a way from heaven (2017-2023)
A design for an anodised aluminium cladding for the façade of a kiosk structure for the River Thames’ Tideway Tunnel, (a 25 km, ‘Super Sewer’ for London).
12m 20cm x 5m 28cm
Chodzko’s artwork – a ‘sculptural painting’ – at Barn Elms is based upon the area’s connection to Sir Francis Walsingham – the government administrator responsible for intelligence services in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 – who resided at Barn Elms Manor. It was Walsingham’s spy system that discovered the Babington Plot of 1586 to murder Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers and to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. Babington’s encrypted correspondence with Mary was intercepted and decoded by Walsingham’s spies, preventing the plot from being carried out and ultimately leading to the execution of the Queen of Scots. Chodzko’s design uses a repeated portion of this cryptograph, at different scales, laser cut and sandblasted into the anodised aluminium façade of the kiosk. Working from a digitised version of the 1568 document, the work faithfully recreates the handwritten script of Babington’s code, originally written with a quill and ink. Chodzko decided to work with four of its ciphers in order to create the repeated enigmatic message ‘a way from heaven’. These four codes also resemble symbols on a map: (a) a filter, grille, or drain, (way) a path, (from) a river meander and (heaven) a bridge, all elements which feature in the topography of Barn Elms site.
Referring to the falconry kept by Walsingham at Barn Elms, and the quills used to write the secret code’s ciphers, a row of falcon feathers feature in the background of the work, rendered in a darker pigmentation. The gap divisions between the anodised aluminium panels act as the feathers’ ‘quills’. Feathers (quills) were used to write the cipher code. Symbols without meanings called ‘nulls’ were used by the conspirators to set among the ciphers acting as ‘red herrings’ and the falcon marks are used in Chodzko’s design as ‘nulls.’ The feather designs also relate to Walsingham’s ‘retirement hobby’ of rearing and training falcons, the quill with writing, and the bird as an expression of freedom contrasting with Mary Queen of Scots’ incarceration. Some of the feather pattern forms also resemble the silhouettes of a bird of prey. These feather forms weave in and out of the ciphers as though casting shadows on them, perhaps prompting the ‘preyed upon’ to sense the need to take flight from the hunter, to get a way from heaven.
At the top left and bottom right of the façade are the html codes </head> and </body>, representing title and content respectively in contemporary computer code. The Babington cipher code is understood in relation to our current computer codes (turning the kiosk’s façade into a form of computer screen) with the position of </head> and </body> in the design alluding to a gap between the head of state and the body of the people, a separation between thinking and action, and the separation of the head from the body (the fate of Mary Queen of Scots, metaphorically and literally). This lacuna between </head> and </body> also signifies the lace ruff (worn as a symbol of status and wealth. Portraits of Walsingham, Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots all show them wearing ruffs), looking like a ‘ghost around the neck’. The lace ruff references in the artwork acknowledge the lacewing insect (the conservation of the lacewing is part of the commission’s ecological strategy) and also are manifested in the ‘lace’ perforations in the anodised aluminium throughout the façade; lace as a filter, recognising that the kiosk’s structure is as a form of monitoring, managing and filtering for the Tideway sewer system. The ruff form, with its figure of eight goffered folds (continuing apparently infinitely in this ‘8’) is also mirrored in the repeated and connected w‘s, taken from the code’s lettering for ‘way’ (waye), in Chodzko’s design. These wwwwwwww…’s at the start of the façade’s ‘document’ could be interpreted as an excessive www, a ‘world wide web’ of coded interconnections, but also to a form of thinking, doodling, meditation, hesitation or stasis (a falling asleep on the keyboard) until they finally give way to the ‘decision’: a way from heaven.
And that message has multiple interpretations; a way from heaven meaning from the heavens above into the earth below (including or even via the Tideway sewer system). Or it could be Walsingham watching his falcon swoop from the sky as they hunt: a way away from heaven. It could be Mary Queen of Scots’ execution (and damnation, from Elizabeth’s point of view) taking her away from heaven. Or it could refer to the Babington plot itself; a way from heaven is an opportunity, a plan given directly by god in order to enable Mary Queen of Scots to take over the throne from Elizabeth.
In the repeated form the ciphers appear in the design they become marks she might have made on her cell wall, marking time, waiting, reciting this phrase as prayer. Ultimately, it is ambiguous as to whether the phrase is referring to a path guided by god, or a path that descends away from heaven into ‘hell’.
Chodzko, in an explanation to the Tideway commissioners, wrote: ‘I am trying, through this project, to empathise with Walsingham as I imagine him standing out in this West London landscape watching his falcons fly high above this part of the Thames. I feel that he must have felt an affinity with this bird of prey, that as he reflected on his ‘hunt’ in relation to the Babington Plot and its use of ciphers, that this thrill might have been accompanied by an element of guilt in what it had led to; the brutal execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the other plotters. This guilt, I feel, haunts the site along with a beauty from its circling falcons. And now with the massive transformation of the infrastructure that deals with London’s waste, (with what it wants to wash away, its dirt) and the creation of an access portal to this underworld, these ‘bowels’ in the Barns Elm site, lead perhaps to the surreal manifestation of these repressed ciphers and related forms, allowing them to surface, ‘projected’ onto the kiosk facade in the 21st century. All these I imagine as a dream Sir Francis Walsingham experienced as he slept within this landscape.’
a way from heaven continues to explore Chodzko’s interest in speculating on the psychology of specific individuals from history whose past behaviour seems to continue to haunt a site in the present. Other examples include Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (2015), Great Expectations (2015), Because…(2013), and Reunion; Salò (1998), whilst Hole (2007) is a comparable work for its use of a public ‘screen’ or façade communicating an excess of intimate signals operating in relation to a hole that is functioning as a vacuum of meaning. Great Expectations (2015), O, you happy roots, branch and mediatrix (2020) and works such as Plan for a Spell (2001) are, along with a way from heaven , examples of works by Chodzko that involve a code determining, in different ways, the appearance of the work for a viewer.
Other permanent, site-specific sculptural works by Chodzko creating a mythology of place include Five holes from a Removed Sign (2007) (as part of Hole (2007)), Pyramid (2008), Holding the Earth this Way (2022).