Circa Magazine : 1983

Alastair MacLennan interviewed by Nicholas Stewart

Circa Magazine No. 13, Nov/Dec 1983

This interview is based on a set of predetermined questions which attempt to enlarge upon a broad spectrum of statements and actions by the artist, rather than a discursive inquiry into specific issues raised by the work. The final draft has been amended by the artist.

Alastair MacLennan was born in Scotland in 1943, studied in Dundee, then completed graduate study at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, U. S. A. He taught at Nova Scotia College of Art from 1970 to 1972. He is now based in Belfast, and was a founder member of Art and Research Exchange. At present he is senior course tutor on the Ulster Polytechnic M. A. Fine Art programme. His performance/installations are being shown in Britain and Ireland, Europe, America and Canada.

NS. A transition from traditional painting to conceptual, installational and ‘live art’ was something of a common occurrence in the contemporary art practice of the 1960’s. Nevertheless, the change in your work during that period seems to have been a major shift, not just in your art work, but indeed in your whole life’s direction. Can you say something about what precipitated this?

A MacL. When I taught at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I found if I talked about new ideas to students, there was a tendency – if they felt these views were coming from recent Art History – for the significance of such concepts to be nullified in their minds by the authority of print. It was more immediate and possibly more contextually appropriate, to communicate directly and this precipitated my moving into an area loosely termed ‘body art’, to bring first hand creativity and ‘process’ into teaching. There was a synthesis between this development in my own art and the innovative teaching context which pertained at Nova Scotia College at the time.

NS. Following on from that, I want to ask you about the period you spent in the Vancouver Zen Centre. Zen was a heavy influence on some of the painting movements in America at, and before, that time. Your adoption of it seems wholly different from those movements, more integrated and all-embracing. What led you to that particular discipline and was Zen, in particular, in anyway a generative source for your first performance work?

A MacL. Yes it was, to answer the last part of your question. While I was an M.F.A. student at the Art Institute of Chicago, towards the end of the course, I became interested in trying to make physical structures which would have no materiality but which would give the impression or ‘feeling’ of 3D geometric forms in space*. I was told by tutors this was very ambitious but they didn’t think it possible to make them. I became interested in implications behind the search to produce these works and pursued the concern further. It led me to Zen literature and I followed up this line of enquiry. *not holograms

NS. Did you make any visual art during that period?

A MacL. I did. I made a range of works; drawings, paintings, prints, physical structures and ‘live’ art. At a later stage, over a period of one to two years, I made no art in the traditional sense, while a Zen student at the Centre in Vancouver and in the Zen Centre at Mount Baldy, Los Angeles. During that period I became intensely engaged in the daily rigours of Zen practice. I realized the emphasis on all aspects of one’s waking existence was very similar to the quality of the attention one gives one’s regular art activity, be it painting or sculpture etc. Aesthetic considerations were in operation, though not manifesting as visual art work.

NS. From 1973 until relatively recently, much of your performance work was carried on outside the ‘normal’ art gallery system. What was the primary motivation in carrying out this work?. Have you now completely stopped this kind of outdoor activity in favour of using the gallery space?

AMacL. To the final part of the question I would say no, I haven’t, though in the recent past I’ve been using gallery spaces and places indoors which are not gallery spaces. One recent work was made in a hospital wing in Switzerland. Part of my concern is to produce work which avoids several familiar devices we associate with conventional art. We tend to fall into well worn paths(ruts) regarding what art is, what it can and can’t be, what ‘materials’ should be used in the making etc. I wish to directly emphasise human life as the main vehicle conveying issues at the root of all art, be it in or out of ‘art’ spaces, anywhere.

NS. How did you see your relationship with people on the street? Did you want to become directly involved with them or did you simply want to be there?

A MacL. I wanted to ‘be’ there. The motive was to ‘make a stand’ for creativity. Because most of us have been trained and conditioned, not educated in principles of creativity, my work no doubt seemed strange to many. These works dealt (mainly) with the process of harmonizing opposing forces within the self. This is something not many seem concerned with (or know the value of). I wanted to produce images which alluded to what was beyond being pulled hither and thither by superficial, though gravely dangerous, cause/effect relationships we daily engender.

NS. I read in one of your statements that in your work you attempt to simultaneously repel and attract people …

A MacL. I meant I’m interested in the discrepancy between our ideals concerning what we live through and the actuality of this, and in providing images which bring both of those together, sometimes in a synthetic though contradictory way. Very often we try to escape from what we’re experiencing and are manipulated by what we’d like to be doing elsewhere, rather than deal with our real situation here and now. In doing this we don’t come to terms with our life. I would like to show aspects of living which are raw and problematic, but also convey means to overcome escapist attitudes and negative forces we allow to infiltrate our lives. We must face up to self-made contradictions, not run from them.

NS. Reading of the work of Marina Abramovic/Ulay in a recent Artforum I was made aware of certain similarities of concern. Ulay describes motionlessness as “the best thing I have done. It synthesizes everything. It is the homework”. What is the function for you of that aspect of your work which involves the maintenance of motionlessness?

A MacL. It’s central. In the early works, I was attempting to first of all still the body and then the mind, to harmonize opposites. In the more recent work I’m attempting (amongst other things) to still the mind in motion. This is more difficult, more complicated, but it moves towards the situation whereby the practice is more flexible and might well ‘disappear’ from being distinct or separate from everyday living, except in terms of ‘quality of perception’ of ‘live’ relationships.

NS. At the time you were carrying out the starkly simple and direct performances of the mid/late seventies, you also seemed to feel the need to ‘stylise’ your daily image to one of almost regimental austerity. You now wear only black and you also shave your head. Can you outline the thinking that led to this paring down?

A MacL. Yes, When I came to Belfast and saw the work young artists were doing, I felt I would like to show different ways of creating so that people didn’t feel in order to be an artist one had to use brushes and paint, or carve to make sculpture. One could carve or chisel the self rather than blocks of stone or marble. In the long run, if not the short, this would at least be as sensible a mode of expressing principles underlying art as would be the case using traditional means. While making these works, I found by wearing one colour, bodily movement or stasis could be read more singularly. For this reason I adopted the one colour/non colour, black. As I was doing these performances weekly in the first years, and as the underlying philosophy was to engage art as a living process, it became natural, by extension, to wear this ‘colour’ daily. Art as a living process can become more emphasised if carried over from performance into everyday life (and vice versa). Shaving the head and leaving the beard is the coming together of opposites in a perceptual twist. It signifies the fusion of oriental and occidental influence in one.

NS. Is there a danger of such an appearance being interpreted in the wrong manner?

A MacL. There can be, as a result of the horrific skinhead phenomenon.

NS. And also because of the predominance of highly stylised imagery in various aspects of the culture, such as in the uniforms adopted by different groups………

A MacL. Fashions come and go. What we stand for outlasts what’s on view in streets.

NS. Since 1980 you have shown more drawn images. The most recent show I am aware of was at the Octagon Gallery in Belfast in 1982. Is this a revitalisation of earlier drawn and painted work or a completely fresh attempt to deal with that medium?

AMacL. Thinking of how art history has been structured in our century, there has been an emphasis on ‘progress’, breakthrough and innovation. To a certain extent it has misled artists. Progress doesn’t go from A to B or C to Z, but takes on multi-layered spiralling conditions. Young artists in the late ’60’s and ’70’s felt that to make progressive work they had to leave behind certain forms and thus wouldn’t allow themselves to use traditional means. As a younger artist I was affected by this (somewhat). I now feel I can work in any medium whatsoever, in any way, as it seems appropriate.

NS. You often employ a rectilinear or grid pattern as a basis for work. This was most noticeable in the Orchard Gallery performance, Mirror, of 1980. In other pieces, such as those at ARE, Belfast, in 1980 and the Acme Gallery, London, in 1981, the format was more ‘organic’, hinting at cycles and systems in the realms of nature. Are you aware of any dichotomy in this?

A MacL. Yes, I am, and am interested in not moving towards the one and excluding the other. More and more I feel art has to be inclusive, not exclusive, of contradictions in living. I do think natural cycles are ‘heart-beats’ for art, though we mustn’t exclude the man-made, often over-rationalized structures we are presently living with, but ‘persuade’ those who build them to learn more from cycles in nature, and find ways to embrace both, hopefully achieving the right or true balance between the intuitive, intellectual and emotional sides of our collective psyches.

*NS. Can I quote some of your statements: “There are no innately artistic means”. “A real artist makes art the whole of his life, not a part”. “Aesthetics alone are a surface affair”. “There’s no art higher than that of ordinary everyday living”. I chose those particular quotes because they seem to highlight what I would call the holistic nature of your art practice. However, it seems to me that this philosophy of holistic art is in direct opposition to the values and ideology practised and encouraged within the art college system. What I wish to know is, how you personally reconcile these opposites within the context of your teaching practice?

A MacL. I regard teaching as one limb of my art practice. I view it as creative activity, and very important. I don’t try to contain my ideas of art in the teaching structure, rather, I contain the teaching structure within my overall attitude to art. If a painting student needs to make a better painting, my job is to be a ‘mirror’ in which the student sees his or her reflection, not mine. I must therefore be clear. I do likewise for a sculpture student, or someone doing performance or installational work. The Art College where I teach does not as yet have a holistic approach to art education. Consequently, the more radical works I wish to make, I execute elsewhere.

NS. Do you believe the present day art education system can change?

A MacL. Yes. I’m an optimistic realist. No doubt there’ll be opposition at many stages on the way, but one can’t deny evolution. Dinosaurs die out.

NS. In a statement of 1980 you said that, “We have been educated to analyse relationships within arbitrary fragments of whole systems, but not to experience underlying unities within these. We conceive of freedom as a relative condition dependent on positions within political, social and economic structures. This freedom is not real”. I feel that the conception of freedom referred to is real but very seriously limited. Can you elaborate on the kind of freedom you are conceiving?

AMacL. I think what is required is a total revolution of our education institutions. Most people, even in art colleges, are not being creative. I find this remarkable. Simply to use tools associated with creativity does not mean that one is engaged in creativity in any real, dynamic sense. I see no country in the world, as yet, which is free, hardly any educational systems which are truly creative, so it’s quite natural to see everywhere only fractured similitudes of freedom. This is one of the direct results of a lack of holistic thinking in all aspects of education. We study arbitrarily, we analyse arbitrarily, we make arbitrary relationships and we are fearful of what we don’t know. We are not free. Real education should make people free, not only place them in jobs; current education doesn’t even do this. Apart from jobs what we really need in this age of nuclear immanence is for international politics to transmute from ‘sovereign state’ politics to ‘holistic world’ politics with attendant pooling of world resources. In the present nuclear age, without such politics, no sovereign state is free.

NS. Are you in sympathy with Joseph Beuys’s anthropological art where everyone is seen as an artist? Do we need to distinguish between visual art and art as conceived of by Beuys, as being the most essentially human characteristic?

A MacL. I sympathise with his attitude, yes. My own feeling concerning “everyone an artist” is that we have to take this much deeper and further. It’s not so much that each person is or can be an artist but that each person already IS art. The problem is, most don’t realize this, and consequently don’t assume the responsibility it brings. Art to me is the resolution of inner and outer conflict and that pertains to every sphere of human activity in all aspects of daily life. The problem is to live this, not talk it. Words are easy.

NS. Up until 1982 your performances contained no overt political or social references though perhaps they existed on a more subtle plane as a felt response. Since then, however, you seem to have been including more and more references to political and social issues. Given your definition of art as “skill in action where skill is the resolution of conflict”, does this new work reflect more strongly the second part of this definition?

A MacL. Perhaps. Where conflict is, is a good place in which to resolve issues, as much as one is able to within one’s art and life, for oneself and hopefully for those whom one meets and touches. It’s easy to use political issues, social issues, issues of any sort, when one’s not in the situation one’s ‘working’ from. It’s different from actually being in that situation and trying to effect change in as direct a manner as possible.

N S. Your performances strongly emphasise a disciplined, restrained and meditative form of behaviour. In your more recent work – with a strengthening political/social dimension – this creates an interesting tension of opposites. Political/social action is usually much more demonstrative. Do you foresee, or at least can you say what you understand, of a more expressive mode developing in your live work?

AMacL. What one doesn’t want to do is to fall into pitfalls associated with social realist art and its clichés, although one admires the motives and work of certain practitioners within the idiom.

The specific ‘form’ my evolving live works will take I can’t as yet indicate. They are ahead of me. I can’t say how overt or covert they’ll be (in political/social terms). One canbe political in art without waving slogans. Some artists regard their work as political but while politics seems to be their subject matter it is often totally neutered by the ‘containing’ nature of the context it operates within, i.e. art galleries and museums. If an artist uses political content, is really serious about it, and above all wants the work to be politically effective, he or she should seriously consider altering the whole context of operation from the art world to the public arena of hard core politics, to avoid falling between two stools, i.e. producing work which on the one hand may well be aesthetically inadequate, and on the other, preaching to the converted.

NS. In your work during the past year you have been employing an increasing number of objects, seemingly for their symbolic connotations. A pig’s head or snout has turned up again and again. What specific value, symbolic or otherwise, does this contain within the context of these performances?

A MacL. I’m interested in the concept, not just the concept, but the actuality of victims in life, and to a certain extent a past interest (and a current one) is in the role of creator as part victim or scapegoat within the mediocracy of society. I sense mutual temporality with animals which co-exist with us, and use slices or cuts of their life in death-death in life, as part of my performance/installations to stress areas of inter-identity, notions of death, transmutation and transformation. The holistic approach I’m involved with can utilize fragmentation, slicing and carving up of mentality, as ingredients within the wounding-healing relationship I wish to convey. There are metaphors which can be drawn, but I don’t prescribe specific meanings which could deny interpretations made by observers. What I do wish to convey is an archetypal core of meaning within each presentation.

NS. In your most recent work, Healing Wounds, is this trend towards complex metaphoric, symbolic associations continued?

A MacL. Yes. There are complexities implied, though the physical structures themselves are very simple. I remember reading a statement once which said, ‘the simpler a unit of familiarity is for the explanation of situations other than itself, the more assured is its survival’. I feel this is appropriate in visual terms also. It’s like finding a common denominator whereby one can relate a series of disparate numbers, fractions and parts.

NS. The title of this work Healing Wounds seems to be more biased towards a positive affirmation of life than perhaps I was aware of in earlier work. Do you see this as constituting a change?

A MacL. Possibly, though if we look at the title there’s ambiguity involved. If we regard Healing as the noun then Healing is wounding. If we regard Wounds as the noun, then the emphasis is on healing. Throughout the work I incorporate controlled ambiguity and paradox. The attitudes I hold tend towards healing: healing oneself first then what is ‘outwith’ the self.

NS. Is an ecological understanding of culture important for your work?

A MacL. Nurture the root-stem and blossom follows. As well as ecology of natural environment there is ecology of mind and spirit. Each is a layer of the other, interfused, three in ‘one’. The challenge for tomorrow is to live this out. Already we’re late. Time we have is not so vital as time we ‘make’. Time is now.