Title and Medway locale aside, Adam Chodzko’s ‘Great Expectations’ makes no obvious link to the Dickens heritage industry that bolsters regional tourism. Instead it responds chiefly to Benjamin Seaton’s 18th century tool-chest built to store some 200 woodworking implements given to him by his father, the cabinetmaker Joseph Seaton, in 1796. It would be the only job those tools completed; with the chest built, the extensive kit, including a detailed inventory, was consigned within and never put to work again. Comprising a video screened at multiple sites in neighbouring Medway towns, and a sculpture installed at one, ‘Great Expectations’ imagines the tools as sentient beings with their own perspectives on this story.
There are three public screening locations for the video, which combines live action footage with animation rendered from 3D scans of the chest and its contents. Insofar as there is any primary location it’s the Guildhall Museum in Rochester – home to the Seaton Tool Chest itself – where it can be seen in a Victorian drawing room accompanied by some creepy mannequins in period dress. Other locations include a branch of B&Q in Gillingham and a big screen overlooking a car park at the waterside pumping station in nearby Chatham. The video is accompanied in B&Q, several aisles away, by ‘Ark Eye’; a roughly chrysalis shaped wooden assemblage made of small cut offs. Notionally devised and fashioned by Seaton’s tools, it briefly appears in the video washing ashore as a fallen satellite.
Much content in the work merits development that the relatively short video can’t quite accommodate. It orbits what could be called the human interest of the scenario somewhat evasively, for example. However the perspective on formal and structural relations – theoretical joinery, as it were – is fascinating, and rewards speculation, especially about institutions of guardianship and tutelage. There is a pedagogic tone in the telling of Seaton’s story by the tools, voiced by the artist in conversation with his own sons. It provokes a shudder of juvenile tetchiness in me to be schooled by some animistic prop like the kind from an educational film where an electron or desiccated ammonite cheerily explains itself to my curious young proxy. Galling though it may be, this is fairly apposite, since the edifice of education comes to light here, especially as a space of incubation. Elsewhere in the film we see uniformed children pacing, uninstructed around a darkened room alongside the unmistakable linoleum and swinging doors of a school corridor. The deft linkage of institutional architectures is one of the work’s most successful devices: successful enough to encompass the museum, family home, retail unit, car park and tool chest itself in a universal complex. Objects, ideas or people are packed discretely away to undergo conservation for posterity, preparation for adulthood or some similar process under similar conditions.
Some interestingly tenuous dichotomies between digital and analogue craft also emerge. An irony in the inheritance and supposed obsolescence of artisanal methods is nowhere more pronounced than in a DIY superstore as exhibition space. Joinery, by name at least, may no longer be universally recognized as a trade in itself, but it’s kit – handsaws, mallets, planes and files etc. – has changed little in design or function. I write on a laptop past its prime after only a few years of use (in a few more it will be practically Neolithic) whereas Seaton’s bounty, conceivably still fit for purpose, could be used now and for years to come in any modern workshop.
By contrast, the sophisticated digital technology used to create 3D scans for the video is sketchy and prone to glitches – a productive flaw, possibly a consequence of strict handling conditions for artifacts. In any case, it’s judiciously adapted to the narrative framework. Surfaces fail to connect or become indistinct, outlines appear unnaturally brittle; the tools ask one another if they are disintegrating. There is the faintest twinge of body horror at the prospect of transitioning into a new virtual corporeality incomplete, merging with other structures, permeable and gaping. Not that the intrepid tools are afraid. They greet their traumatic dematerialisation as an evolutionary phase - they are becoming ‘pure joinery,’ unlike children who are in a necessary phase of pure individuation, cobbling their subjectivity from hereditary cut offs, assimilating what is useful. As for the rest of what they’ve been given, one can only hope they will one day take the time to build a sturdy and attractive box.