Art of climbing: Neal Beggs

Posted by Niall Grimes on 03/09/2007
Photo: Michel van Reysen.

Neal Beggs was born in Larne, Northern Ireland in 1959. He became a climber at the age of 14, and at 16 led Cenotaph Corner - in his own words, “a minor big deal at the time”. He had several alpine seasons in his late teens and early twenties, before drifting out of climbing. In his early thirties, Neal discovered art, and soon found a subject in his reawakening love for the mountains.

This led to taking a Masters degree in Glasgow to be close to the Scottish hills, both for recreation and inspiration, and he was a natural choice to be the first ever Artist in Residence for the Scottish Mountaineering Council in 2000.

The image to the right, resembling an oversized sandwich board, is the result of a temporary public art commission that I undertook for the city of Brussels earlier this year. I’d been offered this commission on the simple premise that nearly all of my work relates to mountains and that the site of the commission - a hill overlooking the city - was known as Mont des Arts. The added bonus was that my works often engaged the public in a participatory fashion.

‘Dear Prudence’, as the work was to become known, took about three months in the planning. Several ideas materialized, of which I eventually settled on one, the sandwich board, a common enough object around Mont des Arts and an obvious motif for a mountain. This motif, once increased in height to 6m, acquired a curtain Magritte quality, always a good connection when working in Belgium. Shortly after came Edward Whymper’s quote, and with a slight adaptation of the ‘will’ to ‘want’, his words, focusing particularly on ‘Prudence’ formed the foundation on which the finished work grew. The title ‘Dear Prudence’, from the Beatles song, was added last in the hope that it would subliminally echo a kind of message within the work: “won’t you come out to play?”

From the start Dear Prudence was an ambitious project, not only with respect to its size but also with respect to its location, the hyper-conservative and ‘prudent’ museum quarter of Brussels. Perhaps more ambitious though, considering the climate of health and safety which effects all activity taking place in public spaces today, was the commissioning body’s acceptance of my condition that the public should be free to engage with the artwork as they saw fit.

The steps on the lower face are like those cut in a snow slope - they are also a homage to Belgium artist Hergé and the front cover of Tin Tin in Tibet. Intended to help keep the sense of the mountain, they had been designed in such a way as to make them easy to ascend at first. But with height the steps became smaller and wider spaced. Until on reaching the final step at half height ‘the public’, in the precarious position of having only one good foothold and precious little else to cling to, were faced with a decision. To continue climbing, using only the letters, or to go down. Which would be the more prudent?

There was no avoiding this decision and as one would expect, most on reaching the last of the ‘steps’ thought better of their decision to climb and prudently reversed or jumped onto the old mattresses below. But many others, a surprising number in fact, in skirts, high street fashion, and oversized trainers, crimped the 4mm MDF letters of ‘STRENGTH’ and ‘COURAGE’ and went for the 8mm edge of ‘REMEMBER’ and then the 12mm of ‘BUT’, until finally committed in a manner not normally experienced when encountering art, they grasped the true meaning of the phrase that had got them there in the first place - ‘CLIMB IF YOU WANT’, an 18mm edge.

And from that point, both the first and the last line in the story, some managed to pull through to the top, but the majority fell in spectacular fashion to the applause of the public, landing safely on the mattresses. After which, if they still felt the need to reach the summit they could, by walking around to the back face of the sandwich board and climbing the ladder to the top to enjoy the view. On the way up they would pass another text, this time not Whymper’s but my own, which read “AND PRUDENCE IS NOTHING WITHOUT A LITTLE COURAGE”.

One aim with this work was clearly to highlight questions concerning personal responsibility, the need in life to take risks as well as to be prudent. And not simply with respect to the individual - this can apply to art too. Contemporary art traditionally takes risks, but it’s surprising that after so long it still looks much the same. And maybe this is a necessary quality of art, enabling us to recognise it when we meet it.

By incorporating within Dear Prudence actual, lived, physical and mental experiences not normally anticipated when engaging with art, some will find Dear Prudence hard to recognise, accept, or understand as art. To those I would urge simply to look at it on the level of an experience, one that can be shared with others, discussed and reflected on. In doing so ideas are exchanged. If this is all that happens then this is fine, since for me the sharing of ideas and experience is what matters most.”

Dear Prudence was a temporary public artwork (6m x 4.8m x 4.5m), which came out to play on Place Royale, Mont des Arts, Brussels for three days during March 2007. For more of Neal’s art, see www.nealbeggs.com.



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