CIRCA Art Magazine, No 80, June 1997

Trusting Inter-Relations

Mark Dawes talks about Alastair MacLennan in the Real World

During a recent interview, I asked Alastair MacLennan the question: "If you had to use your creative energy to make things which were strictly functional, what would you make?" He answered "...Trusting inter-relations... ". MacLennan is an artist of the real world, not of the art world. Yet he is set to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale this summer [1]. That any artist represents a nation state is perhaps perplexing, but given that the whole idea of nationhood is so far removed from the belief system of MacLennan, it is faintly absurd to try to see such a concept as current in his work. To MacLennan, nations are artificial fixities. And artifice is everywhere in our society. It is typically self-effacing of MacLennan to feel it absurd that he should add to the surplus of public artifice, when we suffer from such a deficit of useful truths.

If 'nation' as a concept in general seems absurd, then 'Irishness' is an equally impossible expression to define. Without any useful purpose, Irishness, like German-ness or Indian-ness, is merely another ascription of value, and one which has serious personal implications for the freedoms allowed within its boundaries of meaning. MacLennan says "Irishness .... or any other 'otherness' is not a finished, self-contained, pigeonholed fixity of geography and history, but an evolving entity of positively indeterminate potential in the world".

MacLennan's installation Mael at the National Review of Live Art, Glasgow in November 1996, was a spiritual photograph of conflict which remained untainted by rhetorical concerns about legibility or metaphorical significance. A vast railway arch was filled with burnt-out cars, and resonated with the featureless voices of a man and woman reciting the names of those killed in the Northern Irish conflict. The lights dimmed and brightened in a calming rhythm, which nevertheless physically underlined the sombre aftermath of potentially lethal violence. The darker facets of real life were physically present in the room, and not metaphorised or recreated through artifice. The presence of so much destruction with such a powerful effect brought to mind Germania, an installation by Hans Haacke, where Haacke deliberately destroyed the marble floor of the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. MacLennan says of this relationship "there are major differences however. Haacke 'destroyed' the actual floor of the German Pavilion... The eight burnt-out vehicles I used for Mael were destroyed elsewhere, and brought together (with other items in inter-relation) for reflection and consideration". This extreme self-awareness in Haacke's destructive creation was perhaps necessary to denote a non-judgmental but nevertheless negative viewpoint on German history, which only a German could make. In examining the conscience of a nation, MacLennan cannot, and will not, make easy concessions to blank interpretations of history. History only speaks to those who listen, and those who listen find that the precise facts of our history do not always present the most useful lessons to us; the continuing and sometimes wilful errors of the present are the richest lessons bequeathed by any nation's history.

MacLennan has said, "Out in Nova Scotia, there'd be people who did some strange things, but they were part of the village. Here, they might be regarded as weird, other. I have this notion of a kind of cultural outsider, people who do things that you might regard as very eccentric who are part of the context, they're tolerated; the person isn't nuts ... there's a kind of purpose, a kind of aim. There's something on the inside, but they're outsiders simultaneously." In bringing the collective public gaze to bear on the unusual, the ritualistic, or even the socially unacceptable, a mechanism is invoked which has little to do with the world of art and has everything to do with the world of real life. Experience in general, not art experiences in particular, are the building blocks of public consciousness, and the less we associate art itself with social change, the better; if anything, it is the effects of experiencing art that can alter attitudes in the person and in society. MacLennan's act of appearing in a street and carrying out 'actions', which the public are free to regard, is a question in itself. For example in Death Stop in Italy, 1986, MacLennan spent six hours traversing Turin's ancient cloisters, carrying an artificial leg, with a stereo broadcasting the sound of birds, pipes, helicopters and the ocean. He was dressed in white, with shoes and other objects hanging from his body. As a spectacle alone, such an action is instrumental in provoking any citizen to question the nature of their community and society, and what one can understand by the notion of 'a real-life event'.

He may not have been the first to think it, but Joseph Beuys questioned centuries of commerce between the worlds of art, religion, government and finance by his statement that 'everybody is an artist'. In asserting this, Beuys supposed that every expression by any person had an intrinsic, human, cultural value which necessarily undermined the status of the professional artists and their expressions. It was a belief predicated on the fact that the expressions of artists are equal to that of any other member of society. But in the years since this statement compounded the beliefs of many avant-garde artists and thinkers, not much has changed in the world of art regarding the system of value, the exchange of cultural tokens, the ascribed financial or cultural value of artefacts. Somewhere in the world, a painting is bought for millions of dollars. The painting becomes another investment in material capital, like gold, coffee, oil, information, hardware, labour; it becomes an exploitable resource. Often, these artworks are valuable precisely because of the critical and counter-cultural status they have acquired in society; for example, Duchamp's Large Glass demonstrated perfectly the tendency of modernism to transfer the energy of the avant-garde to the service of the establishment. The dissent of such a work towards established structures makes it a valuable token through which those establishments are more firmly entrenched and included in the passage of profit from individual to corporation to nation state to global power structure. It is desirable for many people, for reasons of self-interest, to resist the idea, but the world of art is still built on a materialist model which seeks to extract profit from the ascription of value to artefacts. This is not surprising; after all, we live in a materialist global community where the pursuit of profit, no matter how fleeting or unattainable, is a constant societal pressure. So should we disdain a system where systems of value occasionally undermine the integrity of cultural expressions? Shouldn't we accept that the profit motive through exchange is a necessary evil amongst a network of exchanges? Or should we safeguard the right of expression from the whole notion of creditable value, at any cost?

Alastair MacLennan is a performance artist who does not play along with the notion of artworks as tokens of economic exchange. He creates ephemeral, haunting rituals in unexpected places, which last much longer than the seven seconds which most artworks in galleries are alleged to receive. His work is an expression of intense spiritual potential, which, although rooted in an altogether serious study of Zen practice, is nevertheless unlinked to any denomination or collective belief. MacLennan is a professional teacher, and is thus perhaps fortunate that he may be able to dissociate his work from the materialistic trading of the art market. But there is apparently very little that one could sell from the oeuvre of MacLennan; his works use the most unassuming of materials, often found, which are charged with symbolic or energetic resonances.

But what about the curious value ascribed to such an artefact as the hat of Joseph Beuys? Since his death, hat, boots, waistcoat and walking stick have become just as intrinsically (and financially) valuable as a Matisse painting or a Warhol print. Perhaps the denial of such materialistic practice is fruitless after all; someone will no doubt fix values to any object, regardless of the history which it possesses. As long as people have a desire to buy and sell, the perceived value of things will always haunt those who seek to remain apart from purely economic realities. But in the meantime, artists like MacLennan along with many others, are still drawing new values between impoverished things and precious, vital ideas.

It has been suggested before that there are possible overlaps between the work of MacLennan and Beuys. But the usefulness of such comparisons is minimal, based as they are on value judgements which neither party has sought himself. MacLennan has said "It's understandable how some forge links in readings of our work. We were and are two artists fishing in the same pond. Our catch is different". Equally, the 'shamanic' creative presence of Beuys is questioned by the activities of MacLennan. Even in the sense of an individual who experiences extreme events, and passes the experience on for the benefit of the majority, suspicion of the 'shaman' still remains. Beuys was something of a self-appointed shaman, pursuing a noble and utopian aim to assist in the spiritual salvation of humankind through art. MacLennan makes no such claims about his ideas, his activities or his life. He is not simply to be regarded, however, as merely an ambassador for himself. Although he does not seek to speak for the majority, he does seek to provoke rigorous, questioning thinking against existing negative structures; structures which may have only been preserved through tradition and complacency. And in this regard, the strange and haunting 'actuations' of MacLennan's work are intended to reach a far wider audience than merely those with a predilection for the arts. His work has often been located in highly public contexts, or even engaged directly with members of the public to inspire dialogues about art. MacLennan does not see art as part of a system, or as part of an enlightened 'ivory tower' of principled human science; art is a part of life, just as the artist is a member of society just like any other member of society. Alastair MacLennan's work is not, as the work of Beuys certainly was, utopian in its intent. To rectify some of these damaging social crises would be desirable to many artists, but it is unlikely that we will ever see another utopian prophet like Beuys. Utopians are often misinterpreted by the zealous followers who require the shelter of a category or grouping. MacLennan is deeply suspicious of classification. If he has any place in the art world, it is not necessarily as an artist. As an oppositional force, he makes almost imperceptible gestures which cast broad ripples outwards through cynicism and acceptability. As a creative force, he provokes responses from the very merest utterances which transmit haunting, shifting resonances. As a man walking in the street who happens to be decked out in strange apparel, he is no different from all the rest of us in our isolation; from the vantage point of a high building, it would appear that we are all singular silent figures, traversing an uncertain landscape, declaring little about ourselves. We transmit our shyness, frailty, violence, exuberance, tension or happiness without much ability to control the way others read us. MacLennan does very much the same thing, from the view-point of self-consciousness. He transmits alienation, generosity, socialised dissent, in a questioning, calm, absurdist and always humane communication. The art world may already have attempted to absorb the work of MacLennan at the international bazaar of the Biennale. But he is far harder to pin down than that; "While in Italy I'll be simultaneously representing, and being represented by, Irishness, Otherness and Venice itself".

[1] Ireland is represented by two artists at this year's Venice Biennale. Alastair MacLennan will present Body of (D)earth and Jaki lrvine will present Another Difficult Sunset at the Nuova Icona Gallery, Giudeeca, Venice.