Project Art Centre, Dublin, Ireland.

18th December 1996 - 18th January 1997

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"Remembrance of a gruesome past"

Luke Clancy
THE IRISH TIMES 4th January 1997

Alastair MacLennan's Body of Earth 1969-1996 installation offers a cool, funereal space for meditating on the inescapable frailty of the body (and certain notions that surround it) when faced with a toxic compound of politics, power and pragmatism, specifically in the context of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The main space at the Project has been bandaged with white gauze. The thin membrane creates a chamber within a chamber, but leaves this precisely-defined space and its enigmatic contents visible from the exterior, permitting a bogus sense of comprehension. Visitors enter this room, with its low gauze false ceiling, through a small parting in the cloth, and they are immediately faced with a long white cloth-covered bench, as evocative of an operating table as an altar. Instead of an etherised patient, or the fixings of transubstantiation, the bench supports a mound of rubbled earth, formed into a kind of elongated pyramid. On either side of this main structure two smaller, similar tables bear further pyramids of sifted earth and ashy soil. Each of these smaller structures is penetrated by a bowed wooden ladder and is decked in slender black and white ribbons. A tour of the chamber reveals a few more objects - some institutional-looking glass, a triangle of gleaming chrome dishes ready to collect specimen tissue or shrapnel, a zimmer frame for those who can stumble away, as well as various other scraps and a fan of black in-soles.


The in-soles are the second most direct suggestion of the place of people in the work by way of a pair of voices heard over the PA. In even tones, a male and a female recite, in alphabetical order, a list of names, the names, an accompanying text explains, of all those killed "... as a result of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland from 1969 to date". Like Shane Cullen, Willie Doherty and others, MacLennan seems to be attempting to tiptoe into the field of commemoration without leaving his own grand footprints. This has involved him skipping the visceral effects with which he has often driven his work. At another point in his long career we might have come across MacLennan dressed all in black, squatting beneath a table with a terrorist's hood covering his face, as he appeared, for example, in Mean Wean in 1995. In this context however, such a presence would have sounded too shrill. MacLennan may occasionally have toyed with Hammer horror effects, but here drama has collapsed in the service of a new atmosphere. A sense of horror is still paramount but here it is part of a refusal to let time dispense its palliative effects. In Body of Earth, each death has just happened, each grave has just been dug. Remembering all this - every shot and blast - as intensely as possible, it seems, offers the only likelihood of escape from the gruesome past.

"Critics' choice

Aidan Dunne
Sunday 12th January, 1997, p34

The Scot Alastair MacLennan is a pioneering performance artist, one of the generation who constructed complex ritualistic events and used such things as dead fish as props - the sort of thing, in short, that has become a parodic icon for the whole notion of performance art. There is no performance, though, in his latest exhibition, which takes the form of a particularly sombre installation. 'Body of Earth, 1969-1996' is in a way just that, a long mound of earth, flanked by funereal props, that recalls both the ceremonial grave sites of earlier civilisations and the simple heaps of soil that lie beside an open grave at a funeral. A gauze tent lines walls and ceiling. Behind the gauze, hazily visible, a strip of mirror set at eye level on three walls refers us back to ourselves as voices recite, in alphabetical order, the names of all those killed as a result of strife in Northern Ireland from 1969. It's a daunting list and a sobering experience.