There’s nothing altogether unusual or striking about Alex Hartley’s The world is still big. That’s the impression given at first glance. On closer inspection, the photographs on the walls and their unusual split-framing, reveal a ‘wonkiness’ that your eye needs to adjust to, an optical illusion your brain needs to accommodate.
The world is still big is Hartley’s exploration of the vapid isolation and loneliness of unexplored, un-inhabitable or purely empty landscapes. Comprised mostly of a series of photographs (plus an instillation and a live-in eco dome), the images contain small (but to scale elements) that lift off the page in low relief – a canvas bivouac in a forest, the entrance/exit of a tunnel camouflaged into a rocky hill, a pontoon jutting out of a bay. These minute, low-relief components, comprised of those familiar materials a primary school diorama utilises, are so well incorporated into the images that you might catch yourself playing a game between your eyes and your brain. As you jump from image to image – which will beat the other to find the low-relief component in each new picture?
As well as the games and despite the seeming playfulness of my encounter with them, Hartley’s images encourage you to stop and take time to think about what you’re examining, about what this landscape really means. They’re landscapes not unlike some of Rosemary Laing’s environment/landscape images (which, often when seen in person, are staggeringly consuming) and although these environments don’t look altogether wild, they make you wonder – who is brave enough to tame them? The presence of man-made structures in the absence of ‘man’, make these ‘frontiers’ appear all the more isolated and haunting.
Also present but absent from this exhibition is Alex Hartley himself. The artist, keen to dwell and expand of the notion of isolation – from his home (in Dorset), studio and in some way comfort, set up camp at the back of Victoria Miro gallery - in an eco dome. Built from car detritus (inspired by artists such as Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome, as well as the artists who built Drop City in Colorado in the 1960s) and stationed in the middle of a tiny pond, the scene is surreal.
The unseeable Hartley inhabits the dome, a puff of smoke rising from its chimney and a couple of chooks in a pen, the only clues that save this image from appearing forlorn and abandoned. Not only does Hartley want to invoke the isolation of places yet explored, but he wants to immerse himself in the ideological terrain. That puff of smoke is his signal it seems, to keep imagining what might be happening beyond your plane of vision or field of imagination, there on that floating pontoon as well as beyond the visual limits of his photographs.
Hartley’s expression of this idea is immense. It’s made all the more powerful by the fact that he has settled himself in the middle of a pond in the backyard of one of London’s busiest suburbs – yet can still induce notions of solitude, wilderness and isolation.
Images courtesy of Victoria Miro, London.