Saturday, August 11, 2007

Alex Hartley

Dear me, I'm slipping behind. Time to set about catching up.

The Fruitmarket Gallery is Edinburgh's main modern art gallery (unless you count the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, but that's really more of a museum of twentieth-century work than an exhibition space for new material). Their Festival offering is, apparently, "the first solo exhibition in a public gallery in Britain" by Alex Hartley - a heavily qualified "first" if ever I saw one.

Hartley's schtick is unusual perspectives on architecture. What this means, in reality, is that he likes climbing on buildings and then producing mock climbing-route maps in which he treats them, deadpan, like any other natural feature. He also produces rather convincing doctored photographs of untouched landscapes into which he's inserted unlikely buildings - not by altering the photograph, but by physically adding little three-dimensional attachments onto the surface itself. He makes some rather clever objects where pictures are viewed through some kind of glass panel, creating a surprisingly convincing illusion of a blurred three-dimensional space. And he likes photographing Californian modernist architecture, which I'm sure is fascinating if you're into that sort of thing.

His most striking contribution is to encase the gallery itself with an additional facade, essentially a giant billboard, on which he's reproduced the real facade with helpful notes and advice on how to climb the thing. (The facade serves the handy double purpose of making it impossible to actually attempt any of the climbing routes. Bearing in mind that the Fruitmarket is in the city centre, you can practically guarantee that if the routes were still climbable, some drunken idiot would break his neck attempting them.) It's a genuine "What the hell?" moment when you approach the building.

You know what the problem is with the modern art world? They insist on trying to make themselves sound clever. A lot of Hartley's work is perfectly enjoyable on a surface level. There's a sense of wry and absurd humour running through most of it. On at least one level, it sets out to be entertaining, and it succeeds. In a video interview, running in the corner of the gallery, Hartley outright confirms that the playful absurdity is a large part of the appeal for him. Yes, he's quite into messing about with preconceptions about architecture and all that... but it's not meant to be simply a dry theoretical exercise.

But you'd never guess that from the official leaflet, which almost completely omits any mention of the fact that Hartley's work is meant to be amusing, or even that it's supposed to generate any emotional reaction whatsoever. The "almost" is because they mention in passing his book LA Climbs, and describe it as "not entirely serious." Otherwise, the programme promises a grim experience indeed. Would you go and see an exhibition described like this?
"This exhibition, Alex Hartley's first solo exhibition in a public gallery in Britain, brings together a significant selection of existing and new work. From glass-encased images to idealised modernist interiors produced in the 1990s, to newly commissioned photographic work connected with his interest in climbing on buildings, the works all reflect a dynamic practice characterised by critical thinking about physical and mental approaches to the built environment and the natural world."

Who writes this stuff? What is it supposed to mean? And the accompanying essay is even worse. The opening line:-
"Like mountain climbing, the act of climbing buildings, known as 'buildering', confronts the monumentality of structures."

The unnamed author goes on to quote a passage from Hartley's LA Climbs that makes him look every bit as pretentious (even though, in the video interview, he seems perfectly reasonable):-
"Buildering focuses purely on the phenomenal characteristics of the architecture, on its compositions of planes, surfaces, textures and their relationship and accessibility to the physical form of the urban climber. It offers up a new interpretation of a fractured, constructed arena through this interaction."

The first sentence isn't so bad, but the second is unforgiveable. The essay continues with a mixture of legitimate background information and indigestible, intolerable explanation. It ends with this deathless insight:-
"Hartley's work addresses complicated and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward the built and natural environments. Encounters with buildings are grounded by conventions and expectations, but Hartley shows us new ways of physically experiencing and thinking about the built environment - through surface and line, scale and materials, locations and contexts. Climbing is a strategy for access through thoughtful trespass. By subverting conventional approaches to the built environment, Hartley presents the possibility of physical and political freedom."

This is just gibberish. "Climbing is a strategy for access through thoughtful trespass"? Climbing can't be a "strategy for access", because in order for Hartley to do his climbing, he has to have access already. His "strategy for access" is to jump over the fence. This sort of thing is nonsense to anyone who hasn't spent years immersed in artschool jargon, and it's probably nonsense to most of them as well. All that the author is saying - in a staggeringly pretentious fashion that empties the work of all its entertainment value and all its most engaging qualities - is that, like, we normally see buildings primarily in terms of their social function, and by disregarding their social context and interacting with them as though they were landscape features, Hartley breaks through those preconceptions and shows buildings in a different light. THAT'S IT.

There aren't really any deep intellectual insights here; it's just playing about with a tension between building-as-object and building-as-social-setting. Nothing wrong with that. What makes Hartley's work interesting and worthwhile is the way in which he deals with this fairly basic theme, and the way in which he makes it playful, amusing and engaging. If you want a serious, detailed discussion of the relationship between man and landscape, go and buy an academic textbook on psychiatry or modern social geography. What artists bring to the table is the ability to engage with these issues on a more intuitive, instinctive and emotional level, which is usually more effective at drawing attention to interesting questions than it is at answering them.

If you ask me, anyone who finds themselves describing a show like this using phrases such as "a strategy for access through thoughtful trespass" has not merely missed the point of the show, but has quite possibly lost sight of the point of art, and has certainly lost sight of the point of language. This is the way the art world talks to convince itself that it's engaged in a vitally important intellectual endeavour, but it's also a major reason why most people will never set foot in a modern art gallery in a million years. The work itself is not particularly inaccessible, but it's described in a way that makes it appear unfathomably difficult and obscure. If the art world would stop trying so hard to sound important, they might actually attract enough visitors to be important.

Anyway, Hartley's exhibition is free, and a good two thirds of it is legitimately enjoyable. So drop in if you're going past, and only slog through the leaflet if you really want to learn more about the factual background. The video upstairs is on a fairly short loop and it's a much better bet.