Where did this all begin? I was really trying to wonder exactly that when January began, well before I’d heard of Coronavirus. I’d retreated into my own self-imposed lockdown, a gift through a break from teaching or any other deadlines. Nobody out there was interested so, with nowhere to be, I could, I hoped, start identifying exactly what I most wanted to look at in the present. And, in this dithering mode, work on some drawings, which I need to do in these occasional chinks of air and light that temporarily leak into ruptures in the ‘bustle’. I bought, for a sculpture, a part of a dismantled Tornado jet’s wing – a part that looked like a leaf from a Pixar animation – cute, yet bringing death from above. I was given by a local scientist some microscopy images he’d made of the process of Ash dieback disease spreading at cellular level. In addition, I’d become pretty sure that the effect of growth hormones involved in the act of pruning was mirroring domestic human events…
Surrounded by all these loose ends, I somehow ended up thinking about a particular moment, the act of eating, putting something (something ‘wrong’) inside the body, that’s described in the Genesis creation myth with the rapid succession of new feelings and actions that immediately followed this first instance of self-consciousness. This sequence of events produces an incredibly rich, intoxicating and extraordinarily complex knot, bound around some apparently simple everyday actions. I read The Social Psychology of Adam and Eve, a paper by Professor of Sociology, Jack Katz and anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas’s amazing Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Both these texts seem to be about desire, limits, rules, beliefs, consciousness and the social.
At least, I began reading them, but sensed that they were so significant that I had to take them very slowly as a drip feed. Their message needed special time – for me to develop a higher intelligence in order to be able to properly understand them. Now it’s June; they still sit there waiting on the kitchen table, half-read because they still seem too important.
In late February my elder son was in Vietnam on his gap year travels and sending out Instagram pics of himself doing cheeky poses on the border with China. I became vigilant about monitoring the initial spread of the virus because he seemed so close to it.
With this series of prior encounters, when the pandemic actually became our reality and not just other people’s and we (finally) went into lockdown, I felt I’d already been dreaming it all as premonition. I was already in a massively slowed-down state. I felt that I already knew how this enormous collective shift in reality felt and yet, despite this preparation, this ‘tip off’, still felt totally useless at recognising what it might really mean for us.
Covid has given us a model of contamination. It has shown how quickly something can become global just by going from one mouth to another. That’s an incredible demonstration of network theory. … It shows that we must not think of the personal and the collective as two distinct levels. The big climate questions can make individuals feel small and impotent. But the virus gives us a lesson. If you spread from one mouth to another, you can viralise the world very fast. That knowledge can re-empower us.
I like this idea of a rapid empowering – viralising of the world through knowledge (and, as importantly, the transmission of honest communication in the present to acknowledge what we don’t know) also managing to leap across time and between languages. I’m increasingly reminded of Into Eternity, (2010), the brilliant documentary by Michael Madsen, about the construction of the Onkalo waste repository at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant on the island of Olkiluoto, Finland. It shows scientists speculating how to deal with our future us over the duration of 100,000 years when the nuclear waste finally becomes safe. Do they put a sign over the burial site warning future generations? Or will a sign be misinterpreted as an indication that there’s treasure stashed below ground – an encouragement to explore? What for me becomes the real subject of this film is the gentle, tentative, almost childlike way in which these scientists transmit their wonder, trying to extend their attention and care into such a distant future. Nearly all of them seem to intuit that our future us will be a much more primitive species, comparatively (more) stupid, requiring a deeper level of consideration, responsibility and kindness – thinking ahead.
Thinking back: for many years almost every path my work went in coincidentally seemed to lead back to the twelfth-century Christian visionary mystic Saint Hildegard von Bingen. She was always there! There’s another pile of half-read books in my home as a marker that I’d always meant to find out exactly what she was doing, hovering quietly at the end of each track. For the majority of the lockdown I worked on a piece which imagines that she was transmitting a signal to us in the present, channelling (through time, technology and, of course, art) a technique for healing.
In order to create a more direct communication (with us? with the divine? between us and the divine?) she created a secret language. A secret new language that is direct seems to be a contradiction, but in the current circumstances of almost constant misinformation and our ability to collectively delude ourselves about anything that deeply matters, from climate change to white fragility, perhaps it makes sense? There are many mysteries about this language that are way beyond even the most rigorous Ecosia searches under the luxury of lockdown time. She created more than one name in her secret glossary for the walnut, quince, medlar and fig trees, as well as for the thigh. What do these things have in common that they would need two (or in some cases more) names? What was she thinking?! It may take 100,000 years for the future us to be able to answer this small question, knowing by then that we need numerous names for the same things because everything has become more complex. At least it has in our perception of the world.
Soon after lockdown began a fox and her cubs began playing in our and our neighbours’ back gardens early in the mornings. High above them in a pine tree were some crows working on the finishing touches to a nest. I liked the crows because they chased away the local gulls who make that incessant annoying screech that seems to come from the early 80s. (In contrast the crow’s caw is rough and ancient and resonates in a different part of the human body.) Our neighbours put a lot of bird food out and the foxes would eat any remnants of fat balls that had dropped to the ground. So, our neighbours started putting out food for the foxes (which our cat would often eat and then return home to be sick). The fox and crows seemed to coexist peacefully in strangely close proximity. Then, leading up to when the fledgling crow was rehearsing its departure from the nest, the adult crows would clear their territory by swooping, hovering, cawing and vigorously pecking at the back of the fox whenever it appeared, trying to scare it off. In reference to the crow on its back the fox would give us a long look that was somewhere between embarrassment, sheepish irritation and nonchalance.
The young crow made an error of judgement on its first flight and injured itself. Our neighbours rescued it and made a nest for it in a bucket which they hoisted a little way up the nesting tree to allow some time and a safe space for it to recover. It must have fallen out again. The fox ate it. The crows grieved. The fox family seemed to retreat too, out of shame. Before they left they told us:
‘We’re sorry we spoilt your experience of our peaceful coexistence. That is what we need to do from time to time. We know about those stories about the wet market in Wuhan. That, I’m afraid, is all your fault(s). But we have high hopes for you. As a species you just need to be given a lot more time.’
– Adam Chodzko, June 2020
Adam Chodzko’s work focuses on our relationships to life’s edges, endings, displacements, transitions, disappearances and in-between states and often involves looking in the ‘wrong’ place or in the ‘wrong’ way to discover productive mis-readings and to propose alternative realities.
He has exhibited extensively since 1991 in international solo and group exhibitions and projects including: Tate St Ives; Museo d’Arte Moderna, Bologna; Athens Biennale; Istanbul Biennale; Venice Biennale; Deste Foundation, Athens; PS1, New York; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; Kunstmuseum Lucerne; Creative Time, New York; Hayward Gallery, London and Tate Britain. He lives in Whitstable, Kent.
Adam spent time in Cornwall in 2017 and 2018 as part of the Groundwork programme, providing individual passages in Ghost, a hand-made wooden kayak, both vessel and sculptural object.