Adam Chodzko Q&A
Adam and the arts: Adam Chodzko Q&A
Inspire Magazine Spring 2016
Exhibiting internationally since 1991, Adam works across media, from video installation to subtle interventions, with a practice that is situated both within the gallery and the wider public realm. His work investigates and invents possibilities of collective imagination in order to reveal the realities and fantasies that might emerge.
Inspire interviewed Adam following his Design for a Fold exhibition at the University’s Sidney Cooper Gallery to ask him about his inspirations, his engagement with Kent and his future plans:
Could you describe for us some of your works, and the different ways you present these to an audience?
Strangely, despite apparently being the person who makes my work, it is quite difficult (at least for me) to describe it. The works don’t translate very neatly into words. The ideas often emerge from words and atmospheres but I push them into particular combinations of matter and imagery that are just beyond my own, rather basic, verbal abilities. They become art for me when I am not entirely sure what they might be saying. I work with a hunch as to what they might be leading towards, but ideally it is towards a fluid, speculative and contradictory state.
Okay, so that was a bit of a nebulous response to your question: I can, much more easily, tell you that I work across a wide variety of media, mostly video, sound, drawing, sculpture, writing, photography and print, often combining these mediums and often presenting the resulting works as existing along a journey between public and private spaces.
Formally, the works often look as though they depict networks, webs, and tangles, but stylistically a group of works can look very different from each other; from an apparently standard ‘portrait photograph’, to a small sculpture made from a knot of found scrap materials.
I also often create the work to provoke doubt as to its status as art object; is it an art object when it is in the gallery (and soley only becomes an artwork because it is placed there?), or does it only become art when it fulfils a role somewhere beyond the gallery, afterwards? Or was it an art object as part of a process before it entered the gallery and exists within it only as a form of ‘terminal report’? Again, all these states of fluidity move together to make the work’s existence one of ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’, and this ‘becoming’ is catalysed by the active presence of a viewer. It might be helpful to give an example; Ghost (2010) is a work which consists of a 22’ long wooden kayak I designed to ferry a passenger (members of the public) to ‘visit the dead’. Partly it hangs in gallery space, apparently as a sculptural object, (currently, it hangs high up in one of the aisles of Leadenhall Market, in the City of London as part of Sculpture in the City). But then it will be removed, temporarily, from its gallery installation to be taken onto water to be used for its particular voyages. It records those journeys from a camera mounted on its bows, to generate an archive of its trips from the perspective of its passengers. So, is the work a sculpture, a process, or its resulting video? Can it be all three? If so, that makes the notion of art somewhat unstable and hovering. I hope always that this sense of instability opens up new possibilities and accessibilities for art.
Are there important themes that you look for when exploring new ideas?
Yes, and in some ways these themes are very simple; I use art to explore being human, and how we connect to each other and how too we investigate, individually and collectively, the worlds inside and outside us. And through art I attempt to share these ideas and feelings with others. Beyond these basics it then gets a bit more complicated because I embark on this exploration by appropriating, from one work to another, apparently quite different aspects of quite different fields of knowledge; anthropology, documentary film, ideas of embodiment in architecture, history, psychology in relation to ideas of projection and attachment, sociological ideas surrounding belief systems, ideas around reflexivity in film, and so on.
In the last few years I have made works which appear to be rooted in very different territories from each other, such as shipping logistics (sometimes I find myself actively veering towards subjects that seem to be, initially, the least ‘exciting’ for me - the discovery of mystery within them then becomes all the more rewarding!); the meaning of familial gift-giving in relation to expectations and continuity; the psychological effect of moderating online forums, and more recently, the psychological disavowal in relation to behavioural change in order to act against climate change.
But there are often a number of ingredients that need to be in place for me to begin working; I was attracted to all these different subjects through observing what I felt to be a kind of awkward silence residing within my encounter with them in the present. And all of them seemed to me to contain the possibility of an ending and a potential beginning. They all had a root in reality but I could detect a hyperbole that could flow from them; a possible logic into a surreal or science fiction scenario.
I am also drawn towards all these themes because of some echo of something very particular that is going on immediately around me; a conversation with my sons, an odd dream, an email from a friend, a misunderstanding while cooking, an issue with a plant in the garden…
Can you tell us about some of your projects including local communities?
I like to make work that evolves from the insight of others. Particularly, those beyond the art world! I think working as an artist can nurture deep observation but it also can produce a kind of blindness to the ways of looking that are ‘non-art.’ So, it is important for me to keep in touch with these other forms of perception. I like the flow of empathy that emerges when working with others; the viewer sees the artist seeing through another’s eyes looking back at the artist and wondering what the viewer might be seeing. I also like the chance and coincidence this process of working beyond the studio allows. I often work with ephemeral communities; people ‘passing through’, brought together through an often fragile common-denominator; temporary families.
Since moving to Kent from London in 2001, I have continued these interactions with others. Always feeling an outsider myself the work has developed into propositions that Kent’s marginal communities (asylum seekers, migrant workers, gypsies etc.) are given a vital role in creating a counter-culture in what is ostensibly (beyond its Universities and the interests of many people who live here) quite a reactionary, old conservative county in the way it performs its own identity.
With the project with some of the young asylum seekers from Kent Refugee Action Network I was thinking about the original subversive and democratising potential of the carnivalesque. I wanted this energy to be part of the Canterbury Festival and sourced from a very specific imaginary place (a clearing in a walnut forest at night on the edge of the city) which could become a space for a fragmentary global story-telling, in order to create a collective and surreal fable across different languages - Eritrean, Romanian, Iranian etc. It was really important to encourage a kind of wit and play in their performances so that the participants would lead the content, not treated solely as victims on the one hand, nor, on the other, potential candidates for moulding into a kind of UKIP fantasy of Englishness.
Tell us about your recent installation at the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury.
This incorporated many of the ideas I have outlined above but it focused particularly on the shared environment between where I live and work, in Whitstable, and where the Sidney Cooper gallery is located in Canterbury. I treated the gallery as a kind of vortex that was drawing this Kentish work of mine, with its diverse locations and communities (from Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey, to Blean woods, to a room in a house in Margate) into almost impossibly close arrangements with each other. I had made a lot of the work for this exhibition in Beppu, Japan, with the idea that the installation was really a work curated by Japan. An accompanying narrative told of an artist who had come from Kent believing that his work from there was somehow being created or completed by sources of geothermal energy at the other side of the globe, in Beppu. In a sense the exhibition at Sidney Cooper Gallery was, somehow, an exhibition in Japan, despite its numerous mappings of the local. Again, a series of interlocking empathies about looking were something I was trying to achieve with this installation.
You have been described as an ‘enigma’, often making use of prepositions, bafflement and dislocations in your work – how does this label make you feel, and is it accurate?
I think I just see enigma in the world and as the world. And I also see that this causes people a lot of anxiety. So, it is more comfortable to pretend that things are clear, singular, consistent and stable.
The closer we research anything the more we realise we don’t know and the less we feel we can be certain. Thinking is partly a process of making generalities across differences but scrutiny leads to a fragmentation of definitions and the perception of difference. We develop less and less certainty over time about the people we know and love the most. We can see patterns but we also notice lots of contradictions that undermine these.
To feel delight and wonder in the world I like to adopt an extra-terrestrial’s perspective; human beings find life really baffling. It is something they generally just ‘go along with’. They create these very particular civilisations but still don’t know how not to kill each other, or to deal with loneliness, death, equality, or communication. When you see that everything is contingent, vulnerable and kind of absurd it is also a nice moment to value everything and see its preciousness. I think I am mirroring those feelings of enigma, awe and wonder in my work, both for myself and the viewer.
Conceptual, unusual art can still feel inaccessible to some viewers. How would you respond to this?
I agree. It is a very frustrating situation. Contemporary art can be as inaccessible as law, science, and maths are to those unfamiliar to them. Ideally, we would all learn one subject, ‘knowledge’, and within this the connection between art, science, language, emotion, the body and so on would be understood in terms of their connections to each other and they would all share the same forms of description, so that the complex ideas from each would be accessible to all.
However, the differences between these fields produces different forms of language and unfortunately, also, we like to cultivate groups and cliques. It allows a certain form of deeper research and gives us a sense of belonging (which sadly is often nurtured through excluding others).
A lot of my work is partly about this question of audience: Who is art for? Who makes it? Who is excluded from it? Who might deal with it better? But I don’t think the solution for me is to try to make ‘popular art’. I think the key is to encourage an audience to feel that their doubt, confusion and uncertainty are valuable feelings and the starting points for exploration and not feelings to be dismissed as evidence that something is ‘wrong’. I think too often the art world does not deal well with the belief from its publics that contemporary art needs to be ‘got’, that there is a precise and secret code you need to understand in order to appreciate it - there isn’t!
How do you go about nurturing the next generation of artists in your role as Fine Art lecturer (at the University of Kent), and balance this with producing your own works?
The art community is a combination of a lot of smaller communities ranging from those with a superficial and commercial agenda, to those who eschew anything other than highly politicised socially engaged practice. But they are all dependant on peaceful coexistence, supporting each other against a dominant culture which is still very suspicious of contemporary art. I find it really important to help develop the next generation of artists (who will often be making work which challenges one’s own) because the culture they go on to develop inevitably enables your own survival as an artist. The more people who value contemporary art’s contribution to knowledge the better that is for everyone within its system, at whatever stage. I think there is a good harmony between teaching art and making art. Of course there is never enough time to do both to the degree to which I feel I should be immersed in them but they feed into each other very well. Often in the middle of a tutorial with a student I will realise that they are struggling with something I am also struggling with. So we can somehow work out some solutions together. I am still only becoming an artist along with everyone else.
Is there anyone you would credit with having been a leading influence in your own career?
There are many, every day, but it is less about any one personality and more about things people do. Influence is an ongoing, evolving relationship and being an artist is partly about drawing those influences together, editing them and refining exactly why they are important in the moment; what aspect or fragment of them speaks deeply and specifically to us right now? Today, right now, I would say I am influenced by Death Grips Guillotine, especially the video’s relationship to the music; Una’s drawings of trees in her book Becoming Unbecoming; a song by Ballake Sissoko; someone’s PhD I am examining; a news story about an enormous (and alarming) monument to Chairmen Mao in Tongxu County, and the grey, darkening sky outside my windows…
Finally, if you hadn’t been an artist, what other career path would you have taken?
Landscape gardener, architect, avocado farmer, sorcerer, hermit, child psychologist, hornbeam tree, mud creature…