The world is still big
Visiting an art gallery is one of life’s great joys as far as I’m concerned. There is something pretty special about being so close to art, and often great, historic art. And something pretty special about being able to experience it on your own terms. In film or theatre the director, to varying degrees, dictates what you see, when you see it and how you see it. A musician presents a composition in a particular way. Yet in an art gallery you are free to take it all in at your own pace, view it in all manner of ways, and I expect have a far more personal experience.
It may not be the most intellectual response but I’ll often walk right up close to a picture or a sculpture and try to see how it was done. Seeing the actual brushstrokes a great artist made kind of humanises the work of art for me – it goes from being a hallowed object to something more real that someone once worked over, sweated over, worried about. I think I picked this up from going to art galleries as a kid, and the curiosity has stuck. Seeing how a piece of art is put together makes it feel more believable and obtainable (in the sense that I can understand to a small degree how such a work could be completed. Not that I’ll be painting any great works anytime soon), rather than something otherworldly and fully-formed. The mystique and the myth of art is stripped away a little and you see just what humans can achieve, and get a tiny insight into how.
But it doesn’t completely destroy the mystique. In fact, I think it enhances the magic to be up close and see the artist’s workings, and then move back and see the painting (for example, and I’m probably mainly thinking of paintings here) take shape, the strokes and lines blur and collect themselves into something beautiful, transcendent, challenging, or whatever it may be. In some way it is almost like the picture being painted before your very eyes, if that’s not a really trite comment to make.
So, it felt good to walk into an art gallery this week and see a group of people squinting at the walls asking How did he do that? It was one of the final days of the Alex Hartley exhibition, The world is still big, at the Victoria Miro gallery. Now, I don’t pretend to have any real insight or knowledge of the modern art world, it’s just the gallery is a five-minute walk from work, I’d really enjoyed their Francesca Woodman exhibition and reading their email about this exhibition had piqued my interest.
The exhibition saw Alex Hartley explore ideas around habitation, community and sanctuary. In more basic terms, it involved large photographs of desolate and/or remote landscapes that Hartley had doctored with a variety of materials, adding three-dimensional living spaces to the photograph.
From a distance the pieces looked incredibly realistic, of strange pods and constructions built into the landscapes. They immediately drew me in to see what were Hartley’s additions and what were just parts of the photograph, creating a pretty pleasing ambiguity between the elements of the work. What was ‘real’ and what was not?
There was real skill and playfulness in some of the structures, especially the tunneling into the photographs, that encouraged more than one person to crane their neck into a pretty odd position and try to look down the snaking tunnels, see what was there, speculate on how it was done.
The pictures were not just a party trick though. I found them really very moving, with the idea of carving a home and a refuge in an inhospitable world. While there were allusions to the kinds of buildings favoured my yr counter-cultural/commune/drop-out kind-of-people I felt there was something broader being said about how any of us look to make our own place in the world. The wilderness on show could easily be as symbolic as it was literal. Don’t we all want somewhere we can escape? Isn’t stepping out of our front door overwhelming and scary sometimes, no matter where we live?
Hartley took the theme to its logical conclusion, building a real dome in the garden of the gallery and inhabiting it throughout the exhibition. Perhaps this made it a little clearer that his strange structures could really be placed anywhere and still have an effect, a meaning and a purpose.
The exhibition closed today (and don’t you just hate reviews that talk about things you can no longer see?) but Hartley’s Nowhereisland project is part of the Cultural Olympiad and is touring south-west England this year. If you come across his work you really should check it out. And take a good look close-up too.