Think twice before inviting Alex Hartley round to your house. Rather than ringing your door-bell, he could decide to climb up the façade and press himself against its surface. Anything seems possible, for Hartley is obsessed with buildings. He sets no limits on how best to explore them. Instead of appraising their structure from a distance, he has no hesitation in gaining a foothold and, by degrees, achieving an ascent.

Hartley calls this “buildering”. And his exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery, the first important show he has been given in Britain, reveals just how determined he is to savour an intimate, tactile relationship with the edifices that excite him. Before we even enter the Fruitmarket’s premises, our eyes are caught by Hartley’s transformation of its frontage. Inscribed with sober instructions for eight separate climbs, the building invites everyone to have a go.

Inside the exhibition, though, new photographic works chart his extraordinary urge to get to grips with a diverse array of buildings in Scotland. Nothing is too desolate or decrepit to prevent him from shinning up it. A ruined seminary in Cardross may look terminally bleak and crumbling, but it enthrals Hartley. Swinging his left leg energetically over a projecting concrete arcade, he ignores the ominous rubble strewn across the ground beneath him. Only by grappling with this sculptural bulk does Hartley feel he can fully experience the architecture that excites his interest. We see him clambering up the chimney of a corrugated house in Appin, and embracing with apparent ardour the corner of a remote crofter’s cottage in Kilmuir.

Hartley is fully capable of seeing the humorous side of his exploits. During a video interview screened in the gallery, he admits that there might have been a “slight love-making thing going on” at Kilmuir, coupled with a bizarre readiness on his part to be “splattered” on the cottage walls. At the same time, though, he clearly values the serious, intense closeness of his physical engagement with buildings. It adds up to an entirely new way of experiencing architecture. And the thin white lines running through a series of five digital prints called “Tour” convey Hartley’s exhilaration.

But an earlier sequence of photo-based works, each one containing an embedded architectural relief, discloses an equally strong awareness of futility. Human attempts to escape from urban confinement and live in rural isolation often end in disaster. “Random Act of God” is Hartley’s title for an image showing fragments of a seaside house lying broken below a crumbling cliff. A similar fate might easily overtake the minimal residence perched on top of a glacial mountain, even if this picture is called “In the Future No One Will Live in Cities”. Utopian dreams appear doomed, although the beauty of these remote landscapes implies that Hartley sympathises with the desire to live there.

Perhaps his fundamental preoccupation is the unattainability of dreams. The largest and most seductive exhibits at the Fruitmarket are photographs of modernist interiors at their most idealised. Viewed from afar, they seem to offer the chance to enter domestic spaces where everything is serene, ordered and luminous. Yet once we start walking towards these beguiling images, they become blurred and, eventually, illegible.

Seen close-to, the irresistible room in “Case Study” vanishes altogether. Maybe that is why Hartley insists on clambering up so many workaday facades, taking comfort from the knowledge that some buildings, at least, are solid, graspable and real.

Exhibition continues until October 21, tel +44 0131 225 2383. Sponsored by Bloomberg

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