THEATRE IRELAND n.23
Andrew Pendle talks to the distinguished performance artist, Alastair MacLennan, about the collisions between the ordinary and the extraordinary which inform the creative imagination and the thinking in his work.
ALASTAIR MACLENNAN is practising and perpetrating a form of performance that is at best underrated and at worst actively despised by the theatre establishment. His output of installations and performance art events both in Northern Ireland and abroad is prolific.
His venues have included prison cells, disused warehouses, pelican crossings, abandoned bingo halls and office building corridors. The imagery that he employs is often stark and forceful. Certain components return time and again; dead animals, balaclavas, barbed wire, white flour, black paint, a human skeleton with a ram's skull, crutches and shoes. Amongst it all moves Alastair, transforming the setting as he goes by, moving the objects, leaving trails of footprints, or stepping in and out of performance mode to talk to spectators. His performances can last up to a week. Within them, the human body features as both a formal, moving object inside a composition and as an individual, living organism.
For those of you who have not come across his performance work, it consists of two main strands. The first occurs within a created installation. The second happens when Alastair takes himself out onto the street or other public space and the rhythms and surface of the 'ordinary' collide with the heightened appearance and activities of Alastair as the performing artist. This collision creates the third element - the performance itself.
It must be stated that this is not some irrelevant genre of practice or elitist, backwater activity. He, unlike the majority of theatre practitioners, is in the enviable position of having to turn down offers of work that invite his complete, creative autonomy.
It would equally be a mistake to attempt to dismiss his work - and indeed performance art - as some sort of hangover from the sixties. His work is both ideologically and practically in a direct line of descent from the types of work characterised by the late Joseph Beuys. However, MacLennan, like Beuys, whilst being informed by the sixties, has a discipline and lack of indulgence that sets his work firmly in the current age and gives it vitality and relevance.
That theatremakers should be attending to such neighbouring spheres of activity, (especially when those activities are concerned with innovation and the testing of boundaries), may seem self-evident. It appears equally apparent that dynamism and forward motion feeds on the making of connections and sharing of insights with related disciplines. This, unfortunately, seems to escape the majority of professional theatre practitioners and many University and Polytechnic theatre departments which are in danger of embracing stagnation through self-imposed isolation.
Alastair is a warm, quietly spoken man with a shaved head and a ginger white beard, who is easy going and happy to talk about his work. We had coffee amidst the chaos of students setting up an exhibition around us at the Art and Design College in Belfast where he runs an MA course in Fine Art. He was emphatic that generic boundaries defining what is and isn't 'theatre' or 'performance art' obstruct creativity and artificially circumscribe possibilities. 'I would like to see the different branches of art coming together and mingling for whatever period of time.'
Within such work, the responses of spectators become a component of performance. The safe, neatly defined segregation of spectator and performer, characteristic of most performances within formal theatre buildings, is successfully abandoned without any sense of a return to the uncomfortable and largely unsuccessful attempts at 'audience participation' that was a feature of some self-conscious experimentation in the sixties.
Photographs of his performances in public spaces abound with people stopping, stepping out of their ordinary experience of reality in order to respond to the extraordinary. A whole range of responses appear; bemused, amused, contemplative and outright aggressive. As a working street performer, I am aware that alienation or feelings of threat from a spectacle can sometimes escalate to overt aggression. Alastair responds, 'When I first started doing the performances, I looked on interruptions by people as something disruptive to the work. However, I learned to start responding to them and incorporating them into the performance. I often find that, if I'm working at the same site for a period of time, people who are initially aggressive towards me will start coming back and by the end of it are actually quite protective towards me'.
In one of his earlier pieces, (Target, Belfast 1977), Alastair had walked to and from work throughout the month of August, dressed entirely in black with a plastic sheet drawn with arrows over his head, a dart board hanging from his neck and carrying a black bag. At that time there were more security gates with soldiers searching passers by. Alastair has said that he became aware of anxiety as a shared experience between the searchers and himself which he could control. I asked him about this. He grins and replies that as time went on he realised that many of the searchers, especially the younger ones, were more anxious about the situation than he was. This created a type of tension and energy that he was able to manipulate and control and so reverse the status and intimidation of the situation. Much street performance attempts to kidnap control of the rhythms and life of the street for the duration of the performance. Having seen documentation of Alastair's work, I am unsure if he is trying to take control of the environment or plug into its rhythms. 'I am trying to plug into the rhythms of the street, but at my own rhythm. By doing this, I aim to make people aware of their own rhythms and possibly subvert them a little.'
The dynamic interplay of perceptions between spectator and performer is an aspect of his work which features quite strongly. He refers to this as 'double-take overlays'. His own experience of looking out to the spectator is an element of the overall performance. This is quite a concrete factor in a work such as Target. It becomes more subtle in a work like Performance, October 1976. For three hours he stood within netting that was stretched over him and a chair a few yards away. Between the man and the chair were various objects. The net served to trap and isolate the objects while simultaneously connecting them and insulating them from the outside world. The mutual awareness and responsiveness between those outside and those inside the net then became the activation of a piece that concerns itself thematically with connection and isolation.
I am aware that the activity of performance causes changes to occur in the performer both in terms of physiology and of psychological awareness. I ask Alastair what seven days of virtually non-stop performing does to him. 'You are aware of things slowing down. People become presences on the periphery. You are aware of the rhythm of their coming and going. You recognise some of them and notice the regularity of their presence. Maybe they come every day in their lunch hour. The performance then becomes its own opposition; a contemplation by the performing self.' Alastair has said elsewhere, 'Growing up, I felt an outsider looking in and an insider looking out' and maybe that accounts for this aspect of his work. However, duality and the creative tension that it can engender is something that he appears to be fairly obsessive about. Whilst talking about how Zen has informed his practice, he digressed to acknowledge that notions of a holistic experience of the world could be wrongly interpreted to contain a potential for apathy and stagnation. Creativity demands a dynamism and polarity. He demonstrated this with a performance image he created in a twenty four hour piece he did in Newcastle. Half the square performance area was filled with black pigment and half with white flour. Very slowly, he walked in a circle across the two areas. Over the twenty four hours a black semi-circle gradually appeared in the white half and a white semi-circle in the black half. This created a sign that encapsulated the principle of creative polarity whilst, deliberately or inadvertently, referring to the yin/yang symbol of balance and opposition.
Such talk of holistic ways of being and of eastern philosophies understandably invites accusations of refusing to confront the political and therefore of being socially irrelevant. Political signs and symbols do surface repeatedly in Alastair's work but he refuses to give them an ideological value or to allow his work to take a politically polemic stance. Rather he attempts to present potentially emotive signs to us in a may that alienates us from them. By liberating them from their context we are left free to attempt to assess them objectively. In September 1988, in a prison cell beneath Clerkenwell in London, he built a barbed wire enclosure from which he hung union jacks and tri-colours. During the five day performance there was a hand-out which included the lines:
strikes, do we wash the blood,
During a performance eleven years earlier in Germany, he built a wood and chicken wire structure. Wearing sunglasses and with his face painted white, he read to passers by, in a deliberately neutral voice, sections from pro and anti-British newspapers. Behind all this, Alastair himself remains inscrutable; manipulating and articulating such charged icons with a characteristic impassiveness. I asked why he foregrounds the political without commenting on it. 'I believe that ideology can be a limited way of looking at the world or understanding experience; like deliberately looking through a chink to avoid the whole picture. It is like a coin that has two sides which are apparently distinct and apart but when you melt the coin down it is one and made of the same substance. There is no ideology that encompasses the entire actuality. I will not make art from a set ideological perspective. To do that will define the outcome of the work before I enter into the process. The most exciting discoveries occur within the process.' He is then an artist confronting politics rather than an ideologist confronting art. Within his works there is room for anomaly, complexity and contradiction.
Interpretation of his work is problematic. In Slavka Sverakova's commentaries on his work we read of a seven hour performance, during which Alastair's naked body, hung with dead fish, moved around the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, dragging a broom behind him: 'Fish stand here for both religion and for ecological concerns. Both are bound together by the immoral disregard with which they are treated. The negative, life-threatening function of such disregard is made visible by the juxtaposition of the human spine and rotting fish and by the visual mutilation of the naked body by black pigment and marks of bloodied fish on the skin'. This interpretation, which is not unrepresentative, carries with it a sense of an easy plugging in by the commentator to a sign system that is probably not so readily available to the rest of us. Indeed, one of the joys for me of some postmodern performance work is the lack of need to 'understand' or translate in terms other than what is present. The image either works or it doesn't. Another of his works, Slow Know, Canada 1987 was an installation/performance involving trees, wheelchairs, balloons and Zimmer frames amidst which Alastair moved and ate a 'conceptual meal' in slow motion to the sound of a voice-over reading the regulations for entry into Canada. I say to him that the forcefulness of the image would have struck me but that I would have failed to reach the same conclusions as Slavka Sverakova or himself, regarding any meaning, ('the rehabilitation of eating habits from manipulation by this (catering) industry'). Alastair replies, 'I know that I cannot expect or demand that a spectator experiences the same set of interpretations or meanings that I do. To do so is to limit possibilities and I don't believe the artist can monopolise the piece. The piece should work of itself and essentially on its immediate impact. Only later would I expect the spectator maybe to think about the work and arrive at some sort of interpretation. I do, however, prefer it if the spectator grounds the piece in meaning. It is an ongoing process of making connections'.
In 1984, during a performance at the Pyramid art centre in New York, Alastair found and took into the studio a load of discarded items. The four hour performance consisted of Alastair arranging and rearranging these objects, interspersing this activity with periods of conversing with spectators. The notion that informed the activity was the reversal of the objects' 'death' by creating new use for them. Art is thus presented as a process of healing. However, this healing is artificial. The objects are not, in themselves, healed. They do not perceive themselves as either sick or healed. They just are. The healing occurs only within the human perceptions that have previously been sufficiently blinkered to be capable only of imagining a single function for them which has been exhausted. The actions within the performance then are not literal but are visually symbolic. The significance is metonymic. Rather than being the thing itself, the items and the performance gesture towards what is aspired and alluded to. To quote Sverakova again, 'Depending on how we focus our perception, an object can have two different readings, existing, it might be said, both between and within the real and the imagined'. The objects that Alastair MacLennan uses within his compositions, both those found and the purchased 'ready-mades', immediately attain a heightened significance. This is not merely as in the more usual theatrical context where an object attains significance simply by becoming the focus of the audience's attention and interpretation. Here the objects impinge on our world, being offered to us by Alastair like artifacts from a hidden order that is yet to be decoded. The significances and reverberations of their ritualised reflections on our world provide commentaries from a privileged vantage point, that is, from the inside looking out.
'What lies beyond the world of artifice, (yet manifests through it)? Communicate from there.'