Performance Magazine : 1987

Alastair MacLennan interviewed by Declan McGonagle

Performance Magazine No. 47, 1987

Alastair MacLennan is one of Britain’s major practitioners of live art. He was born in Scotland and has lived and taught in Belfast since 1975. DECLAN McGONAGLE, curator of The Orchard Gallery and The Foyle in Derry, talks to MacLennan about living and working ‘on the edge of Europe’: 

Declan McGonagle: I think we first met when I was in third year painting at the Belfast Art College and you came to teach in 76/77?

Alastair MacLennan: I first visited Belfast in 1975. In Autumn of that year I started teaching first year Fine Art at Ulster Polytechnic.

DM: I remember you gave a slide show about work you’d done prior to coming to Belfast. I remember very clearly, I was a painting student, that you showed slides of very large scale paintings of objects picked up in a house in Nova Scotia.

AM: These specific works were painted in a small village called Indian Harbour, in Nova Scotia. Certain objects in the environment, and in the attic of the house I’d moved into, intrigued me. I couldn’t understand them. I took these from their immediate ‘positions’, painted from them, then relocated them ‘exactly’ as I’d found them.

DM: That echoes that sense of going into a situation and making use of what you find there.

AM: With respect to learning from and improving on a given situation, paying attention to context is important.

DM: Could we begin by looking at how you started to produce paintings, and then move from painting to live work.

AM: I had a very traditional academic Fine Art education at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland from 1960-1965. We studied human anatomy and did a great deal of cast and life drawing, figure painting, portraiture and still-life work. Nearly everyone dealt with the same issues. We worked mostly from a single, central model. Almost all the art was figurative. The range of imagery was relatively narrow. Differences were measurable via painterly ‘handwriting’ rather than by content, though ‘composition’ classes were more open.

From 1966 to 1968 I studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The situation there was utterly different. Studio practice was completely decentralised. Student work was ‘individuated’. Means and methods were much more diverse. This made me question again the how and the what of my art, my intentions and aspirations.

DM: Had that been the basis of the teaching you received?

AM: No, it wasn’t. I was self-questioning and needed to query my function and purpose as an artist. I absorbed much from my fellow students. Also, I learned a great deal from Chicago itself. It was a violent but exciting city. It was there I first heard of the killing of Martin Luther King. Race riots in Chicago were bloody affairs. Underprivileged blacks lived in hovels on the south side. Ethnic groups lived in gangland ghettoes. I lived in a Polish section and worked three nights a week to ‘get by’, as a student. The violence was palpable, but I loved the city. Students there were politically and socially ‘active’.

Towards the end of my second year I became interested in what underpins art. I grew curious about philosophical and theoretical questioning relative to art making, and sought out pertinent information.

DM: When you say information, what do you mean?

AM: If we look for something hard enough we ‘find’ it, be it written material or a personal encounter. I was drawn to attitudes contained in Zen, firstly through my own art, secondly through literature and thirdly through Zazen practice with a Rinzai Master. During two years I made no art (1973-1974). Attention to living processes took over the need to engage in the making of art objects.

DM: So it was being rather than doing.

AM: As regards traditional concepts of art in Western culture it was ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. In the activities of daily living, being and doing were inseparable. Events of the day were fused in relatedness. This first-hand experience, for me, was crucial. It still is today.

DM: It’s still there, but at that time did that mean there was no product?

AM: During the indicated two year period, at various stages, I had temporary urges to paint. I didn’t. At the end of this time I again made art objects, but also experimented with ritualised actions and processes we’re involved in everyday, and made moving ‘painting’.

DM: I remember seeing your performances where objects were also central and not subsidiary props, the focus was on the objects, on you and the objects, I don’t know if you actually use the term, but is part of the idea activating painting? Was there a sense of dissatisfaction with the two-dimensional rendering of objects…?

AM: There was such a dissatisfaction, not so much with the activity itself as with the inordinately distorted value and meaning accredited to it in the art world. Questions were: How was art to ‘behave’ in society? How to reconcile discrepancies between what art ‘was’ and how it was ‘utilised’ by the machinations of mediating art means? I had misgivings about the art world itself, with its pompous, vacuous humbuggery, money lending and real estate deals, and wished to make art a living process without the necessity of physical residue for sale.

DM: Is that then an attempt to bypass the traditional means of mediation?

AM: Yes. I realise mediating means are always present. Some artists attempt to avoid their clutches. Others rush towards them. Progress isn’t linear. It spirals.

Emphasis could be on artists redressing the imbalance of mediation’s control over societal processing of their work.

DM: Is it then necessary for artists to have to take on board, take control of, the means of mediation?

AM: Certainly, it’s a question of realisation on the part of artists. Some are like sheep, led to the slaughter. Others turn the experience on its head.

DM: It always seemed to me, maybe you can comment on this, the problems about art in society are not so much to do with the production of art, as with the expectations that artists themselves are led to believe they should have for how that art should work, how it should meet society with its preconditioned social responses.

AM: This problem can be dealt with within education. Viewing the current ‘state of art’ I doubt if it is, effectively. Artists need to constantly unlearn and re-educate themselves about expectations of ‘self’ and societal preconditioning of assumed public response.

DM: What art should be, what it should do and its function – in our society, Western society, in a way operates within an incredibly narrow band of expectation of what art is, which is itself a product of the narrow expectations of how we should live?

AM: The art which society ‘gets’ mirrors how it does and doesn’t reflect, and for reasons other than it thinks. My art practice differs from others.

DM: So in forming that art practice – I’m not suggesting that it is fully formed – I mean it’s obviously a growing development, but in getting to the position to be able to ask the right questions, you mentioned going after a philosophical base for your practice to be involved in that activity, but are there identifiable moments you could point to either in terms of seeing other art, experiencing work by other artists or something you were doing yourself at that time that motivated you?

AM: In Chicago I became dissatisfied with the seeming gulf between the world of ‘ethics’ (and its lack), and the world of ‘aesthetics’. The society I lived in was violent. It seemed not enough, inappropriate and escapist to retreat making ‘beautifying’ work utterly detached from the pulse and beat of contextual living. While there, I read the epic work Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. It advocated an inclusiveness, not an exclusive view of art and society. I read a great deal. In Chicago my politics grew to the left. More recently, in Belfast, art (for me) has become ‘skill in action, where skill is the resolution of conflict’.

DM: How did you relate the questioning that was going on within your own work to teaching situations?

AM: Teaching is a main artery in my art activity. I’m an ‘outsider’. When I came to Belfast I wished to open up possibilities for students. We worked on individual and group projects, using well nigh any and every material. On the one hand I wished to overcome a prejudice that art is only made using exclusive ‘purpose made’ materials, and on the other, to constantly question and challenge presumptions about art’s ‘private’ and public function. One of my first projects with students in 1975 was to use the streets of Belfast and the public transport system for an Art March between two differing institutions during Queens Festival.

Being an outsider has advantages and disadvantages. My parents are/were from North West Scotland (with Irish connections). I was brought up in the South. Cultural differences were like chalk and cheese. Growing up, I felt an ‘outsider’ looking in, and an ‘insider’ looking out. There were doubletake overlays. These I now use.

DM: Could I just interject a reference there that may be useful. People living on islands off the West Coast of Donegal talk about going out to the mainland and going into the island, in a geographical sense that parallels what you are describing, which is a state of mind. Would you say you carry that sort of sensibility with you?

AM: Yes, I put it to work. Coming to Belfast could be seen as choosing a ‘marginalised’ context to live in. Many see Belfast as the edge of Europe. There are edges and ‘edges’. The post industrial age is one of decentralisation. In The Third Way, Toffler discussed, among other deaths, that of urbanisation. ‘Big’ is no longer beautiful. Concepts which formulated centres are now obsolete. New wave communications and information media now contribute to the disintegrating stranglehold of centres built by, and for, redundant technologies and attitudes. ‘Centres’ are becoming peripheries, peripheries . . . ‘centres’. Future/present provinces might be more at the ‘hub’ than New York, London or Paris.

DM: The de-industrialisation of today is coming about largely because of new technologies. In a curious way there could be a paradoxical benefit coming from a momentum that isn’t necessarily a good one in general but which can hopefully be turned from a disadvantage to an advantage.

AM: We’re at an awkward stage. Simultaneously we’re living the death of industrialisation and feeling birth pangs of a new civilisation, experiencing more the former than the latter at present. It’s a time for perseverance and insight, turning whatever negatives we can into positives. It’s a period of great difficulty and personal tragedy for many thousands of families out of work, through no fault of their own. Many are willing, but because of ‘circumstances beyond their control’, feel unable to contribute. Without a ‘job’, many feel worthless and without identity.

As an inverted negative, external difficulties may force us to tap deeper sources of identity and personal worth within ourselves and our cultural context than we’d normally be ‘required’ to dredge up, call forth or invoke. If and when we can make this ‘transition’, advantage is there.

DM: There is always a mistake made that because situations which are geographically on the edge, or marginal, where things happen in a different way, or with a different rhythm, there is a sense of nothing happening at all, or if you come from the centre carrying a certain urban rhythm with you, to, say a rural context, you’d feel there is nothing going on. I suppose the idea is to be receptive to the rhythm and the momentum and try to go with that, wherever it may occur.

AM: Yes, otherwise we don’t learn from the situation we’re in. What seems appropriate in one context may be utterly inappropriate in another. It’s important to encourage intrinsicworth in a locality, rather than callously ‘graft it on’ from the outside. This applies to politics and art, here in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere.

DM: Well you see, just taking that point on in another sort of way, a process that is now taking place in mainland Britain was actually taking place in Northern Ireland in the early 70s. It brought forward that de-industrialisation. Unemployment in some areas of Northern Ireland was always high anyway, but, in a curious sort of way I feel as if we are ten years ahead of other parts of these islands. We may be more prepared to deal with that creeping situation.

AM: ‘The darkest hour’s before the dawn’. People here developed resilience sooner. It was needed.

DM: It is quite clear that the situation is that in large conurbations in Britain people find it very difficult to deal with that de-industrialisation process, there is a sense in which the powers that be are papering over the cracks. There is a whole area of discussion there about the edge becoming the centre, but the centre isn’t one location anymore, it’s where particularly strong things can and do happen.

AM: History ‘wallpapers’ truth. The seams don’t meet. A point on a circumference anywhere is a centre (in its own right). Take electric circuitry. Press a light switch in Tokyo, Bombay, or Paris. There’s instant information. Everywhere and ‘nowhere’s’ the centre. It’s right where we sit.

DM: So if you use the term information, you could mean information with a small ‘i’ to include art?

AM: Certainly. May I recall some lines?

… There are no (innately) artistic means. All means are viable on condition. An artist makes art the whole of life, not a part. Is a man a farmer if he nurtures a furrow but neglects the field? The whole needs careful attention throughout. Painting is seen as an art activity. Breathing is not. Which is the root, which a result? Art purifies action. It is within the ordinary. It reflects what is. Real art requires what intermediary? It perseveres through changes. It transmutes pain and pleasure. It rests nowhere. It renders what is difficult effortlessly. It shows the invisible through the discernible. Pure art is in action devoid of ‘self’. The purest art is the most essential. Its form is to content as skin to body. Aesthetics alone are a surface affair. Real art embraces ‘everything’, rejecting nothing. Discrimination arises in clarifying self to receive what ‘is’. . . and so forth. I acknowledge most of it.

DM: The underlying idea seems to be not to put art into a linear or hierarchical view of cultural activities.

AM: To someone unacquainted with water, snow, ice and steam would seem like three unrelated materials, rather than one substance in three differing states as a result of specific conditions. These conditions can change. I query unthinking adherence to questionably fixed, arbitrary, and ‘applied’ values in art. What and where’s the underlying ‘substance’? How fixed is it?

DM: You make performances, but you also make drawings, you also make installations and you make objects, so there is no sense in which you invalidate how your practice is mediated?

AM: As much as possible I make performance/installations for particular locations, allowing the nature of the locality itself to ‘inform’ the work. This also pertains to some drawings I make.

DM: So it’s really horses for courses. It’s a question of what is appropriate in a given situation.

AM: Yes, I think much current art is repressive in spite of innovative cross-over techniques and manifold availabilities. In Scotland there is a phrase – CAULD KALE HET AGAIN – cold soup hot again. Inappropriate mediation ‘neuters’ art. In this politically conservative decade what’s happened to art as political critique? Where’s the bite, stomach and teeth?

DM: It’s very interesting how you make references back to a particular context.

AM: The further back we go. the further forward we come.

DM: Well it’s also not taking a linear view of time because with a linear view of time there is a hierarchy of achievement which puts us at the pinnacle.

AM: The pinnacle’s the tip of the iceberg. The interest’s in subterranean contents rising to ‘surface’.

DM: In a sense there is a simultaneity about culture whether it is from 5,000 years ago or now because, once you are aware of it, it’s alive and you have to deal with it.

AM: All our pasts and potential futures intersect in the present. We are custodians now. Ours is the individual and collective responsibility. The poet Sorley McLean, in order to preserve them, translates ancient Gaelic legends into English, writes his own poetry in Gaelic and warns of atomic submarines on the Isle of Skye. His audience is growing.

DM: So it’s possible to deal with ugliness, negativity, all the things that are destructive or potentially destructive. It’s this idea of a reversal, turning disadvantage or the negative into a positive.

AM: Yes, though it’s foolish to think one’s ‘arrived’, even when home.

DM: Is yours a sensibility formed beyond art?

AM: The world is raw. Do we ‘cook’ truth or lay it bare? On stage is a lonely place to fall. Better to work from a lowly position than fall from a height with a crash.

DM: That is carried out in your practice as a living being now, but also as a maker of art. How did you actually operate in particular situations that you have been in. Like Nova Scotia or Belfast or wherever?

AM: As a young man I wished to travel, live and work as an artist, and learn what I could. Some of my ‘main’ stops were Chicago, Nova Scotia, Vancouver, Japan (briefly), back to Scotland, the north of England and Belfast.

DM: Now, none of those situations could be described in the sense we have been talking about as the centre.

AM: True, though I frequently visit ‘centres’ to make art works. By choice I prefer to live away from ‘centres’. I go there for business purposes, to see exhibitions, to visit friends, then to leave. In New York especially one sees the sad sight of ageing artists who’ve been there for twenty-odd years, drawn to the ‘centre’ like flies to a light. They came to ‘make it’. It’s so expensive to live there, they have to work two or three jobs to survive. There’s no time to make art, let alone significant work. Fame? You can’t eat it, sleep with it, walk or talk with it. It’s ephemeral and delusive. An illusion. It’s best to make good work where you are. Let things sort themselves out. The centre of the art world’s wherever you breathe.

DM: There was a set of conditions applying in Belfast, for instance, that didn’t apply in Nova Scotia or Vancouver, and that was it’s geographically on the edge, but it was politically and socially on the edge because of the political violence/political situation, and it was as if something had burst through in violent form here, come through a sort of surface. How did you find coming into that, because in other situations you would have to work very hard to get in touch with the sort of ideas or realities that run through your work. Whereas in a sense when it comes down to essential issues – as it did in the early and mid-70s in Belfast because it was dangerous – did you find, because it was so extreme, that it was good for the work?

AM: Belfast taught me a lot. I’m very grateful. It cut through me. Principles underlyingthe Troubles are discernible elsewhere. Here they’re extreme, clear-cut and physical.

DM: There is a tangible expression.

AM: Exactly.

DM: It’s certainly invisible in the projected ‘centres’.

AM: There are major differences in degrees and concepts of ‘containment’.

DM: Yes that’s right, it’s a feeling I got very strongly when I was in London. The control mechanisms are just as much in place there as they are here. The advantage we have here is that we can see the working parts.

AM: Yes, everything’s down to earth. Very basic. I encounter great warmth and generosity in people, from both sides of the community. This keeps me here. On the other hand the politics of violence are so emphatic they call into question one’s whole purpose and function (as an artist), and what that constitutes.

DM: So actually it was a ‘good’ situation for questioning.

AM: Extremely good. One doesn’t wish one’s art to be icing on the cake, not necessary in the first place. In Belfast, constant issues are life and death (as they are elsewhere). Here these issues are ‘foregrounded’. Some artists ‘stonewall’ this information, others capitulate in the face of it. I’d like to deal with it.

DM: One of the first things you did was in the foyer of the Art College, and with other things that you’ve done, you have placed yourself in situations beyond Art Institutions and Art Institutional frameworks.

AM: It can be appropriate at times because of the overly refined, self-protective and reflective nature of these contexts.

DM: Well does that mean that Art Institutions should be seen as controlling mechanisms?

AM: They are. These institutions are not unlike the Civil Service – more concerned with preserving and protecting themselves than those they’re supposed to serve. Left to their own devices they set the climate for unimaginative, predictable conveyor-belt art. Well-timed, deftly judged doses of lone ‘anarchy’ are useful in offsetting the trait. If a grounded ‘plane can urinate tea, what might sculpture do?

DM: Obviously Art Institutions are set up with combinations of private and public funding which leads to possibilities as well as limits.

AM: By and large they’re more concerned with capital and administration than with real education. Some artists can work within such norms, and push beyond them. Because institutions so easily stifle creativity, I’d encourage students, in a whole range of ways, to test the perimeters of their situations for creative breakthrough.

DM: It’s definitely been a major part of your working practice that you relate more to people than to institutions.

AM: My first concerns in the Art Institution are the students I teach, the art they make and the course I run. The carpet’s pulled from below presumption. I hope the service is beneficial. The bottom line’s people (by the end of the day).

DM: That idea of drawing back the carpet so that you can see both beauty and its reverse has led to problems in some situations in relation to performance pieces. How did you feel when the media picked things up and there has then been negative national media exposure? Does that depress you, energise you or what?

AM: To a certain extent. With respect to tabloid misrepresentation of an earlier work at the Third Eye Centre, a local Tory politician was looking for means whereby to challenge the use of Arts Council funding. He manipulated the ‘truth’ of what took place. He was more than economical with it. He hid it. The press published amusing and cynical distortions of fact. Explanatory statements were deliberately misquoted. In spite of media-whip, hoop-la hype, the work was completed. By the end, from a variety of sources, I received positive support.

DM: The problem increases in direct proportion to the size of the institution involved with the project. It only becomes a serious and substantial problem if the institution is locked in to certain rhythms of our society, but you’ve always seemed to me to be as liable to travel to the other side of the world to work with another artist in a back alley as to work in a major museum.

AM: What’s important is quality of relationship, wherever it’s found. Life’s as real in a back alley as in a museum. Perhaps more so. There’s less to protect. There’s more to life than security. There’s freedom!

DM: Like me you also engage in mediation and administration processes because you are looking after the MA students within an ever expanding institution. How do those two areas of activity reside together?

AM: I take things on a day to day, week by week basis. I don’t rely on past achievements or reputation. Individually and collectively we’re only as good as work we currentlymake. The institution is growing but I work with individuals. One goes with or against the grain. I distrust institutions. Looking ahead I see danger. I work with students, Fine Art and the Course. They make it worthwhile. Recent achievements have been very substantial. Negatives turn positive. Future/present is here.