The History of Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth –...

The History of Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth – From aspex to the Venice Biennale

We continue with our co-published history articles with aspex Gallery, researched by Laura McLean-Ferris who has recently been crawling through the Aspex Gallery archives and has produced a series of articles for aspex about their 33 year history. We’re very happy to partner up and cross post their aspex history blog posts here on Strong Island, you can see the original aspex blog post HERE. This second article in the series today looks at the mid-80s and how an artist travelled from Portsmouth to one of the most prestigious art events in the World. We will co-publish more aspex history articles in the coming weeks.

The Art Space Portsmouth artists who established the gallery staged exhibitions at aspex for two-three years under their own steam, but eventually decided to apply to the Arts Council to employ someone to take care of the gallery full time. Les Buckingham (featured in the image below), who was then a curator at Southampton City Art Gallery, was appointed gallery director by a committee of artists in 1984. For a small organisation operating on a shoestring budget the space was already punching well above its weight.  In this year an installation made by British artist Helen Chadwick (1953–1996), who would become one of the most exceptional artists of her generation, would travel from aspex to the Venice Biennale, possibly the most significant international exhibition for artists’ work.

Art Space Portsmouth artists in 1985

Image above: Art Space Portsmouth artists in 1985 – the first full time gallery director of aspex, Les Buckingham, is featured in the back row second from the right – next to John Mynott, who had a solo exhibition at aspex in 2012.

Working with Steve Chettle at aspex, Chadwick created one of her most important works Ego Geometria Sum (1982–84) and with it completely changed the environment of the gallery space. An epic and autobiographical piece of work by the artist, Chadwick conceived the installation as a personal museum or bildungsroman, charting the passage through life between birth and the age of 30.  In the work, which consists of ten plywood sculptures covered with laminated photographic images, Chadwick aligns images of her own naked body with the scales and dimensions of the objects that she had grown up with. A sculpture which has the dimensions of a piano is covered in laminated images of a piano, as well as images of Chadwick’s hands which appear to play the keys, and images of her naked body on the sides, moulding to the shape of the object. A sculpture which has the rough dimensions of a baby carriage features an image of a naked Chadwick on the side, trying to curl into the dimensions of the carriage. It reveals the way in which we mould our bodies to that which surrounds us, and the interconnectedness of our minds with the scales of the things that accompany us through the world. As Chadwick has said of the work: “At that time I was looking to suggest that in the space beyond the forms, in those spaces that the forms did not occupy, was some sense of memory… Although I was trying to capture something quite immaterial (memory), the means by which I did it were quite rational.”

Ego Geometria Sum (1982–84), Helen Chadwick. Copyright of the Helen Chadwick Estate.

Ego Geometria Sum (1982–84), Helen Chadwick. Copyright of the Helen Chadwick Estate.

Though it is now more common that artists conceive of their exhibitions as entire installations and change the space accordingly, this was not so common during the early 1980s. At aspex walls were painted pink, and pink curtains were installed, utterly transforming bright white gallery space into something warmer and more domestic. Chadwick’s attention to the space and the way it would be experienced by the bodies of the viewers is connected to the ideas in the piece – that embodied experience is fundamental to the way that one thinks about the world. When this work reached Venice, the work, and Chadwick, found an international audience, as did a slowly developing British art scene.

Ego Geometria Sum remains highly contemporary to this day, and Chadwick’s interest in embodiment is mirrored in the work of many younger artists, though it has taken some time, following the artist’s premature death, for her work to be appraised anew, or for the path that she intently ploughed to be picked up again by a different generation.


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