The son of a Scottish policeman, Alastair Maclennan was born in 1943 in the Perthshire village of Blair Atholl. As a consequence of his father being regularly relocated, the family moved often within the Perth and Kinross area. Holidays were spent with grand parents on the Isle of Skye where a great great uncle had once practised as an artist. The family, however, bred more musicians than visual artists and espoused the Gaelic oral tradition in which linguistic sounds have more meaning than written words.
From an early age MacLennan had a fascination for drawing and concluded, by the age of 14, that he wanted to be an artist. In 1960 he enrolled on the general course at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, and later specialised in drawing and painting.
The diploma course provided a disciplined studio-based regime that influenced the work of the later performance artist. Maclennan’s enquiring mind did not find a supportive and stimulating environment until he took up a position on the MFA course in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966.
During his two years there he began to develop experimental painting which reconsidered the limits of Minimalism. Although the notion of an invisible art made concrete by its transparent aura alone was never realised, the concept remained for him a possibility. Such ideas attracted him to za-zen instruction.
Under the guidance of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese Rinzai Zen Master, he began to learn to realise his ‘true nature’ through a process of exhausting those verbal strategies that mask reality. The benefits of za-zen practice were applied to his art-making.
Maclennan left Chicago and America’s offensive in Vietnam, crossing the Canadian border to Halifax where he taught in the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Here he developed time-based works in the landscape and absurdist and didactic actions within the college. These soon evolved into more engaging public works in the streets. The artist embarked on a diverse strategy that would distance him from the art market with its associations of ‘cultural real estate’, a trade Maclennan still finds disquieting and diminishing.
In 1975, Maclennan accepted the post of senior lecturer in fine art at Ulster Polytechnic, Belfast. He had left a relatively benign and peaceful Canadian environment for Belfast’s war-torn streets where military rule disrupted daily life and people existed under the constant threat of death and mutilation. By now Maclennan was fully committed to performance art.
While some fellow contemporaries believed that art should pursue ideals of beauty and exclude the ugliness of civil war, Maclennan felt his work could not avoid such horrors. He was compelled to refer to everything he experienced and commenced a series of inter-relating actions about art and daily life that would communicate directly to fellow citizens.
On a day in August 1977 MacLennan dressed himself in black for work as usual, hung a dartboard round his neck, and veiling his head and body with polythene walked from his house in loyalist east Belfast via Royal Avenue to the art college.
'Target' addressed a number of obvious and critical social and cultural issues, central to which was the vulnerability of the individual as an ordinary citizen and in this case, his role as a performance artist within a tradition-based art school which was, at this time, mostly hostile to his work.
During this period Maclennan developed sustained works that pushed the parameters of personal endurance and performance. These were invariably undertaken in the nude. He obscured his identity and his personality by applying primal substances such as flour and soot to his body. During most of these performances Maclennan went without food and sleep. They ranged from 12 hours in duration to 144 hours or six days and six nights.
These multi-dimensional works had their origins in drawing, but here the drawer was also being drawn, that is, he was an integral component in the process of making an artwork. The space in which the work took place was being gradually altered or ‘actuated’. The drawer/performer was facilitating qualitative decisions, modifying, deviating, resolving insights and possibilities within a carefully prepared space.
Whether a dirty, disused factory or a pristine art gallery, the space was meticulously and subtly altered to create an exact ambience to contain Maclennan’s slow and deliberate rearrangement of elements and items.
Maclennan’s ‘actuations’ were given ambiguous titles such as: 'cant can’t', 'chin to inch', 'knot naught', 'slow lows', 'words sword'. Puns that played with the sound of words rather than their literal meaning only. Titles were intended to provoke the viewer into a personal interpretation and involvement. Items with ambiguous meanings were deployed:
• A black coat – a tramp or an ordinary working man.
• Dark glasses – a blind person or a disguise.
• Fish – Christian symbol, when left uncooked emits the stench of decay.
• Earth – fertile substance, creativity and place of internment.
• A butchered pig’s head – a human surrogate and accuser or witness.
• A prosthesis – invalidity and victim.
• Stainless steel bowls – operating theatre or ritualistic vessels.
• Burnt-out cars – wrecked lives and destroyed personal bubbles.
• Black balloons – joyous celebrations, death and the hot air of falsehood.
One ‘actuation’ involved Maclennan sitting in a small greenhouse, a symbol for the artificiality of culture, slowly blowing up black balloons until the interior was so stuffed with inflated orbs that he could barely breathe.
Having deliberately embraced the state of transcience in his art and foregone all the historical and commercial benefits of being involved in the art market, Maclennan accepts that his ‘actuations’ and myth-making sustained performances will be forgotten after his death. Perhaps some photo-documentation and drawings will linger on.
The artist will be happy to disappear. However, he would like to have nurtured an attitude to life and a process of art-making which is concerned with how we relate to living, daily experiences and each other. His art is not about producing a fixed object or commodity – instead it is a consequence of living inter-relations. He says, ‘Be it quick, or be it slow, everything transitions, everything interfuses.’
Alastair Maclennan’s origins are a fusion of Gael and Protestant and although he willingly acknowledges the stereotypical effects and traits of this which appear within his visual language he rejects Protestant/Calvinist/Christian theology and dogma regarding it as ‘dangerously exclusionist and misguided.’
He continues: ‘The ‘invisibility’ I’m actively, purposely involved with and work through in art is the inclusive, holistically grounded, self-disciplined Zenist one, not the ‘split roots’ version of Protestant Calvinism.’
Maclennan’s solitary male who must, through self-denial and self-determination, bare witness endlessly is echoed in the literature of Samuel Beckett, one of the artist’s most seminal influences.
Encyclopedia of Ireland (2003) edited by Brian Lalor.
Knot Naught (2003), Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast.
Is No (1987), Arnolfini Gallery, London.
Thinking Long by Liam Kelly, Gandon Press.