The Artists Newsletter June 1997


Mark Dawes In Conversation With Alastair MacLennan


Mark Dawes: Did you ever want to be anything else other than an artist?

Alastair MacLennan: Since a child I've wanted to be an artist.

MD: Is there anyone who has influenced you throughout your life and who still influences you now?

AMacL; mother, who died last year; Edward Hopper, through his late canvases and Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Rinzai Zen Master and teacher.

MD: If you had to use your creative energy to make things which were strictly functional, what would you make?

AMacL. Trusting inter-relations.

MD: What draws you to Belfast?

AMacL: I'm attracted to public and private unfinished business, where political, social and cultural schisms are, wherever they exist. Belfast is a place I can usefully work in.

MD: You have been asked to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale. Do you feel a concurrent request to represent Irishness?

AMacL: Irishness, like Scottishness, Englishness or any 'otherness' is not a finished, self-contained, pigeon-holed fixity of geography and history, but an evolving entity of positively indeterminate potential in the world.

MD: Have you ever felt threatened by the consequences of making your work?

AMacL: Yes. When I first started making long actuations, I had no pre-knowledge whether mind and body interrelations would survive intact; I wanted to experience what manifests beyond mental and physical exhaustion, and the attendant psychological stresses. Other live works were made on the streets of Belfast. In this context, where imagery was employed and is politically, socially and culturally questioning and questioned, dice are loaded.

MD: What tends to obstruct you in the making of your work? Do you remove obstacles or seek an alternative path?

AMacL. There are obstructions and obstructions. The most subtle, instructive obstructions are more mental than physical. Many obstacles cease to be such if viewed from an altered mental viewpoint. What first presents itself as a difficulty can later become a vehicle for creative evolution. It may be beneficial to negotiate a problem rather than avoid it. Escapism, in and of itself, is no real solution. Actual freedom can only ever be directly experienced in the present.

MD: In relation to the question about obstacles, I was suddenly reminded of the events at Drumcree last year. I asked purely in connection with your psychological processes of making work as an artist. But maybe the same question has currency in a broader field in relation to the psychological processes of social conflict?

AMacL. It has. There are various views on how to deal with the psychological process of social conflict. Michel Foucault says we don't live in democracies if by democracy we mean "...the effective exercise of power by a population which is neither divided nor hierarchically ordered in classes...." He suggests our political role is to expose the operations of institutions so that political violence, operating covertly through them, be unmasked, so that we can combat it openly. He sees human justice as a 'construct,' as class oppression of one class by an other. Noam Chomsky says we need to "...create a humanistic social theory that is based, if possible, on some firm and humane concept of the human essence or human nature.... " We also need " understand the nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our society and to combat them..." He says it's important "...we know what impossible goals we're trying to achieve, if we hope to achieve some of the possible goals..." Samuel Beckett locates meaning through creatively, positively re-presenting societal disjuncture of meaning through literary manipulation of language. Traditional Western religion is on the wane. It no longer sufficiently convinces, with its hidebound views of humanity's place in the universe. In postmodern times, some seek 'purpose' through DIY spiritual healing groups, eschewing dogmas and embracing core, pluralistic teachings from a diversity of sources. Kristamurti recommends we all, individually and collectively, practise bare attention of mind. This serves to dissolve all unnecessary subject and object binary splits, which cause conflict throughout our private and public lives.

Alastair MacLennan is an artist based in Belfast.

Mark Dawes is an artist and writer based in Glasgow. An actuation is a performance/installation lasting up to 144 hours non-stop. Most are completed without eating or sleeping, while executing a range of ritually controlled actions.