Alex Hartley is an artist with a wide-ranging practice that encompasses sculpture, architecture, installation, performance (although he tried to deny this!) and painting. There are threads that run through it such as playing with perceptions of architectural space; an interest in narrative – what might be happening in that space; and an interest in how we live together.
When he left the Royal College of Art in 1990 he started working as a photographer taking installation photos for fellow students. This led to taking photos of empty galleries and showing those in glass boxes, with etched glass fronts: ‘frozen galleries’.
He moved on to using the space of the actual gallery in the same way, installing a glass wall with a photograph of gallery space behind it. This led to making a whole small building in a similar way, where the images connect but you can’t get inside. Finally this became a sculpture as in the right hand photo. What the photo doesn’t show you is that the piece is wedge-shaped, tapering to nothing at one corner; yet the space inside feels real.
At this point in his career, Hartley felt the need to escape the demands of the market, which could have driven him to continue to create the same kind of work, and to reset his practice.
On his return to the UK, after a time in California, he made a small geodesic dome for a show at Victoria Miro gallery in North London. The design was based on the domes created for a hippy community in Colorado, Drop City, where the inhabitants cut panels for the domes from scrap cars. He did the same in the UK. The US community, a place without rules, had fallen apart after various freeloaders had drained the energy of the committed. The same pattern repeated itself in London: after the show, Hartley donated the dome to Occupy Finsbury Square as a community space, but it was taken over by a gang and was eventually abandoned, littered with used syringes and other detritus.
Hartley’s latest show at Victoria Miro, currently on, was the occasion of the launch of a book about a project that began with a trip to the Arctic in 2004. He was intrigued by the fact that for some of the time they were sailing in literally uncharted waters. Because of the melting of glaciers and the ebb and flow of the ice sheet, new land was being created where no-one had ever set foot. He identified a new island, recently released from a glacier and formed of moraine on top of bedrock, which he named Nowhere Island (or Now Here Is Land). He originally intended to work with architects to make idealised projects for this new country. But in response to the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, he proposed to bring the island through international waters to the UK and to tour the coast.
To his surprise the proposal was agreed, perhaps because it was judged by a jury of artists not bean-counters. So in 2010 he set off for the Arctic to claim the island. The resulting work, which he describes as a sculpture, did tour the SW coast of England but it was accompanied by a horse box made into the embassy of the island and by a series of events at places which it passed. People could become citizens of the island – and 23,000 did – and could vote on ideas for a constitution for the new country. This resulted in a constitution of 150 items.
The book launch represents the closure of the project and relocates Nowhere Island as an artwork, not just part of the Olympic circus. In answer to a question later, Hartley said that the need for public engagement as part of the project, and in return for the ‘comedy cheque’ for over £500,000, had made him more interested in public art. It need not be dumbed down. Despite his professed dislike of public engagement, performance did seem to feature in several recent works. For instance, he had lived in the dome when it was installed at Victoria Miro. Although he did not see his life there as a performance per se, there was clearly an element of that.
His current show features work that links back to some of his long term interests, including Modernist architecture and photographs of ‘non spaces’. He has created a ruin for the Victoria Miro garden – see my review of that installation here , several sculptures which seem to be elements from a similar ruin and a series of paintings. These are photographs of Modernist dwellings, overlaid with acrylic on which he has redrawn the natural elements of the image.
A recurring motif is the question of what is happening in these places, these ruins. He intends his installation as a ‘folly’, a place of contemplation of the fact that everything will return to nature.