Nymark: Undiscovered Island, 2006
This collection of framed photographs, drawings and maps was exhibited at the Natural History Museum in 2006, as a constituent part of the international touring exhibition Art and Climate Change mounted by the organisation Cape Farewell. The work entitled Nymark (Undiscovered Island) appeared somewhat distinct from the other sculptures, soundworks, video installations and photographs on display. It appeared as the evidence of a work which had taken place elsewhere, rather than an art object in its own right. Neither the photographs of the expansive Arctic environment, nor the letters and maps were privileged by the artist as precious objects. Each overlapped another, bringing to mind the wall of an artist’s studio. Nymark (Undiscovered Island) was the genesis of Nowhereisland. It comprised the search for an unchartered island and the negotiations over the attempted secession from the Kingdom of Norway with the artist – Alex Hartley - at the centre of the work adopting the role of intrepid explorer.
Hartley became well-known as an artist in the 1990s for his glass encased series of architectural installations. His Case Studies were inspired by the houses of the Californian Case Study Programme, through which major architects were sponsored by Art & Architecture magazine to design inexpensive model houses. But whilst his work was characterised by the modeling of such architectural utopias for the gallery environment, the artist maintained a critical interest in our complex and often contradictory attitudes toward the built environment. An early work by the artist consisted of a planning application to turn the De La Warr Pavilion into a Tesco superstore. The procedural and territorial implications of such an act drew strongly on the history of conceptual artworks, which have contested land ownership, territorial boundaries and urban regeneration.
Gordon Matta-Clark, Reality Properties: Fake Estates, 1973-74
In the early 1970s, for example, Gordon Matta-Clark discovered that the City of New York periodically auctioned off “gutterspace”— small slivers of land sliced from the city grid through anomalies in surveying, zoning, and regeneration. He purchased fifteen of these lots and collected the maps, deeds, and other bureaucratic documentation attached to the slivers; photographed, spoke, and wrote about them; and considered using them as sites for intervention. Matta-Clark died in 1978 at the age of 35 without realizing his plans for Fake Estates, and ownership of the properties reverted to the city. Like Fake Estates, Nymark (Undiscovered Land) consists of negotiations over a number of years, which use the mechanisms of the system which the work intends to challenge – namely the national and international processes by which one might claim territorial rights, by which one country might claim sovereignty over another, by which one country secedes from another.
In his 2003 publication, "LA Climbs: Alternative Uses for Architecture”, Hartley's climbs are photographed, named, graded, and appear alongside topographic diagrams and detailed route descriptions. Crossing over from artistic intervention to a guidebook for the climber bored with legitimate locations, Hartley’s project has similarities to the exploits of the legendary Frenchman Alain Robert (who famously scaled the Petronas Towers, the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. Hartley climbs the infamous Hollywood sign, Frank Gehry's New Disney Hall, as well as classic mid-century Case Study Houses and iconic works by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright amongst others. HIs exploration of the built environment echoes that of artists such as Robert Smithson who, in his 1967 published 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, a consideration of the post-industrial landscape of New Jersey.
Alex Hartley, Waiting for Daylight to End (Kaczynski's Cabin), 2011 Constructed mixed media on C-type photograph
In Hartley's most recent series of photographs, The world is still big, the artist returned to his previous lines of investigation; community, belonging and isolation, and counter culture versus establishment. His photographs are made unique through the addition of intricately detailed sculptural interventions of scaled architectural models built directly into the surface of the prints. These painstakingly built structures and their photographic ground, present narratives alluding to the creation of something which has turned against us and become uninhabitable, rather than as intended sanctuary from the outside world.
Nowhereisland combines the artist's concerns of the last two decades. Its simple narrative premise – the journey of a small island from an Arctic archipelago as a migrant nation during the London 2012 Games – acts as the new nation’s emblematic back-story. Yet Nowhereisland is not simply a story. It is above all sculptural - a provocative act of material displacement by an artist. Hartley challenges our assumptions about the fixity of landscape. If national boundaries shift, if peoples are displaced, if territorial rights are contested, he asks, why should landscape itself not move, and what are the implications socially, economically and politically of such a sculptural act?
Critic Richard Cork best aptly summarized the artist’s endeavor when he wrote, “Perhaps his fundamental preoccupation is the unattainability of dreams.”
Richard Cork, ‘A love affair with bricks and mortar’, Financial Times, August 17 2007.