works, that was part of the whole process to her.

- Can I ask you about her early life? Did she have ill health that made her interested in viruses?

Not that I'm aware of. There is an interesting story about Helen's health in relation to one of the pieces in here. I think she was born prematurely but I think the virus was just an opportunistic virus that happened to. If I can find it in here, she did a small series of works that involved human brains, again from medical and pathological collections and she made this piece which she called 'Self-portrait'.

The reason it's a self-portrait is those hands are Helen's and if you look really closely you'll see that her thumbnails are quite deformed. They're quite flattened and they're quite marked and ridged. One of the doctors who saw this, Helen, because of the work she was doing did various conferences and seminars and things, I believe at one of these a doctor had had a look at this image and she came up to Helen and wanted to speak to her and wanted to get her checked out because they were concerned that the damage to her nails was a sign there was something physically wrong going on and they were the physical manifestation of it.

I'm not certain that was ever followed through and Helen argued that the reason that her nails had been destroyed was because of some of the chemicals she was working with and some of the processes she was using. There are stories like that.

- Was she from an artistic family?

I don't think so. Her mother was a Greek woman and her father was a British soldier who'd been stationed in Greece and after they'd met Helen's mother moved to England and that whole series of works that Helen made, the autobiographical ones that made reference to her mother, were made in part because owing to the fact she'd moved to England her mother gave up her inheritance right under Greek law to the family home in Greece and Helen felt there were so many stories and issues behind that and that was one of the reasons she made that series of works. Almost to reinherit that, bring it back to the female line, as it were.

Her lineage and her mother's Greek homeland remained passionate parts of her work throughout, they keep re-emerging.