Neal Beggs brings his mountaineering skills and equipment to places they’re not usually found—principally the white cube of the gallery and concrete support structures for motorways. Many of the visuals are photographs or video stills from his many versions of ‘SurfaceAction’, in which, with crampons and ice-axes, he makes his way around a gallery without touching the floor, negotiating door and window-frames as he does so. The book opens with a shot of the marks this has left on an otherwise pristine gallery wall: big, uneven dunts from the axes at the top, with a row of smaller, neater dots below. If this links the work to the painter Beggs once, apparently unhappily, was, it’s also untypical: most shots show him in action, incongruously attired given the setting, and suspended in space like a gravity- defying superhero.
Beggs says, ‘This piece has often been misinterpreted as performance’ but, performance seems to me exactly what it is—a staged action in a public space, witnessed by an audience of at least the video camera and, when he’s negotiating the motorways walls, whoever happens to be passing. Hamish Fulton’s walks are not performances because the act of walking remains private, shared only in the briefest texts and occasional photographs of Fulton’s prints and books from which the figure of the artist remains absent. Beggs comes closest to such a practice in a clever list-work matching the Scottish Munros with Glasgow tower blocks, ticked individually once he has climbed them.
The book is attractively produced, and the texts (in French and English throughout) complement each other well. Huitorel’s essay links Beggs’ work to French artists and writers like Klein and Camus; McLaren’s more informal piece shows Beggs at work in Saint-Nazaire (a small port-town in Brittany whose centre d’art contemporain initiated this book); and Beggs appears in conversation with Stephen Wright, talking about art rather than climbing. Discussing a future project he disarmingly says, ‘One might say, “that’s just social history”, and of course it is social history—except that I’m an artist, not a social historian’. It’s an interesting take, that any work is to be defined, not by its own particular qualities, but by its maker’s self-image (imagine it reversed). Wright comments that, ‘to be an artist, one has to step into the artworld’, again highlighting the maker rather than what is made. In the end I was left with a sense that ‘climbing’ and ‘artworld’ haven’t yet fused into something that one might experience as an artwork independent of the present involvement of its maker.
Ken Cockburn is a writer and director of Platform Projects