Visual Arts

Final Cut

If you were going to categorize the work of Adam Chodzko, whose first solo museum exhibition in the U.S. is now on view at Arizona State University, you'd have to resort to something like "participatory conceptual performance art," a clumsy mouthful that doesn't begin to convey the magic and humor of this British artist's oeuvre.

And although Chodzko was included in the infamous "Sensation" show (along with big names like Damien Hirst), he's not exactly proud of that fact. He dislikes what he calls "the orthodoxies" of the contemporary British art world: first, that everything has to be about pop culture, and second, that a real artist shouldn't be able to articulate what he's doing. Chodzko's work, in contrast, is compassionate, subtle and wise, and he talks about it in clear yet complex terms.

In spirit he retains much of the openness -- to circumstances, to people, to chance -- that characterized conceptual art in the 1960s, but he brings to the mix an attention to structure and an effortlessly postmodern mingling of new media with old. His projects usually grow out of a question that seems a little askew, or plain unanswerable -- for "The God Look-Alike Contest," he began by placing a classified ad in a newspaper seeking responses from people who thought they looked like God -- and those questions frequently set in motion what he describes as "complicated structures that appear to be not quite working."

For "A Place for The End,'" the 1999 still-photography/DVD installation at ASU, Chodzko asked eight Birmingham residents to pick a location for the last few frames of an imaginary film. He then filmed and photographed the people walking into the distance in each of the eight locations; he also posted a plaque at each location that describes the exact parameters of the frame that's visible both in the still photographs and in the DVD, so that anyone coming across the plaque knows that this particular view of the landscape is part of an artwork that exists somewhere else.

"This section of space has been charged up with the fact that it participated in this fiction," Chodzko explains. "I was interested in what happens when something participates in an illusion -- the aura that's left behind afterwards. If half a tree is left out of the frame, for example, is that half a tree different somehow, more ordinary?"

What we see in the museum is the series of eight black-and-white photographs of the locations in Birmingham, as well as film on a TV monitor that shows a woman standing in an office high above the city, talking on the telephone. We don't hear the conversation, but it's a difficult one, obviously; at times she is angry, at others resigned.

Interspersed with this narrative are shots of the places depicted in the photographs. Individually, none of these components satisfactorily represents "the end," but taken together they add up to a poetic attempt to describe the feeling of an end. The meaning lies not in the individual elements but in what Chodzko calls "the vibrations" that occur when these elements are set up in relation to each other.

Chodzko himself points out that sound in an art gallery is always a problem, and in fact it's hard to get the full sense of "A Place for The End,'" partly because of where it's situated in the museum. Two of Pipilotti Rist's single channel works occupied this same space last month, but the soundtracks played through headphones and the videos were kinetic and colorful, all of which helped the viewer to tune out distractions and focus on Rist's work. In the case of Chodzko's piece, the film is black and white (dark gray and white, really) and somewhat static, and the sound is ambient and tough to discern over the background noise of visitors trooping in and out of the exhibit.

"Limbo Land," the DVD projection that occupies the darkened back room and is, in many ways, about sound, fares better. Visually we follow what could be a low-flying angel's point of view, in dogged traveling shots over land littered with items of abandoned clothing, as if someone ahead has shed them over the course of several miles and finally taken flight. Interspersed with these traveling shots are scenes in what is clearly a sickroom, although we never see the dying person, only the older woman and younger man -- perhaps a mother and son -- waiting.

At one point the camera takes the point of view of the person lying in bed, and we see the man and the woman looking intently at us, their faces a mix of sorrow and something else, compassion or love, as an otherworldly blue trick of the light illuminates them. At another point, back in the world, the camera glides over idle, snow-covered heavy machinery sitting at the foot of a cliff, as if to underline the distance between the spirit on its way and the concerns of the earthbound below.

For this meditation on the end of life and what lies beyond, Chodzko gave a sound recordist a collection of sounds he'd recorded randomly over the years and asked her to create an appropriate soundtrack for the end of something. In the piece, we hear the sounds as she's put them together, and we also hear her say that she feels she's failed in the task assigned her. Yet, seemingly inadvertently, she has created a soundtrack for the images we're seeing, and made an eloquent comment on human feelings of helplessness and inadequacy in the face of death: "I'm listening to the last bits now," we hear her recorded voice say toward the end, "and then I don't really know what else I can do. Hope that's okay."

The sounds we hear aren't synched up with the visuals we see: Interior shots are narrated by exterior noises, like wind and airplanes, and exterior shots are narrated by interior noises like breathing and the distant sound of a recorded song. Absorbing all these disparate sensations at once made me feel both sort of omniscient and a little disoriented, which is the point. Chodzko is a self-effacing guide who disorders our senses, not with the obvious approach of bombast and excess, but by gently confounding our expectations. In the end, he gives us no choice but to experience things for ourselves.

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Deborah Sussman Susser