Better Scenery is an artwork made up of four components, two photographs and two site-specific sculptures. It was commissioned by Camden Arts Centre, London. The sculptures are large signs, one located in North London, the other in the Painted Desert, Arizona. The photographs, each depicting one of the signs in situ, are displayed as a diptych. In the photograph on the left the sign is set within the O2 shopping and leisure centre’s busy car park off London’s Finchley Road. The photograph depicts a dark, built-up environment beneath an overcast sky. A few trees, shopping trolleys and lampposts are scattered among the many cars in the foreground. In the background the blur of a moving underground train is visible in front of a large Victorian red-brick building. In the photograph on the right the sign stands out against a vast blue sky in a landscape of grasses and yellow flowered brush receding to a flat horizon echoed by a line of mountains behind. A dark sandy hill rises at the left edge of the image. Each sign is a large black rectangle with yellow text that gives detailed road directions in simple language. Both signs are fixed in the ground by two timbers with a wind chime fixed to the top of the left strut. The sign in North London gives directions from Flagstaff, Arizona, to the specific location of the sign in the desert which, in turn, gives directions from Central London to the location of the sign at the O2 carpark. The final sentence of both signs is ‘Situated here, in this place, is a sign which describes the location of this sign you have just finished reading.’
The two landscapes photographed represent opposite extremes. One conveys the bustle of urban life, the other the unchanging stillness of the desert. In the photograph of the Painted Desert sign, the wind chime is clearly visible and functions as a visual metonym to convey a sense that its resonant notes would be the only sound carried on the breeze across the silent landscape. In the photograph of the O2 carpark, the wind chime is hardly visible against the grey sky. Amidst everything else that is happening there is a suggestion that its notes would be drowned out by the noise of traffic, trains, trolleys, children and shoppers. The contrasting economies of each location are further signified by each sign’s installation. The Arizona sign was simply dug into the desert. Mounds of dark sandy soil rise up around the base of each strut and it is, to date, still standing. In contrast, the London sign was cemented into the pavement, secured as part of the built environment. Five months later it was removed on the artist’s instructions after the wind chime was stolen.
The title Better Scenery implies that whichever landscape you are in, the sign you are reading describes a more desirable location. Standing in the polluted urban environment of the shopping centre carpark the peace and wide open spaces of the Painted Desert may conjure up fantasies of the American West, but the busy cityscape described on the Arizona sign could equally trigger a desire to experience one of the world’s great cities. Experience of the artwork is always deferred to another time and place – by following the instructions the viewer arrives at a landscape where another sign presents a new set of instructions to find the landscape thousands of miles away. Even if we were to visit both sites, Chodzko displaces experience with memory and imagination by asking us to remember or imagine the other location even while we are experiencing the place we are standing in. Exhibited in a gallery or museum setting the photographs are experienced at one further remove from the scene they depict.
There are allusions to a number of art historical genres in this work. The signs make strong reference to 1960s conceptual art by presenting a set of instructions which, if followed, are transformed by the viewer from language to performance. With Better Scenery Chodzko also subverts the tradition of landscape painting by overlaying multiple landscapes linguistically and visually. This was a strategy Robert Smithson used in such ‘Displacement’ works as Ithaca Mirror Trail, Ithaca, New York 1969 (Tate T07868), in which mirrors were placed in the landscape reflecting natural materials like rocks, trees or snow. These arrangements were photographed and when presented in a gallery are accompanied by a map detailing where the photographs were taken. Chodzko’s choice of location for Better Scenery also makes reference to land art by situating the sign within sight of James Turrell’s Roden Crater, an extinct volcano Turrell has been reshaping since the mid-1970s. This is mentioned on the sign in London and is the dark hill on the left edge of the Arizona photograph. Two further versions of this work exist. In Better Scenery, 2001, the signs are located outside a car factory in Turin and in a forest in Cumbria and Better Scenery, 2002, the signs are in a field in Fargo, North Dakota and in the branches of a tree outside Cubitt Gallery, London.
Jonathon Jones, ‘Adam Chodzko’, Frieze, no. 51, May 2000, reproduced in colour p.95
Adam Chodzko, exhibition catalogue, University of Bradford, Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland and Viewpoint Gallery, Salford 1999
Adam Chodzko:Plans and Spells, London 2002