home features exhibitions | interviewsprofileswebprojects | gazetteer | linksarchive | forum

Adam Chodzko on 'The Dark Monarch', conceptual art and the nature of place

interview by Rupert White



'The Dark Monarch' is a very interesting show I'm sure you'd agree. What are your impressions? How do you feel about the themes it explores?

I think its extraordinary, very diverse. There's stuff that's been completed in the last few hours brought into dialogue with works made over 150 years earlier.


There's a Paul Nash from 1910, and Richard Dadd and Samuel Palmer (The Lonely Tower - picture right) from the 19th Century for example...

Its amazing how fresh a lot of that earlier work looks now.  I would not be particularly excited by a Cecil Collins retrospective in isolation. But they suddenly make sense next to a John Russell from 2010. And vice versa!

I think all the work looks like its taking a risk. Most museum shows don’t dare this and instead operate to reassure and ‘inform’ the viewer by gathering everything within the same time period or the same artist. Dark Monarch undermines this, looking instead for a similar sensibility across time; a fascination with the British Landscape and fascination with the Surreal.  In attempting to address the reality of this landscape a shift occurs into other realities. And within this movement is an overt or unconscious play of notions of the magical.

A lot of these artists are not that well known, but I think they're crucial for an understanding of British art: someone like Graham Sutherland who remains totally overshadowed by Bacon for example really is fantastic and, I think, a much more interesting artist.


Does the show feel very British? This is something Michael Bracewell mentioned.

Yes. I think it is very British. But, I guess, what does that “Britishness” mean other than an abstract feeling that denotes a collective identity. I mean the part of Kent where I live seems worlds apart in appearance and atmosphere from this part of Cornwall. And the corner of one particular field is a presence in contrast to the wall of a new build house two miles way. Each place is fundamentally different from another and yet we can still speak of something feeling British.

However, I think more than a record of the specific yet rich diversity of Britain’s landscape there is a “Britishness” more apparent in the artist’s response to this context; that peculiar concoction of sublimated delight and terror, wonder and pragmatism that is revealed in most British behaviour.

But, I think for Dark Monarch I’ve been thinking about this response in terms of a whole sphere of TV narratives about the British landscape in the early 70's. I saw these as a child: where some kind of apocalyptic (nuclear!) event had happened, creating a dystopia which catalysed supernatural’s conjecture with the present. Magic was seen as both the source of disorder and simultaneously a salvation. It was just corrupted – made ‘dark’ -  by human foibles. I'm thinking of Children of the Stones, The Changes, The Owl Service. These are all terrifying to watch – very odd, and yet were on TV for children. There is nothing like them now. The books of Alan Garner (picture above), John Wyndham and Ballard also work with these themes of course and they became a big influence on me.

I think this narrative still impacts on contemporary values and behaviour in Britain.


Talking of influences would you recognise any of the older artists here as having been influences on you?

Yes. Graham Sutherland, Peter Lanyon, Derek Jarman, Paul Nash, and then younger ones like John Stezaker...


It's interesting looking at the modernist work to consider how the conceptual processes involved with making art have changed in the last 40 years. Conceptual art happened in the 60s and 70s and that changed things didn't it?

I think it did. And changing technology, shifting value systems...

I think what's quite interesting is that, apart from Derek Jarman, there isn't any video-work. The curators have concentrated on objects that form the iconography of the Occult. There's a whole other sphere of stuff – time based work - that hasn't been included. There were lots of works of mine that were being discussed by the curators that deal with a real engagement of magic within a relational context -  something that Martin Clark calls ‘operational’ work. But they decided not to include this. So ‘Dark Monarch’ focuses more on the iconography of magic’s interface with landscape, although artists like Austin Osman Spare were clearly practitioners.

Some of the works that were in my solo show here -  like 'Plan for a Spell' (video projection - installation view) for instance which is very much about a complex conceptual process; a movement of the British landscape, an embedded spell, a narrative about how some kind of system of coincidence and chance playing itself out. And going back to your question about conceptualism – “Plan for a Spell” is very much a meeting of conceptualism and the surreal.


In many ways the best conceptual art is very mystical or magical. It's not necessarily as dry as some people imagine.

It can be deeply romantic, with a sense of longing and desire embedded within it. Which is different from a lot of the first generation conceptual art which was more of a pseudo-sociology, and about systems of engagement.  But even within that was often an inherent folksiness that we tend to iron out.


In your own work there are forms of magical thinking. Either bold imaginary and conceptual leaps between different ideas and people and places, or a slower, perverse aleatory logic.

I’m trying to work as much as possible with a surreal that leaks out of the everyday reality that we live with and often become quite blind to. Its about seeing it as rich and full of potential.


Seeing the magic in the ordinary...

About that, and chance and coincidence remain an absolute mystery in our normal lives, because we develop these very rational and controlled ways of dealing with them.


This strand has been present in your work from the beginning. Some of your early pieces, for example, insert fictional futuristic or magical elements into quite ordinary situations. I'm thinking here of the 'Secretors' with their 'manifestation juice' which feature in The Dark Monarch (picture above) or the advert in Loot for 'Millenarian heterogenous apparition' for example (picture below).

I think, going back to what we saying about those narratives within British Culture in the early seventies – these works are always about being in a seemingly very stable context and then noticing that system is about to collapse allowing something else to leak through.

You mention film, and thinking of Derek Jarman, there is something about film that is inherently Romantic and magical. Jarman himself talked of the alchemy of film. It lends itself to rich iconography and lush textures...

Yes. Also magic has a performative and ritualistic component. And you'd think film would be a crucial part of that. Its referred to I think though within a lot of the 2D and 3D work in the show. And of course Cerith Wyn Evans started out as a film-maker influenced by Jarman and Anger.


The themes of the show are so rich that it has clearly been hard to cover everything. Its interesting that there's also no Land Art in the show, and I do think of Richard Long as being at least related to this tradition, though not at all gothic.

Yes. That’s true.


There's some Land Art in your work too. Such as the signposts project 'Better Scenery' (pictures X2 below), and maybe 'Test tone for a Landscape'. A geographic component remains important.

What seems important to the mysticism of the British Landscape and its mediation through art is that particular places are held to be absolutely crucial. In a lot of the works, Nash and Sutherland there are references to specific place.


Talking of place at a more personal level, you're someone who lived in London for a long time, but who moved to Kent more recently. Artists in Cornwall are very conscious of where they live and work - how does living out of London affect your practice?

Well, beyond the immediate contact with landscape and a micro-community that it provides a lot of practical things  are also made easier living out of the city. London is terrible for making work because everything is so dispersed so picking up materials can take ages. That's your day gone. Where I am now you can get things made very easily because the environment does not have that congestion. There is a chaos in London, a noisiness and busyness, and its difficult to get clarity, so it helps with that.


So there's more headspace?

Yes. Now I only go into London if I really need to. And now I quite like it. I’m like a tourist and I get lost. I’ve forgotten the rules.  Friends of mine who are outside the art world have this perception that this sphere of activity is full of wild, experimental and exploratory people, but actually in many ways it’s deeply conservative and fearful of drifting away from a very familiar and solid centre; literally and metaphorically. I remember when I was in South London it was almost impossible to get anyone from North London to travel to visit my studio or galleries in south london. It was felt to be too far away!

I think the economics of studio space and living space means that now all over Britain you have far more artists staying on in eg: Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham -  even near me in Folkestone and Margate are artist run spaces putting on interesting shows.


That's changed in the last ten years?

Yes and some curators are much more aware of it. A lot of ‘London based’ artists in the show actually are pretty far out into what 10 years ago would have been considered outer suburbs. Clare Woods who is in the show now lives in Herefordshire. Linder is in Morecombe. A lot of interesting art is made away from the centre...


More diverse, made for different audiences perhaps...

And more idiosyncratic because it's away from a constant chatter. It’s not being made on top of a whole load of other people who are making very similar work, too acutely aware of the market.  It’s good for the work to become oblivious of the market.