BY Louisa Buck in Fan Letter | 09 JAN 19
Featured in
Issue 200

Louisa Buck on Helen Chadwick’s ‘Nebula’

‘Chadwick relished combining provocative and problematic materials in order to probe the body and its boundaries’

BY Louisa Buck in Fan Letter | 09 JAN 19

Helen Chadwick in residence at King’s College Hospital Assisted Conception Unit, London, 1995. Courtesy: Edward Woodman, DACS/Artimage 2018; photograph: Edward Woodman 

Helen Chadwick’s Nebula intersperses four circular images of bubble-like organic cells with two of dandelion ‘clock’ seed heads and a central photograph of a cataracted human eye. Arranged in a beadlike string, this stylized necklace of delicate whites, blues and silvers shimmers with visual correspondences between fragile gossamer spheres, crystalline cell structures and a single pearlescent blinded eye. But the association between these component parts becomes much more complicated with the knowledge that the cells are human pre-embryos that would otherwise have been left to perish and which here have been suspended in formalin and manipulated via oral pipette by the artist before being photographed.

Chadwick took a particular relish in combining provocative and often problematic materials in order to probe the body and its boundaries. Whether she was casting male and female piss-holes in the snow, entwining blonde hair with pig’s intestines, combining flower petals with cleaning fluids or fabricating a fountain of molten chocolate, her art played with, and off, taboos, clichés and artistic conventions in order to interrogate who and what we are. 

Nebula is one of three, jewel-like sculptures which have the collective title ‘Unnatural Selection’ and came out of Chadwick’s time as artist-in-residence at King’s College Hospital Assisted Conception Unit in 1995. Here, she immersed herself in the intricacies of medical practice and, with her abiding interest in testing the boundaries between nature and culture, became fascinated by the ambiguous status of the in-vitro egg, surgically harvested from the prospective mother and then artificially fertilized in the laboratory. For Chadwick, this external, managed fertilization represented a movement from nature to artifice with the in-vitro fertilized egg analogous to a fabricated work of art. 

Presented in Nebula as precious jewels, these pre-embryos are transformed into priceless possessions to be treasured and mourned, rather than the by-product of a clinical process. The delicate, translucent, fertilized eggs shimmer like crystal in their beadlike string whilst at the same time recalling the vanitas saying: homo bulla est (man is but a bubble).

Long before it became fashionable for contemporary artists to play with and off the notion of memento mori, the vanitas tradition was a dominant theme in Chadwick’s work and Nebula finds her harnessing the processes of science to further explore the mysteries of the life cycle and processes of growth and decay. This was an investigation she repeatedly returned to from the early Ego Geometria Sum (I Am Geometry, 1983–86), which traces her life from infancy to adulthood via a succession of solid forms, through to the two-part magnum opus Of Mutability (1986), which paired photographs of Chadwick’s own naked body adorned, beribboned and set adrift amongst animals, insects, flowers and vegetables with a glass tower-cum-compost heap containing the rotting, putrefying matter itself.

In the literal and metaphorical still lifes presented in the necklace of Nebula, distinctions between nature and culture, art and science, dissolve and are fixed in the medium of photography, which itself is a form of suspended animation. The dead human eye that dangles as a central, sightless pendant underlines the pathos of the terminated embryonic possibilities that surround it; it also draws attention to the role of sight in the process of in-vitro fertilization in which embryos – like precious stones – are scrutinized and valued according to Platonic ideals of order and regularity. Another connection could be made with the relentless eye of science and our obsessive desire to probe and examine beyond where sight can normally operate, whether the first stirrings of life in the womb or the nebulae of dying stars sent back from the edge of the universe. Complicated and often contradictory readings flood through Nebula, which was one of the last works that Chadwick completed before her premature death on 15 March 1996 at the age of 42. It is a memento mori that has become a memorial to the artist herself. 

Louisa Buck is a writer based in London, UK.