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.