Adam Chodzko is an enigma. Often confounding our wish to understand what it is that the artist actually does or aims to achieve (and the art business’s need for 'product' to sell!), Chodzko continues on his way, making quizzical interventions and veiled connections to generate fascinating, strange and charming works that often exist only in retrospective documentation. The subject of a major survey at Tate St Ives in 2008 and more recently exhibiting at the Benaki Museum in Athens and Marlborough Contemporary in London, Chodzko took took a winter’s afternoon to wander along the Kentish shoreline to talk to us about his practice.
IM. You’ve recently returned from Athens where you were doing a project at the Benaki Museum. Could you tell us about that?
AC. I will try. In short I made a retrospective of posters for exhibitions around Greece implying dispersal, rearrangements and strange thematics but set in the future, around 50 years from now.
But here’s a longer version; The process began, as it usually does for me, with some pretty vacant staring at things. Then after ‘seeing enough’ and kind of sensing the atmosphere then turning away and imagining another world in which this perceived reality and associated feeling might exist in a clearer form. I often do this by mentally projecting myself from the present into the future; in this case some fifty years from now (so, probably long after I’m dead, but perhaps not) staring at an old museum poster hanging on the back wall of a café and feeling excited about the possibilities contained within the notice for an exhibition I had missed. So I began with an atmosphere, an emotional response to this possibility. I always like the idea of a cultural shift into both a more poetic state, where bigger leaps of imagination can take place, but also that experimentation becoming simultaneously a very ordinary part of everyday life, spread diversely and for everyone. The existence of a crisis; which could be economic, political or environmental could help catalyse this change.
From there it was a question of pulling together the existing collection of the Benaki museum (an impossible task given its size and my total lack of expertise), becoming an innocent curator, an outsider, with no restrictions, operating with a wide constellation of potential exhibition spaces across Greece. I set a series of imaginary exhibitions in a kind of golden decade between 2066-2076. The exhibition at the Benaki Museum is a retrospective of the advertising posters for these shows, so is set even further in the future; perhaps in the 2090’s. The themes of the exhibitions don’t quite seem to make sense; eg: Pleasure, Bread and Power. The Joy of Turbulence. Grace and Horror. Technology and Systems of Gentleness. Leisure, Race and Demons. Repetition, the Lonely Man. Unpopularity.
I designed these posters, again as naïve outsider, with little graphic design knowledge. But this status of ignorance I find very useful to operate within, in order to find potential away from rules, conventions, conservatism, hierarchies and so on. Expertise can have a fantastic role but in order to dedicate the time and focus to become ‘expert’ it is difficult to maintain a lateral, poetic engagement with the world and a wilder sense of possibility.
There is a also a small video work in the exhibition which is a kind of odd documentation about where these posters might have been retrieved from prior to their retrospective. It appears that they have been unearthed from ordinary domestic spaces, perhaps not in Greece, and apparently guarded by children.
Part of my interest in embarking on the project was partly the current economic crisis in Greece gradually narrowing down the operations of the museum. And yet at the same time witnessing amongst individuals an incredible pragmatism and resistance to these economic limitations.
I was also really amazed by the Benaki photographic archive, an incredible collection of images and for it to function, entirely dependent on its custodians’ memory of the images it contains. In our Google Image present I am fascinated by our capacity to consume images relentlessly and yet also become consumed by them (and this is very much the subject matter of my current show Room for Laarni at Marlborough Contemporary). It is exhausting to keep looking but as that fatigue kicks in we start looking much more intuitively. So a lot of the decisions I made for the Benaki project was to use this idea of over-stimulation to create intuitive and irrational combinations.
I find it very useful to think of art developing an incredible significance in society whilst at the same time necessarily going into a state of collapse with the current community that makes it ‘happen’. So the “end of art” becomes the beginning of a total combining of art and life and the elevation of art into becoming a fundamental visionary daily event that all of us use.
IM. Dreams, propositions, dislocations, misunderstandings and slippages of societal order are often the catalysts for the opening up of space and time for magic in your work. As we increasingly discard the regular rituals of Eucharistic mass and the suspension of disbelief that religions thrive on, do you feel that we need to replace mystery in our personal and collective experiences?
AC. Certainly, and a mystery in the everyday rather than one mediated and channelled by specialists, in authority. But I think it is not a question of creating mystery but one of perceiving mystery in what is already there in front of us. Seeing it in the most banal forms through seeing how they coincide with everything else in the world. So my art work is not really made in order to reveal a mystery but instead is to catalyse a kind of looking where the perception of mystery beyond the art object becomes a little easier perhaps. I think with the glimpsing of mystery also comes a sense of how we are both fantastically in the world; located within that mystery – perhaps (always) just about to make some sense of it. Yet simultaneously is a sense of how the world is very much beyond us, doing its own thing, despite us, we mean nothing to it. This folding together of the contradictory experiences of being at the centre of everything, part of everything whilst totally insignificant and outside of everything is a quality of looking I hope my work is trying to provoke in the viewer.
IM. Film is a constant reference point (you once referred to Tate St Ives as Fitzcarraldo’s boat which you were to drag over Mount St Ives... ), perhaps more so than that of your conceptualist ancestors, but your trajectory is towards the gallery...
AC. I really love film. Well, some films. Art is much more awkward and crude I think and superficially much less immediately satisfying. But I think there is something very subtle and special in terms of looking that can only happen in art. So, I don’t harbour any cravings to make a feature film despite really enjoying working with moving image. I like working alone - despite so much of my work being about ‘other people’ - and film is massively about good teamwork which tends to stop it from taking the big risks art is able to take.
IM. In the British television series Going For A Song (1965-1977), Arthur Negus would be presented with an unidentified object of Victorian agricultural arcana and asked to explain what it was and how it was used. It is rare for us these days to encounter objects or situations for which we have no preconception or cognitive framework within which to work, yet you seem to relish setting up situations which employ conceptual innocence, bafflement and a light mist of apprehension. The video work Plan For A Spell (2001) has no consistent structure and due to some neat programming will rearrange itself with every viewing, increasingly loosening our moorings with every repeated attempt to place order on it. Is it your intention to force us to step off our own grid, even for a moment?
AC. Yes, I think that is really important, but I am having to lose my place too. My work is operating properly when I finally feel a bit beyond it, when it seems to have a life of its own and is resisting my comprehension and ‘guidance’. In Plan For A Spell, 2001, there is a kind of guide or moderator both within the supernatural force at work within the randomised system and also within the words of the narrating witness, who is commenting (via subtitles) on the working of the system. With a lot of my work we, as viewers, experience an object making itself but never quite reaching a final form. It is always unstable. It might be that the work’s narrator is disturbing and unsettling the thing we see; or it might be that our looking is creating the instability. I am always interested in creating this parallel experience of looking; revealing something to see, while also simultaneously observing another who is experiencing the same thing. And I think the space this looking catalyses is very much part of the same ‘being both inside and outside the world’ that I spoke about earlier.
IM. In one of your series of Loot adverts (Transmitter, 2002), you offered a ‘series of 4 drawings of tiny princes in battle, large pastel drawing of earlier computer, 2 small oil paintings of red clouds, slightly scratched, 6 lithographic prints of utopian canal systems. 1 beautiful pencil sketch of thighs, 1 small clay figurine on dying girl soldier, unglazed, £150 the lot.‘ Do you still have those drawings of tiny princes? I’d like to buy them...
AC. If only I did…I guess I could draw them now. Those transmitters were always meant to describe a combination of elements that would be somehow just beyond desire. so you are the first to tell me of your need for the ‘tiny princes’. What is odd is how the newspaper misread my text and made small changes;
I said 'early computer' but they insist it is an 'earlier' one. The clay figurine was of a dying girl soldier. But they printed it as ‘on a dying girl solider” so, according to them, the clay figurine smothered a dying girl making her more solid. In your question she has moved back to being a ‘soldier’ again. So nothing is remaining fixed with this piece. Transmitters were a very economical and quick way to create a beautiful and complex art work in the heads of people looking for second-hand fridges.
IM. You would sometimes make your own clothes when you were younger - Product Recall (1994), Baseball Bat Pyre (2003), White Magic (2005) all revolve around clothing as totems. Please discuss.
AC. It probably stems from the fact that my father was an actor and loved a good historically-accurate costume. In post-punk, outer-london suburbia my brother and I would try, in our teenage rebellion, to freak out our ‘rents with the most outlandish home-made appareil. My father would stare at us from over his pipe and remark, with pride, that we now resembled early Huguenot silk weavers, or Juyin Tatar’s, or 17th century Colombian cavalry officers. We thought we were pioneering, pushing the boundaries of possibility here with what was possible with a pair of crimpers and a smock. But apparently it had all been done before. I think it may have come from this. Whatever it is, was, I still can find my jaw on the floor after seeing a good pattern on a dress or an old jersey at a new angle.
IM. You and I once leapt about a German forest at night, dressed as ghosts while being shot at with paintball guns. What was that about?
AC. Did we really do that? I think that perhaps we were making a version of a brilliant short story by Tobias Wolff – The Hunter’s in the Snow.
IM. Alan Garner novels and post-apocalypse television series such as The Survivors and Threads cast a particular spell on our generation, exciting us with a tremor of nameless dread. Were you a strange child?
AC. No. I was a very dull child with a chatty mind. Post apocalyptic children’s TV suggested everything we have in the present is just about to massively transform, and perhaps start from the beginning again. It tells us we have learnt nothing. This was then specifically in the shadow of nuclear threat but I think the perception of instability and contingency continues today. However, coincidentally, if I did stare at anything for too long I would see it disintegrate or expand massively. So I think I have always connected the act of looking to transformation, trepidation and wonder….that looking does something to the subject.
IM. You’ve a nice drawing hand, though you rarely use it. Why?
AC. I use it a lot. It does not keep still. But you rarely get to see it. Special occasions only. The results, not the hand. The hand is out and about and you can see it gesticulating wildly anytime.
IM. On the way down on the train to see you in Whitstable a slightly drunken man who was listening to pop radio on headphones fell asleep. I could hear the settings slip to static under his sleeping fingers and he drifted into what sounded like a black metal storm. What would have his dreams have been like?
AC. If he was travelling at this point through the outskirts of Sittingbourne he would certainly have been dreaming about Kylie. That’s pretty consistent. I think for him, on that night, particularly 1mins 20-1min 22secs of her performance of “Step Back in Time” for BBC’s Children in Need from 2004. That bit – those seconds - but in very dark brown colours. As though watching her on an iPhone through a fallen dead maple leaf.
IM. What next?
AC. I really need to go to the post office.
You’ll See; This Tie It’ll Be Different is at the Benaki Museum, Athens until 19th Jan 2014
Adam Chodzko is represented by Marlborough Contemporary, London
Born in 1965. Lives and works in Whitstable, Kent, UK. Since 1991 Chodzko has exhibited extensively in international solo and group exhibitions including: Tate, St Ives; Museo d'Arte Moderna, Bologna (MAMBo); Athens Biennale, Istanbul Biennale, Venice Biennale; Royal Academy, London; Deste Foundation, Athens; PS1, NY; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Kunstmuseum Luzern etc. Recent projects include commissions by Creative Time, New York, The Contemporary Art Society, Frieze Art Fair, and Hayward Gallery.
In 2002 he received awards from the Hamlyn Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Art, New York, and in 2007 was awarded an AHRC Research Fellowship in the Film Department at the University of Kent, Canterbury.
His work is in the collections of the Tate, The British Council, The British Film Institute, The Arts Council, APT, Auckland City Art Gallery, Contemporary Art Society Collection, The Creative Foundation, Frac Languedoc-Rousillon, GAM - Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Turin, Grizedale Arts, MAMBo - Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, Plains Arts Museum, North Dakota, USA, Saatchi Collection, South London Gallery, Towner Gallery Eastbourne, and international private collections.