from "WHAT DO YOU SEE ? - Discussions on twenty years of visual art practice in Belfast and beyond", supp. to FORTNIGHT

Contemporary performance art in Ireland

by Slavka Sverakova

Performance art in this part of the world is inextricably linked to the name of Alastair MacLennan. Trained as a painter in Dundee, he started performances in Canada, in the early 1970s. The late Dick Higgins told me recently, that he had once a photograph of an early performance (one of forty). Professor Bruce Barber recalled some photographic documentation of MacLennan standing on the roof of the college in Halifax, Canada.

In a book edited by our former student Stephen Snoddy, MacLennan and I charted his history until 1988, a period in which he established his art practice with a rare clarity. While his performances vary in length and visual detail they form a flow of ideas concerning moral issues. MacLennan, without addressing his critique to a particular person, works so that an awareness of this culture's attitudes to animals and to the Other is increased. He used dead fish, dead chickens, pigs' heads, trotters etc in a number of installations each time with a slightly different ethical and aesthetic impact. In Belfast such a work would allow the associations with the Troubles, in Cornwall on the other hand with the loss of the traditional support of life. Such artwork is clearly anthropocentric. The animals are seen from the point of view of the future of mankind. At times, his work is slowly narrative, almost like a chat. At other occasions he fuses the energy of a few visual items into a kind of meltdown. An early example of the latter is 'Hanging', 1981, Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast. The latest would he the analogy of 'Last Supper' made for Melbourne in 1998. Titled 'Pore rope' it is indicative of MacLennan's playful interest in symmetry of words. It included the familiar elements: paper strips with names, meal settings, black balloons, white cups, candles . . . . A long table made of many small ones has been positioned on a long diagonal with few chairs, some facing it, some turning towards the wall. The table with meal settings works in this culture either as a celebration, or a wake. In this case the table induces the image of some kind of disaster that prevented participants from turning up. And even if they did the table would have closed their escape route, sealing their fate for the second time. This apocalyptic tenor has been fragmentarily present in MacLennan's work since the early Eighties under the control of his anthropomorphic visual vocabulary. There are signs in his drawings of a force capable of wrenching the visual out of the received concept of humanity. Instead, what he calls 'actuation' would install a different, less flattering one. It includes a construct of the status of the artist himself. He is a professor of visual research, i.e. belonging to an institution, yet he opposes some art institutions. He is a well known "leading artist", yet marginalised by his art practice that is ignored by the majority of people in this region.

At the Art and Design Centre of the Ulster Polytechnic, today a part of the University of Ulster, Alastair MacLennan, Tony Hill, David Ledsham encouraged a younger generation both by support and example. MacLennan kept working both on the campus and in alternative spaces like ARE and Crescent Arts Centre, as well as overseas. [...]