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ROCHESTER, UK — Thanks to an association with Charles Dickens, North Kent is better known for literature than for contemporary art. But a new project by Adam Chodzko connects the two with a film and installation that borrow one of the novelist’s best-known titles: Great Expectations.
The first sight to greet arrivals at Rochester Station is a floating accommodation block on the River Medway. With an unfortunate resemblance to a prison ship, it reminds you of the salty Dickensian convict Magwitch. And to those familiar with the epic plot of Great Expectations, it sets up a tale of inheritance and mystery in this historic and at times bleak part of the world.
But Chodzko has his own cast of characters: a father and son who were real Rochester locals and predated Dickens. His story is a true one, with no novelistic resolution, and its engine is a piece of furniture rather than a plot device. The Seaton Tool Chest was made by Benjamin Seaton after his father, Joseph, generously presented him with a set of joinery tools. Seaton Jr. then gave up joinery for reasons which are lost in the mists of time, not to mention those of the Medway Estuary.
I asked Chodzko what drew him to his subject. “It’s this idea of the gift,” he said, explaining that he became fascinated with the Seaton Tool Chest after a visit to the nearby Guildhall Museum, where it is on view. This was shortly after taking up a commission by curators at Hoodwink to produce some public art for the Medway area.
Unusually for an object maker, Chodzko’s interest was less to do with this crafted, physical relic and more to do with the transaction the chest represents. He gives me this reading: “The son says, ‘Thank you for the gift. I know what you mean by this gift, and I appreciate it. And I’m going to show you how I appreciate it. But also I’m going to make it really clear that what you expect from me … I’m off in a different direction.’”
The handover took place in 1796, and its contents now comprise the world’s only surviving and complete 18th-century tool chest. The object is of inestimable value and fervent interest to all manner of tool and trade specialists. And, having been studied, drawn, and scanned, the Seaton Tool Chest has taken on a new life, with at least four or five faithful replicas out there in the world. Plans to make your own are available to download online.
Taking advantage of such data about the historic chest, Chodzko features the object in a cosmic film, which locates the famous local artifact in a CGI void with a constellation of roughly rendered tools. In a second reconstruction, the artist has turned the plans into a joinery disaster, a hefty polyhedron made to resemble a wooden eyeball. Chodzko’s story has it that this alien rock somehow came from the virtual chest, returning to the real world when it washed up in the River Medway. It’s now on display in the Gillingham branch of hardware chain B&Q, alongside all the timber, saws, chisels, and varnish a present-day carpenter could need.
The Medway is a post-industrial landscape still recovering from the closure of its Royal dockyards in the 1980s. Rochester and Gillingham are a 15-minute drive apart, and after seeing the film at either the Guildhall Museum or B&Q — or both — you can head to the bus station at Chatham, where the nine-minute reel enjoys regular screenings on an advertising Jumbotron. From its site on a water pumping station, the picture is clear and the sound eerily intermittent, depending on the direction of the freezing winds. Sit in the right bay at the right time and you’ll get drawn into the interplay between the virtually rendered tools and anthropomorphic chest, drawn into the so-called spells which Benjamin left with his creation and into the struggle between duty and freedom.
“By thinking about something, you sort of become sucked into it and immersed within it, and then you kind of follow that through in thinking, ‘Actually we’re inside the chest,’” says Chodzko, who is comfortable with a metaphysical theme. “I always try to fold it into my own immediate experience,” he addss, referring to his own roles as son and father. “So it’s about doing lots of research and then almost rejecting that research. I’m trying to find a harmony with how the world is operating in relation to the thing I’m looking for.”
Still, you get the feeling that this time, the Seaton Tool Chest found Chodzko. With some 200 components, the piece itself is impressive and, apart from a spell in the 1990s when it took a brief trip to Williambsburg, VA, has been in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester for some 100 years. It stands behind glass, with a fan of its accoutrements, calling to mind a proud display of wooden plumage. Curator Steve Nye points out that many tools are still in their brown paper wrappings, tied up with string: “These are untouched!” He tells me a little more about the appeal of the Seaton Tool Chest and muses on how it has remained complete for so long.
“That’s the nature of tools,” he says. “They have a life of their own. So for us it’s a question of why? Why did they hold onto it for a century?” Like Chodzko, he’s aware of the object’s emotional resonance.
“Buying tools for someone for their lifelong trade is a big investment of money. It says, ‘These are the tools. That’s the job you’re going to do. That’s going to be your life.’”
He compares the imposition on young Benjamin Seaton to the mortgage on a house. But given that his father set him up for life, one can only speculate about the son’s alternative career plans. Evidence suggests he planned to cross the Atlantic, but his plans fell through. Outside of a Dickens novel, the 18th century was not a great time for social mobility.
So perhaps we should think of the Seaton Tool Chest as a novelistic, Dickensian motif after all, and consider the emotions it must have given rise to throughout the Seaton family. That type of story is pretty timeless. Contemporary art is here just the atmospheric mist out of which the facts of family life and inheritance slowly appear.
Adam Chodzko’s Great Expectations is a Hoodwink commission on view at various locations in Medway through March 26 and April 24, and at the Guildhall Museum, Rochester, until September 11. See the website for complete details.