Exhibitions: Who do they think they are?

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The Independent Culture
Adam Chodzko

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Suppose you threw a party and nobody came? Suppose, more to the point, you asked the actors who had played the 16 teenagers in Pier Paulo Pasolini's Sal, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), to show up for a reunion, and none of them did?

If you are - a Goldsmiths'-trained conceptual artist and participant in the Royal Academy's 1997 "Sensation" show, and now the subject of a one-man exhibition at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery - a slow smile of artistic pleasure would creep across your face. Chodzko's work is all about possibility, throwing balls in the air and seeing where they will land. The idea that they might not land at all - that they might defy even Chodzko's self-invented laws of gravity - clearly gives the artist a certain grim satisfaction.

One of the school of fashionable young artists working in film (cf this year's Turner Prize shortlist), Chodzko is unusual in producing work that is not simply materially about the medium, but actually takes the medium as its subject. Films are, by and large, controlling things: they set up narratives, develop them, and then bring them to an end. For Chodzko, this ring-fencing of possibility is clearly something of an imposition. In a way that seems disingenuously childlike, he has an itch to retell stories in his own modified version and in his own altered time: to allow filmic grandmothers to eat cinematic wolves rather than the other way about.

In Reunion: Sal (1998), Chodzko aimed to re-enact Pasolini's final scene of orgiastic murder, re-using the film's original adolescent actors. Since he had no idea where to find them, he papered Rome with fly-posters hinting that he wanted to get the 16 together with the object of creating "qualcosa di nuovo". This was not entirely true. The sole newness of the film would have consisted in time having visibly moved on, in Pasolini's winsome adolescents being in their mid-forties. The irruption of jowls and love-handles would, presumably, have played games with the tension between real and cinematic time. But in the event, the complete lack of response to his poster campaign forced Chodzko to refine his focus still further by hiring lookalike actors to play the parts.

In Reunion: Sal, we thus have a film that is to all intents and purposes by Pasolini, but for the vaguely disturbing fact that it isn't. (Pasolini was murdered shortly after finishing his sado-masochistic masterpiece in 1975, an elision of fact and fiction that may account for Chodzko's attraction to the film.) It is difficult to say precisely what the aesthetic effect of this is, other than a dawning realisation that movies do not always tell the truth. The real cleverness of Chodzko's work lies in the things that it isn't: satirical, for example, or didactic, or obviously moralising. None the less, you do find yourself leaving the Ikon with a sense of having had it gently pointed out to you that you have been duped, although how or by whom no one has quite said.

Something of the same sense of the dangers of possibility runs through Chodzko's best-known work, the International God Look-Alike Contest (1995-96). Like Sal, the project began with an advertisement, placed in classifieds columns around the world and asking people who thought they looked like God to send in photographs of themselves. The outcome, some 30 framed snapshots, is at once facetious and oddly serious. Walk around the Contest and it will strike you (as it clearly did Chodzko) that there is something inescapably funny about people who have so clear an idea of their own likeness to the godhead that they are willing to prove it by recourse to the photobooth.

At the same time, though, there is a genuine undercurrent of Aquinas to it all: the idea that these images - white, black, male, female, raunchy, pudic, nude, clothed - are all potentially made in God's image does have Thomist theology on its side. Serge and Christi from Minsk may seem laughable in suggesting that God might conceivably dress like Torvill and Dean and peroxide His hair, but they are also, theologically speaking, right.

What are Chodzko's own thoughts on the matter? The thing that makes his work particularly worth looking at is that it is almost impossible to say. His frame of reference seems loosely Christian - in the video installation Nightvision (1998), a group of professional lighting engineers were asked to illuminate a wood so as to make it look like Heaven, for example - but a belief in Heaven and God seem to be merely part of that same human tendency towards childlike fantasy as Chodzko finds in film. ("And the rest of the wood would be lit up by starlight and that would be very pale white landing on the leaves but then going into deep shadows; deep, sort of blue shadows", rambles one of the participants in Nightvision, in a kind of cinematic fiat lux.)

Sex, too, is a rich arena of possibility. For the 1995 Venice Biennale, Chodzko placed an ad in a contact magazine consisting of a Narnia-ish charcoal drawing of a wood with the innocent legend "Will you join me here?" beneath it. One respondent replied that he "loved sex outdoors, adore oral and giving my partner the most enjoyable orgasms time after time ... "

You may, of course, ask yourself whether the essence of Chodzko's work is not so much participation as voyeurism: telling artistic white lies in the hope of watching people fall for them. The answer I imagine he would give is that it takes a fantasist to catch one. His voice seems both morally neutral and tinged with genuine empathy. In A Place for The End - a new project, in which eight Brummies were invited to choose sites in the city for shooting the ends of films - the cinema becomes an instrument of deliverance. In each film clip, Chodzko's anonymous players walk from some piece of urban dereliction or other - a canal, a gasworks - towards a distant light. The story, apparently, is contained not in the films we have missed, but in the promise of a notional film we can only hope exists beyond The End. Sound familiar?

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (0121 248 0708), to 30 August