Text by Alice Miller
Helen Chadwick: ‘Wreaths to Pleasure’ at the Henry Moore Institute presents three works from the ‘Wreaths to Pleasure’ series of photographs (1992-3), alongside a selection of unseen preparatory material relating to the conception, development and construction of the ‘Wreaths’, taken from the Institute’s extensive Chadwick archive.
As the title suggests, the works are circular in form, and depict ornate floral arrangements, yet to her ‘wreaths’ Chadwick incorporates a range of noxious fluids and deviant substances. Flowers, foodstuffs and household cleaning products coalesce in potent sculptural concoctions. In one work, orchids sit afloat a pink sea of windolene, framed by a membrane of lime marmalade. In another, a single plum placed within a pool of engine oil provides the nucleus to a garland of red and orange tulips. The resulting photographs are not only wreath-like, but also strongly evoke cellular bodies, resembling biological organisms in a state of gestation. Photographing the compositions from above, Chadwick generates a sense of looking down at these organic ‘bodies’ as if through a microscope or within a Petri dish.
Penetrating through the ‘flesh’, Chadwick confronts us with visions of bodily interiority. Intensely colourful, Chadwick’s microcosmic creations burst with luminosity, making them overwhelmingly alluring. Yet the beauty of the photographs is imbued with the grotesque, the sumptuous quality of the flowers offset by the inclusion of sickly substances.
Rather than placing focus on Chadwick’s finished work, the exhibition foregrounds Chadwick’s creative process, as the gallery space is dominated by five large format test prints from the ‘Wreaths’ series. Supplementing these works-in-progress is a rich display of related archive ephemera, including notebooks, sketchbooks, magazine cuttings and letters. Horizontally displayed on elegant trestle tables, this wealth of material gives considerable insight into the working processes of Chadwick; the careful and considered formation of each meticulous composition.
Whilst Chadwick’s adoption of the funerary wreath motif points towards mortality, the works’ simultaneous resemblance to cell-like organisms suggests the generating of new life. The cycle of birth and death, growth and decay, contained within these wreath-like bodies attests to the transience and temporality of being, a concept that Chadwick seemed eager to convey through this work. If we look to Chadwick’s notes we can find clues to the works’ conceptual genesis. One example, scrawled in the bottom corner of one of Chadwick’s notebooks is the Biblical allusion: “All flesh is grass”. This one small statement among a page of copious notes provides a valuable trace of Chadwick’s creative thought.
Helen Chadwick: ‘Wreaths to Pleasure’ is on display at the Henry Moore Institute until 17th February 2013.
Alice Miller is a History of Art postgraduate and writer based in Leeds