Adam Chodzko's Pyramid, 2008
How far might one travel – temporally, ideationally – using just three actual facts, twelve minutes of screen time, and a hatful of imaginative liberties?
The answer according to Adam Chodzko’s Pyramid (2008) is ‘pretty far’. Set in the near future (with characters talking of 2017AD as the recent past), the film begins with a moodily framed fragment of architecture in Folkestone, Kent: girders, forming inverted pyramidal shapes, which underpin the Leas Cliff Hall, a concert hall on a cliff edge. That’s one real-world datum, then. The others are that the coastal town had, at the time of filming, been in decline for years; and that – as intercut BBC news reports remind us – in 2007 a mild earthquake struck Kent, sending masonry tumbling from terraced roofs. Commencing with these dubious disparities, Chodzko cuts together ostensibly journalistic interviews with locals, straight documentary footage shot in a factory, scenes of entranced music making, and near-abstract lysergic visuals to weave a picaresque speculative fiction.
The quake, locals aver, was part of an extended run of bad luck for Folkstone; the unluckiness was associated, somehow, with the inverted pyramids; and someone – perhaps people associated with the local council, who are said to be ‘in touch with… otherworldly things’, had worked out how to lift the curse. A mysterious cosmic goo (ostensibly seen being manufactured in the factory scenes) turns the pyramids solid and glowing, mirrors reflect them, a musical ritual is played out in the concert hall above – cue footage of drumming youths – and, finally, the pyramids are dragged out to sea, the curse vanquished. Chodzko’s film, then, doesn’t exactly invite us to suspend our disbelief. It shows its wires – in the huge divergence between visual ordinariness and verbal fabulism – while at the same time being sufficiently rife with narrative lacunae that a good deal of our attention is focused on putting the story together, racing to keep up. As such, it’s a work that (characteristically for him) articulates another kind of reality while making clear that what it presents is just a proposition, and a markedly incomplete one.
While Chodzko works across media, he’s repeatedly considered how filmmaking might maintain open-endedness since at least his 1996 work Flasher, for which he taped brief, elliptical sequences illuminated by distress flares onto the end of rented videotapes, then returned them to the video rental shop. Film, though only one aspect of a wider, deeply pragmatic inquiry into the viability of change, is a good medium for his manipulations because it seems so linear and materially fixed. If this can be turned fluid, his art suggests, what can’t? Consider Design for a Carnival (2003), a five-minute film shot near Chodzko’s adopted hometown of Whitstable, Kent, in which ants are seen purposefully carrying around shiny sequins, local teens attach tags to branches, the accoutrements of needlework are filmed in close-up, and A Certain Ratio’s propulsive Winter Hill spins on a turntable. There’s a poetics of productivity here, but a void of articulation: what we get is the notion of action, held in suspension in terms of what it actually means. (You’ll search in vain for anything actually carnivalesque).
Approached here is a fundamental problem: how to say something artistically while also holding the artwork open so that it isn’t reduced to the kind of simple, verifiable meaning that permits quick consumption. Chodzko has, over the years, offered a diversity of responses to this problem, from films that use complex DVD authoring so that they play in random sequence (Plan for a Spell, 2001) to others that seem fixed and clear but then unravel. Settlement (2004), for example, whose visual aspect focuses on a rectangle of grassland, tells the story of this fragment of land being bought and gifted in what seems like a gesture of minor munificence: it turns out, however, that all kinds of obscurities bedevil the land rights, and the idea of art-as-gift accordingly becomes irredeemably problematized – the artwork ends up as unstable as the diversely windblown grasses seen through the lens.
There is a politics to this, in that Chodzko is acutely concerned with clarifying what art can and can’t do. He’s made works engaging migrant communities – in the slide projection Cell-a (2002), a group of Kurdish asylum seekers are, supposedly, given the archive of a London gallery ‘to edit and protect outside the capital’ – but, here and elsewhere, there’s less a sense that this is a symbolic empowerment than a raised question: what right does a British artist have to speak for such a group, and what can art actually do for it? Raising the question, resisting piety, may be as much as art can achieve.
Call this, then, an art that’s systemically conditional, or whose grammar is full of qualifications – an approach perhaps most strongly signposted in the title of Yet (2006). Here is another sci-fi story, filmed around farmland in East Kent. In this future-world, we’re told, Ikea employees are in charge of managing important data. Having lost some, they try and recover it from a landfill but instead find an archive – magazines and VHS cassettes labelled, in McGuffin-esque fashion, ‘Chodzko’ – that, they feel, pertains to some ecological disaster. As the film unfolds and the clerks split up, dealing with their material in diverse ways, the sense arises that maybe they’ve misinterpreted the film footage, assumedly from the tapes, of withered vines and wind-dried leaves. The clerks are Cantonese and Finnish – another deliberately unresolved reference to hybrid migrant communities – and the film, again, reveals itself pretty strongly as a construct.
After the clerks perform their ministrations, the film’s voiceover gets to the point. ‘Slowly, because of “and yet despite all this”’, it says (the nested quotation being true to Chodzko’s script, though not quite audible), ‘the plants slowly began to recover. And time… stood… still.’ The yet, as grammatically hard to pin down as it is, is key – and even because of the difficulty. It points to something outside the film that has acted upon events, something concealed from us. We’ll never know what, and that’s the spark of life that animates the art, and something more than it. It’s human nature to want to shut down complex and intractable problems: like, say, how we get along with our differences on this planet. One way to resist their closure, Chodzko’s art infers, is to embed them in artworks that themselves are models of perpetual, hopeful deferral. Are we done? Not yet, not ever.
Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent