George Steiner was wasting his time as well as ours when he delivered his now famous Edinburgh rant about the impending death of art. Instead of terrifying the poor art-lovers of Edinburgh with the potty prognosis that art’s place as a civilising force will be taken over by science, Steiner should have got himself down to the city’s Portfolio Gallery, where a plangent exhibition by Helen Chadwick makes clear that art will always have an important role to play in the modern world: warning theory-starved polyglot professors of the grotesque consequences of an untrammelled faith in science.
As we shall see, one of the chief points made by Chadwick’s beautiful, delicate, inventive, thought-provoking and heroically antiscientific exhibition is that science should not be trusted with our ethics. Something else that Steiner could do with remembering is that art, unlike science, is not afraid of mysteries: indeed, it courts them. It is precisely this ability to supply an overexplained modern world, overexplained by science, that is, with a continuing supply of the inexplicable that ensures modern art’s long-term survival. Science has made it possible for us to count the exact number of atoms in Damien Hirst’s bisected cow, but it will never be able to explain exactly why the poor dumb creature had to be cut in half in the first place. Nobody can.
Helen Chadwick died this year (1996), which gives her final exhibition a memorial air. Amazingly, science has been unable to explain why she died. She was standing in the street and her heart stopped. It was not a heart attack. Her heart just stopped. She was in her early forties, thin, energetic, impish, one of the country’s leading artists; dark, striking-looking and good in the nude, as she makes clear in a deliberately naughty self-portrait in which she casts herself as Venus gazing at her own reflection in a mirror. Venus gazing into a mirror is a celebrated vanitas subject, an ancient lament upon the inevitable fading of earthly beauty.
Casting herself as a nude Venus is a classic Chadwick approach to the subject of death. She was small yet usually appeared to be tackling the biggest imaginable topics, like one of those ants you sometimes see struggling home with a piece of wood many times larger than itself, but always getting there.
In her final work, Chadwick strode out bravely, and pertinently, across the ethical quagmire that surrounds artificial insemination. She was one of those favoured artists who was always being placed somewhere or other by this or that institution, and as artist in residence at the Assisted Conception Unit of King’s College Hospital, London, she found herself surrounded by human pre-embryos (or is that pre-human embryos?) and foetuses. Many artists might have recoiled, but not Chadwick, who always had a taste for things corporeal and mutable, and who would have disliked the fact that in the world of assisted fertility everything is neatly labelled and stored in jars.
Let me quickly repeat for the squeamish that the resulting art is neither murky nor gruesome but delicately beautiful. Nevertheless, the fact that, in her final exhibition, Chadwick can be seen ruminating upon the origins of human life is both ironic and poignant.
The sequence of wall and floor pieces that emerged from her residency among the biotamperers is called, predictably perhaps,Unnatural Selection. Chadwick asked to be able to photograph those fertilised eggs that were not needed by the hospital, and were going to be thrown away. The resulting images were then used to create something that it took me a few moments to recognise when I entered the gallery: a collection of jewellery.
Hanging on the wall is a brooch, and a large necklace. Standing on the floor is a giant ring. In all of these outsize jewels, made of Perspex, the place of the precious stones is taken by the images of the unwanted fertilised human eggs: rounded, translucent, silvery blue, like pale sapphires. Science might have discarded them, but art still finds them magical and mysterious. The one-time nude Venus who made these things will also have known that jewellery is another of the vanities that must succumb to the inevitable passage of time, valuable today and gone tomorrow, like an expensive in vitro egg, or the fashionable thoughts of a spotlit professor.
Downstairs at the same exhibition, a small group of large related works brings you face to face with a chimpanzee and a Pygmy, both in foetus state, both featured in an unfinished sequence that Chadwick was working on at her death, called Cameos. This art is also devoted to genetic tampering by scientists, in this case to the holdings of the Hunterian Museum, where a selection of interesting foetuses is displayed in jars.
Again, Chadwick has made jewels out of poignant genetic pickles. In Cameos, the sad black-and-white photographs of a pre-monkey and a pre-human, the chimpanzee and the Pygmy, have been framed in ovals with pretty op-art effects, and quietly compared. Old, wrinkled, worried, the poor unborn chimpanzee looks as if it has lived out a hard life already.
Chadwick is no tub-thumper, and droning on about the sanctity of life would have been anathema to this calm and cool artist. Her talent was for finding beauty in decay. But in these final works she is surely noting the confusion of values that makes it possible for scientists to store Pygmies in jars and mass-produce throwaway human eggs. Steiner can entrust the future of his civilisation to science if he so wishes, but I feel much safer among barbarous artists.