Adam Chodzko tells what may or may not be a tall story about his road-trip to put up a sign in the wilderness outside Flagstaff, Arizona. This formerly volcanic region is the site of the Roden Crater, where James Turrell has spent a quarter of a century creating an installation which will respond to the light of the stars. Chodzko claims to have snuck into the Crater and found nothing but a ladder, some cement and a few piles of earth, as if Turrell hasn't actually been doing anything but smoking, contemplating the night sky and concocting fantastic plans.
The anecdote is wonderful, yet I don't believe a word of it, which is as it should be, because Chodzko is an artist of shaggy dog stories, a fabulist of the everyday. His latest piece has a preposterous quality, yet when you let it work on you it's genuinely dislocating, reminiscent of the feeling generated at the end of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's film Performance (1970), when Chas and Turner uncannily swap identities.
Better Scenery (2000), however, is not about two people, but two places and two signs, each of which gives directions to the other. Chodzko has created a fictional vortex that connects a spectacular site in the Arizona desert with a car park behind a shopping centre in north London. If you were wandering in the desert, heading for Turrell's Crater, you might be drawn by the jangling of a wind chime to a wooden sign stuck in the earth. 'Better Scenery', reads the sign, in neat official-looking letters. It offers directions: 'Heading north out of London along the west side of Regent's Park is the Finchley Road (A41). Follow it though St John's Wood and half a mile beyond to Swiss Cottage...' The chimes jangle, the tumbleweed blows across the desert. Swiss Cottage?
Meanwhile, in a car park between two railway lines and in the shadow of a pretentiously designed shopping centre on the Finchley Road, someone carrying heavy shopping bags to their car might hear the same chimes. The sign - a flat, two-dimensional gate to another reality - states 'Better Scenery. From Flagstaff, Arizona, take route 89 north east, then route 510 east, then 505 north-east for 7 miles until you reach a left turn soon after passing Maroon Crater...'
From a British perspective, the sign seems straightforwardly satirical. The O2 shopping centre is an absurd environment, a place where plastic rocks and tropical fish tanks attempt to promote shopping as a glamorous experience. The car park is an urban mess, a drab chunk of land. The question of which scenery is 'better' may seem cruelly easy to answer. From music hall to sitcoms, the humour of deflation is a British standby; laughing at grand aspirations and contrasting the exotic with the mundane is a national pastime, a reflex of self-hatred. Chodzko's art has the same dry irony, but hints at something more Dionysian. There's a sense of mystery about this map gone wrong.
In Jorge Luis Borges' story The South (1956), which inspired Performance, a man who knows he will die leaves a stuffy northern city and ends up in the South where a gaucho challenges him to a knife-fight. Chodzko's dodgy map reading plunges the London shopper into the American south-west where a London map and rational knowledge are of no use. This disruption of reality is vaguely threatening. Chodzko's directions might be a hitman's directions - here is where the job is to be done. Perhaps even now a gunman in Arizona is writing down those London street names, preparing to get on a plane.
Chodzko has created a seductive, troubling fiction. He knows how to tell a story better than many contemporary writers, one that sinks in your mind and leaves you longing to pack your bags and go on the adventure he describes. He has visited an American landscape of mythic violence and brought it all back home. As Bob Dylan sang, 'Abe said to God, where do you want this killing done? Just do it out on Highway 61.' Or take a left turn after Finchley underground station, and do it in the O2 car park.