by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Alex Hartley at Fruitmarket

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Most people have an easy, un­th­ink­ing re­la­tion­ship with buildings. We gain entrance through the doors, walk the corridors, and sit ourselves down in the rooms. London-based artist Alex Hartley is different, pre­fer­ring to climb up, over and around the buildings he en­coun­ters - a practice known as ‘buil­d­er­ing’ - naming each climb, de­scrib­ing it, and rating it for di­f­fi­culty.

Evidence of his activity is plastered across the Fruit­mar­ket Gallery’s frontage, in the form of Elevation 1:1, a pho­to­graph of the building on the building itself, complete with detailed in­struc­tions for eight climbing routes across the facade, and drawn white lines marking out each ascent. The de­scrip­tions reveal that, while Hartley is dead serious about his intimate ex­plor­a­tions of exteriors, he also has a sense of humour, littering his texts with obscure jargon from the worlds of ar­chi­tec­ture and moun­tain­eer­ing to form a comic, and often oddly poetic builderer’s argot, first seen in his mock-serious guidebook, LA Climbs: Al­ter­n­at­ive Uses For Ar­chi­tec­ture.

Inside, after walking through Elevation 1:1 - iron­ic­ally, one cannot follow Hartley’s lead up it, since his pho­to­graph has smoothed over the very lintels, mullions and window-ledges he used to gain purchase - are more documents of climbs around Scotland. These digital prints, drawings and pho­to­graphs are of two types. The first sees Hartley in action, hanging on for dear life to the rounded, win­dow­less walls of a crofter’s cottage, and ef­fort­lessly clam­ber­ing onto a ledge over­look­ing the main hall of the shame­fully derelict St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross. The second type are more generous, open-ended evoc­a­tions, with lines drawn on buildings which both track Hartley’s progress and suggest, like the in­struc­tion­al texts that dot the front of the gallery, that we too might attempt a climb.

Next come a series of pho­to­graph­ic works encased behind satin-etched glass, which give a con­v­in­cing illusion of three di­men­sion­al space. In­stal­l­a­tion (FMG) extends a room in the gallery, the glass a barrier to entering a space which is not there. Case Study recreates a modernist Cal­i­for­n­i­an house, the deep view of its interior seen through the windows negated by the sculpture’s thin, wedge shape.

It is hard to describe the effect that viewing these works has. One cannot help but pace rest­lessly around them, searching for the perfect viewing angle, frus­trated that the images remain always out of focus, sometimes dis­ap­pear­ing entirely. Some even prompt a physical response of a different, more powerful kind, a sort of giddiness or vertigo that makes looking at them at once un­com­fort­able and rather thrilling - feelings familiar, one imagines, to those felt by a builderer mid-climb.

Add to this pho­to­graphs of more modernist homes glimpsed as a tres­pass­er­ might see them, through dense foliage, and ar­chi­tec­tur­al reliefs of sinister doorless sci-fi struc­tures looming from the surface of barren land­s­capes, and Hartley’s dis­sa­t­is­fac­tion with the standard un­der­stand­ing of the built en­vir­on­ment becomes plain. And his attitude is in­fec­tious. On leaving the gallery, the buildings on Market Street have changed, becoming more than places to enter or admire, their features now a challenge to explore.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.