Variant Magazine : Spring 1988

Malcolm Dickson and Billy Clark interview Alastair MacLennan

Variant Magazine No. 4,  Spring  1988 

‘Out the In’ was presented in the new Performance Space 2 on the top floor of the Third Eye Centre’s premises in Glasgow as part of a season of performance and ‘new theatre’ work (called ‘New Work/No Definition’) last October. The ‘detached’ position of this space (entering up an unrenovated side staircase allowing the audience to come and go without passing through gallery space) was well suited to Alastair MacLennan, who took total command of it with his evocative installation/performance which lasted 3 days. In this interview, MacLennan – a Scot now resident in Belfast where he teaches in the MA Fine Art Department at the University of Ulster – talks about this work, about his commitment as an artist and teacher, and the sensibility that informs his work. 

He was interviewed by Malcolm Dickson and Billy Clark. 

BC I read about you studying Zen, in a previous interview. What is your mental state when you’re doing the performance? 

One concentrates on what one’s doing as one does it, to ‘fuse’ with the activity, at the same time keeping the mind open to the potentiality of what might develop. One can, by remaining ‘receptive’, make ongoing alterations, as appropriate. 

MD Your eyes were closed most of the time, from what I observed, as if you were in a trance state. 

It may appear as trance, but isn’t. One’s very aware of the physicality one’s in. I’m not transported to a ‘beyond’. We’re in the here and now. ‘Entertainment’ as art attempts to take spectators out of their situation and transport them ‘elsewhere’. It’s a form of escape. I want people more alert to the actuality we’re in. 

MD Are you conscious of the audience being there in the room? There were several occasions when there was no-one there. 

One’s conscious of when no-one’s there, or only one person, besides oneself. The activity has it’s own momentum. Does breathing stop if not seen? 

MD Did you actually deprive yourself of sleep? 

From time to time I dozed. 

BC Certain aspects of the objects in the installation seemed loaded with, not so much symbolism, but the attitude towards symbolism. Some appropriate things had been brought along, but it is interesting to relate this to the glass case. It does look as if things have escaped from it or exploded on this barbed wire landscape. How do you choose these objects, this debris? 

There are several reasons for using the case. This work, ‘Out the In’, is an extension of the one made at Riverside Studios, London, called ‘In the Out’. There were certain elements I intended to use here, but through a misunderstanding, two crucial items were not available. This threw me back. I chose an empty case to display ‘presence’ of absence in protective glass. It became focal. 

BC Is this related to the notion of art objects? 

Yes, but in reference to life. It’s like a fish tank. What might fish represent to an ecologist? 

BC It’s obviously being used as a symbol, but there is the rotting element. 

I’m interested in decay, where it constitutes the discrepancy between ideology and actuality. The fish is a Christian symbol. It’s also a symbol for the subconscious mind and subterranean levels of awareness not usually manifest in ‘waking’ reality. Then there’s pollution and ‘dead’ matter. Fish smell and rot, as do religious/political ideologies (locally and globally). 

MD Those elements of life and death were very strong in the work. I found it quite disturbing to be within the installation/performance. The discarded children’s shoes, for example, the X-ray photographs on the windows suggesting the fragility of the human condition. The sound tape combined seagull cries with Irish pipe music being played backwards, possibly, and then there was the sound of what could have been a baby’s wails, on first entering the world. And then you have the fish rotting in real time. 

BC In some sense the backwards music was like tourism in reverse. What was possibly ‘quaint and lrish’ becomes disturbing. It’s the same with the confetti on the floor; there’s a sort of celebration, the funereal kind of thing. It ties in strongly with the Irish context. 

I’m living there. I don’t subscribe to making art in a vacuum, or to art’s being an hermetic activity whose life depends on being contained within gallery walls. Aesthetics alone are effete. As well as grace there’s the 

‘…brutality of fact…’ 

MD You seem to combine an emphasis on a deeper insight into our ‘selves’ with a social and political commitment. 

It’s essential. 

BC It’s a spiritual and political thing. 

To have both feet on the ground, exactly where we are, is useful. Fusion between spiritual and political/social/cultural facts of our lives is important, not as hand-me-down ‘beliefs’, but as directly discerned, first hand. 

BC Has that attitude been formed by living in Ireland, or has that been integral to your work for a long time? 

Some of it was grappled with (as a student) in Dundee. There I learned various art skills, but faced the resulting dilemma of questioning the worth of it. – On leaving college, students faced a massive wall of indifference to their work. They had to ‘make sense’ of this and act on it. Many gave up, relinquished their creativity, and joined the swollen ranks of the Deeply Asleep. I saw the artist as a spiritual ‘salesman’, cut off from an anchored function in society. – Through committed perseverance one evolves a discernment of art’s real worth. Pat answers don’t cut it. 

BC But it’s not enough for art to reflect the de-spiritualised state of society. 

No. That’s only one feature. 

BC You have talked about ‘wholeness’… 

Wholeness embraces everything – positive and negative. 

BC Artists like to think of themselves as being outside society. 

The artist isn’t outwith society. One may feel alienated from many of its values. The public is a collective of individuals. You’re a member, as am I. 

BC It’s one of these characteristics that has come into being so that the artist can get exalted; you denigrate one aspect of society to exalt another… 

Individuals are empowered to ‘unstop’ their own creativity. Unfortunately, from an early age, we’ve been mentally conditioned to Not Know. Damage done through education (so called) disconcerts. Through blind and ‘knowing’ ignorance, many parents and teachers rape and castrate the imagination of children, before they’re seven. A few escape. Most don’t. It may be disturbing and disorientating to temporarily suspend judgement and ‘lift the lid’ of accrued values, to see what’s deeper, to uncover what’s below the private/public veneer. Art can heal. 

MD It means addressing all of those things that people have repressed within themselves to make life tolerable. That, in itself, seems an important function of art at the moment. But it also seems that the amazing, unpredictable and spontaneous elements in everyday life seem to be disappearing through the reductionism of our present culture… 

It happens through streamlining, unitising and subliminal repetition. 

MD … So art should propose an ‘imaginative resistance’ to these forces. 

Yes. Information is so controlled and manipulated through the distorting agents of television and press (gutter or other). Forced reliance on business funding and private sponsorship places substantial pressure on art groups to generate products which reflect the values of sponsors. It’s hard to imagine effective art, openly critical of government policies, being sponsored through business. That puts increased pressure on ‘difficult’ work during this reactionary, most conservative decade. 

MD Do you think there are enough people aware of that to be able to resist it in some sort of way ? 

I’ll resist it and I’m certain others will. In the 1980s there’s precious little evidence, nationally or internationally, of ground breaking, innovative art of social conscience being seen. Is it being made? Many venues showing ‘difficult’ work are closing, unable to keep going financially. We need them to counter the prevailing fodder of Mixed-Hash, Mish-Mashed aesthetic redundancies, strutting cockily (headlessly) as ‘chickened out’ market art of the ’80s. 

BC On the one hand you have people doing things, learning and changing things and on the other hand you have a lot of oppressive forces moving in. 

There’s conflict. It’s up to artists not to get downtrodden, but to retain ‘edge’. We’re innovators and instigators, individually and collectively and shouldn’t allow ‘outside’ manipulators to dictate our development. Art groups unable to get exhibitions in accredited institutions can house their own, and/or find alternative venues and methods of exhibiting inside or out of gallery circuits. Art groups in the ’80s could intervene far more practically and effectively than hitherto in political, social and cultural arenas. 

BC It’s taking the whole situation into your own hands. 

Government’s attitude to the arts will worsen. If a gallery won’t give me a show, I can put one on myself in my studio, where I live, or in the street. I’ll invite friends. They can invite me to theirs. Before long, essential art may bypass official institutions and operate another circuit, run by artists. There are precedents. In numerical terms, an operation, though miniscule, can yet be effective. One simple network may map new worlds. 

MD That involves an element of failure. You need failure as well as success, otherwise the art just panders to institutional thought. 

We learn to walk by falling, crawling and picking ourselves up (in life and art). 

MD It is difficult to determine what these successes or failures might be. With a lot of live work it takes a long period of time to ‘judge’ a performance, the element of memory. 

It takes weeks, months and years for images to ‘settle’, for resonance to fully evolve in mind … or less than a second … to ‘see’ beneath societal Facelift.