In the catalogue for Adam Chodzko’s retrospective at Tate St Ives, the most comprehensive study of the British artist’s work to date and his first solo museum show in the UK, is a two-page project titled Memory Theatre (2008), a diagram of formal associations that relates the gallery’s distinctive loggia to a slide carousel, a magnifying glass and a sacrificial temple. The project shares a name with the mnemonic device used by ancient orators to remember long stories by imagining a journey through a building – so that a window, say, becomes a trigger for a small episode within a larger narrative. Tate St Ives’ galleries can be difficult spaces to negotiate, but this excellent retrospective – which covers 16 years’ worth of work – manages deftly to tease out the connections between the clusters of Chodzko’s sparky propositions.
Titled ‘Proxigean Tide’ (the name of a rare, unusually high spring tide), the exhibition opens with Borrowed Cold Lodge (2008), which fills the gallery’s Heron Mall with 286 items of winter clothing lent by locals for the duration of the show, each section of Patrick Heron’s permanently installed stained-glass window corresponding to a certain number of loaned items. Re-engaging with Modernist abstraction by twisting the window into a key for returning the loans, the coat racks muddled the exact point at which the exhibition started and wrong-footed first-time visitors. Chodzko often uses apparatuses that enforce thresholds and suggest routes. He traces unlikely paths, as with Night Shift, for which he mapped the paths of various animals he released overnight into the Frieze Art Fair, 2004. In the centre of the main gallery space was Untitled Stile (Teenage Version) (1992), in which a barrier is given a slick turquoise gloss, an ornament that is walked around rather than clambered over. On either side of the stile hung two photographs from Better Scenery (2002), comprising nothing more than two signs each offering deadpan directions to the other: one sits in the middle of Arizona, while the other is hidden among the decidedly less impressive surroundings of north-west London’s Finchley Road.
For the ‘Transmitters’ series (1990–ongoing) Chodzko advertises a number of unlikely lots in Loot (in 1992 he posted an advert for a God look-a-like competition that received some genuine responses). While such interventions are always located publicly, they are often so small as to pass unnoticed. In the ‘Flasher’ series (1996–ongoing) Chodzko records short segments over the minute’s worth of blank tape at the end of a rented video that was then returned to the shop. The scenes – several stills of which are included at Tate – are of red flares being let off in forests at night and groups of children holding placards that read ‘More Dark’. It would be wide of the mark to say that this work is socially engaged; instead it does its best to recede from view, inserting only the self-defeating group action of a protest that insists that it shouldn’t be paid attention to. The final gallery is a screening room in which three videos return to the idea of a public space being invested with expectations that fall short. While Chodzko organizes rallies and encounters, this note of happy hermeticism runs through his practice.
The film Plan for a Spell (2001) comprises randomly shuffled footage of peculiarly English rites and banalities: the pyres of burning cattle during the foot-and-mouth crisis, footage from British rural horror classic The Wicker Man (1973), a demolition derby, the ceremonial parading of a Burry Man – an ancient Pagan ceremony that is held every year near Edinburgh. It is slowly realized that these segments are being variously scrambled with uncertainly phrased subtitles, each of which wonders how structure can be discerned: ‘I can see there must be something special about this too. Is it good enough just to look for a pattern? For the spell to work it might be better to forget about it.’ The process of planning for a spell makes unusual provision for a special kind of knowledge, which it is assumed can’t be talked about in terms of logistics; Chodzko enchants these decidedly weird routines by doing no more than asking how they might best be understood.
‘Design for a Carnival’ (2003–ongoing) charts the planning process of a future party. Around Tate’s apse are arranged various props and sketches that worry at how slight the means of narrative-making can be: a dub plate from a brief moment during a carnival in 2005; 13 Polaroids of a totem of baseball caps; a series of mask-filters – feathers, toy propellers, sticks and beads built around a camera adaptor to create ready-made hazy memories. Chodzko’s myths are neither fantastical nor self-indulgent – in fact, they do not claim to be myths at all. ‘Proxigean Tide’ quietly asks what exactly it is that underpins voluntary communal activity and is successful because it makes the answer still seem worth searching for.