Sonntag, 24. April 2011

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN to be aware of the moment - or the quality of engagement

written by Ilka Theurich


While I was looking at the cover of Manuel Vasons book “encounters” for the first time, I could not stop watching. A very strong image from a performance for a photo camera came across my eyes. The work was called “Collaboration #1, Belfast, 2006” and on the picture was the performance artist Alastair MacLennan sitting on a garbage hill. The profile of his body was directed to the right side of the picture, his eyes were covered with dark sun-glasses, he had a bunch of garbage in his lap, with parts from a wooden puppet coming out of it, and at the horizon one could see hundreds of seagulls. All of them were flying in the same direction aligned as MacLennans line of gaze – towards the right out of the frame. After some minutes of staring at this cover photo, I immediately had the desire to see more sequences from this moment of happening. Why was this image so strong?

Nearly forty pages later I found another photograph from this session, called “Collaboration #5 Belfast, 2006” (Vason, 41). In this picture MacLennan stands on the garbage, wears a small bunch of garbage with the parts of a wooden puppet around his head and right behind him one can see a digger working. Even in this picture there are seagulls, but in this case they are flying in different directions. It looks more like a big chaos around his already covered head and the vertical body of MacLennan is much more cocentrated, than his surrounding. If the first picture is taken more in the tradition of landscape images, the second picture could be seen as a portrait. Both works are minimalistic, single static images without any moments of movement in them - besides the seagulls. Two-dimensional images, but with a hidden third dimension. It feels, as if there is a kind of story behind the scene without the need to fulfil the narrative completely. Both photographis are changing, from the view through the small lens of the camera, towards a hidden entrance into another world of a bigger phenomena.

In Vason's photography the single static picture has the ability to create a volatile image. And exactly in this moment the fact of abstraction develops the power of the images. Both photos look at me, as if they are single picture-frames out of a feature film. They make me believe, that bigger things happen behind the scene. This does not mean that an artistic bluff was used. I want to clarify that the recipient gets the opportunity to follow the visual idea of the photographer and the performer, without that they have ever articulated their ideas literally. In the moment of absence of sounds and movements, an abstract concept can arise and an imaginary entity, a gap, a blank part, or an open space in the mind of the viewer has the chance to be perceived.


This Essay is based on an interview which took place at the 23rd of January 2010 in Plymouth (UK) and I would like to thank Alastair MacLennan for his openness and the perseverance, which he applied to all of my questions. All quotes that are not specifically mentioned in this essay are from this interview.


In my opinion a still image is just one frame out of a movement - but it still moves. The energy still oscillates inside this single static image. If we take a look at the term energy, which comes from the Greek term ἐνέργεια - energeia and means "activity, operation", it is based on ἐνεργός - energos "active, working". In physics we have learned that the term energy always describes a certain amount of work, which can be performed by a certain amount of strength. Any form of energy can be transformed into another form, but the total amount of energy remains always the same. I think that the physical principle of conservation of energy, can be also found in art. According to Noether's theorem the total energy of a system will not change by time, but the value depends on the frame of references. What does this mean for the collaboration between Alastair MacLennan and Manuel Vason? Let's take a look at the photos “Collaboration #1, Belfast, 2006” and “Collaboration #5 Belfast, 2006”. They are constructed in a classical style of image formation, which meets the power of the performer. For me it is precisely this moment of encounter that gives rise to something bigger. This moment of encounter cannot clearly be specified and described as an object in the final product. The performer influences the energy of the landscape and vice versa. The photographer influences the energy of the performer and vice versa.

For the collaboration between Alastair MacLennan and Manuel Vason I guess it means, that we should become aware of the contrast between the static moment of the artistic photos (with their never changing amount of total energy) and the constant flow-of-power in the actual work process. For MacLennan

“energy is what we are in life. The transitions in life, the energy in transition. (…) it is energy that is in one state for probably some years, but the form is in transition. Maybe we can't quite perceive it, because the transitions are almost like slow-motion, we can't quite see them literally. The Transition – if we could see better on a molecular level, we could see the atoms... hovering around. The cup wouldn't seem so fixed as a cup and the table wouldn't seem so fixed as a table and so they would seem a bit more in flux... Also ourselves, our bodies... So I am very aware of the fact that, what seems solved and fixed is actually energy - is transition.”

During his MA-studies in Chicago, MacLennan encountered the Japanese za-zen practice, where he learned, to perceive the “true nature”. In the school of Rinzai Zen, “seeing one's true nature (kensho) or enlightenment”, is the gateway to authentic Buddhist practice and the possibility to embody the free function of wisdom within the activities of daily life. MacLennans first KOAN, which he received from his teacher, was: “How do you realise your true nature, while you are painting?” At that time he was painting as well as performing and he received a KOAN which was related to the most important thing in his life – a KOAN about his art.

“What direction to take? How to function? Do I do it in the art world or not? Do I do it in galleries or not? Do I do it with the feeling of wanting to make an object at the end or do I do it where I make the creativity and let the creativity dissolve? So I had questions like that for myself. And to get a KOAN that asks you the question, 'how do you realise your true nature, while you are making your art', was perfect for me. It took me two years to come through that, but for me it was very worthwhile. It had a major effect on how I would spend the rest of my life making art and teaching also.”

The academic painting tradition which MacLennan encountered in Scotland, before he moved on to Chicago, was a very traditional one. Everyone had to paint a live model, which means that all students were working on the same theme, just the representation of the painting was individual. But when MacLennan went to the graduate course in Chicago there was no central theme anymore and this situation immediately provided him with a huge problem. MacLennan was a very skilled painter, who could technically do any kind of painting, but he asked himself what direction would be the right one for him?

“I remember thinking this: I learned the language of how to paint academically, but it was like learning another language, e.g. like French or German, whithout knowing what do I say with this language? And then I had a question to myself: What is the point of having learned a language very well, if you don't even know what to say in it? “

This dilemma forced him to think about the content of his work. He found himself confronted for the first time in his life with a big problem; what should he make his art about and how should he convey it with the skills he had? And exactly that was the moment when the search and questioning really took place. While he was thinking about this big question, he painted a few pictures. But instead of painting with colours he just used black and white. The buildings in Scotland, where he comes from, had a much more individual character for him. They were colourful and the streets were curvy, contrary to Chicago where everything was organized in a grid and was looking minimalistic with less individual character. MacLennan noted that Chicago had a great lack of individual character. For his paintings he observed the technical and mechanical characteristics of this American city. He tried to paint architecture in a way where it was “almost a representation of the human presence”. During this working phase, he got the idea to create a minimalistic structure in an empty gallery. An artistic work which could not be touched, heard or seen with any of the individual senses. But an artistic work that would be experienced in some way. MacLennan got the idea of a huge rectangular block within an empty space. But even in the Chicago University, no one thought that this idea would be possible to realize. “And my tutor said to me at one point - nice idea Alastair, but you won't be able to make this.” But when he explained this idea to a student, she mentioned that it sounds like ZEN. “She said, well you want to do something in this empty space and this thing that fills the empty space. In Zen they talk about the fullness of emptiness and the emptiness of fullness.” He created this space after two years and presented it in an empty gallery. And the knowledge he gained from that experience was - no matter what you do, you should do it with full commitment.

“(…) as one is doing it, to give oneself to it, totally – 100% (…) performing or walking down the street or whatever. This can manifest itself in any aspect of one's daily living, but a lot of people may not notice it even, and I accept that.”

I can see that this early za-zen knowledge is still alive in the work of Alastair MacLennan today and in the Collaboration #1 & Collaboration #5, Belfast, 2006”, as well in the minimalistic way of MacLennan's performances. Especially in the durational ones, I can find strong similarities to za-zen practice. His actions are stripped down to their most fundamental features like sitting, standing and walking for example. MacLennan pointed out that encountering with ZEN changed his everyday life experience substantially.

“And the whole teaching practise would involve giving the student (…) a question, a KOAN, a problem to solve. And the solution would manifest itself, only when the person had exhausted all the thoughts - all constructed thoughts (…) The student should learn to give an answer to a problem that would show that the student was responding from a source within him or herself, that was not dictated by conceptual thought or by a constructed self.”

vital time
For MacLennan “time we have is not so vital as time we make”. This important concept of vital time is part of his performative process and I think it creates the basis for poetic encountering. “In a way we don't have time - we are time. In English we use the term to make time. What it really means is to make a point of not just letting time slip away, not wasting time - to make a point of doing it.” When MacLennan encountered the ideas of John Cage, his use of sound and his thoughts about trying not to make value judgements, like for example “this is a musical sound or that is not a musical sound”, he became interested in trying to experience phenomena as they are and without making judgements. By using chance as a device to get past some of his own habits, thoughts and evaluations. John Cage's book “A Year from Monday” fascinated MacLennan because of the humorous side and his refreshing attitudes. He had the impression that almost anything is possible, and at the same time Cage was trying to strip away prejudgements by using the I-Ging. MacLennan sometimes uses the I-Ging, too. “It doesn't tell you what to do - it is like a mental mirror, that gives you back to yourself.” At that time MacLennan realized that you can make art about anything, in any way. In the case of Cage it would be to avoid hierarchical values and not make judgements, prejudgements. “Very, very useful, to just listen to sound as sound, not saying that this is a better sound than that sound, that this is more musical one than that one.” For MacLennan it became obvious that one can do the same in visual art. And when he left painting behind and moved on to performance art it was even just a simple decision for him. And he remembered from his old ZEN teacher: “Just give yourself totally to what you are doing while you are doing it – Then it has its own authenticity. Your marks will feel genuine. People might not know what the marks mean, but they all feel genuine and not like a fake construction or something.” For MacLennan five people can do the same action or movement, but because they are all different, there will be differences in each action and the differences will have to do with the specificity of the individual person. “So we don't have to force anything, it will be individual anyway - because we are. It is not so much what we do, it is how we do what we do, as we do it. That makes the art.”


same differences
As we could see already in the change of his work in Chicago, also his life in Belfast influenced the artist enormous. The social surrounding in the present moment is part of the way of doing performance art. MacLennan found it very instructive to live in Belfast.

“( … )because during what is called the troubles, there was a religious aspect of it, a political aspect of it for sure, and there were social and economic consequences. So that just by living there, I found many of the conditions that human beings have to live through (…) and it was so obviously damageable. “

MacLennan observed that one can testify the results of oppositional thinking in a place like Belfast in the streets, in the families and on the graveyards. You can see the roots of the problem in binary thinking in the field of religion and politics. If you think that something is right, then something else must be wrong automatically. For MacLennan the constant use of these kind of thoughts is born out of language.

“So I found it very interesting and constructive to be there … in this situation where I could myself examine the effects of this kind of thinking. And seeing this as a person who is not coming from one side or the other. I could see that the whole situation, im terms of holistic thinking had been split and this was the result. It is maybe a more extreme result than in some other countries where you don't find something which is almost like a slow-motion civil war. But you would still find conflicts in more settled forms, the scenes would be the same, because of binary dualistic thinking.”

I wondered if MacLennan could still be neutral, after living for such a long time in Belfast? If someone could still have a neutral position as an observer, although he has already arrived at the heart of the society? He thinks, that he is still an observer as well at the same time as he is a participant. And while I was still wondering whether this could work out for me, he came up with an Irish phrase which opened up my mind. This Irish phrase implies that even within differences there is sameness. It is just a question of what we choose to focus on.

“There is a saying in Ireland: They look at two opposite situations, seemingly appearing to be opposite points of view and they say: SAME DIFFERENCE. And what that perception really means is, that within what appears to be very different, you can see communality within both. “

MacLennan has many friends who are Catholics and Protestants. But as human beings he likes them very much and he works with both. “ Not one or the other, because I want to think in a holistic way.” All over the world there are institutions which trie to create a bridge between oppositional parties on a humanizing level, so that they can start to empathize with each other. As we can see e.g. in a project where parents who lost their children in the fights between Palestine and Israel are coming together and mourning together the loss of their children. And also in Belfast there is a project where families who lost members in the troubles are coming together with some of the people who actually did the killing. They are working together on reconciliation and doing workshops on reconciliation. “Over time they see the picture more comprehensively and more openly. They are willing to engage in the healing process. “ And it is exactly this kind of healing process which we can find in a lot of performances from Alistair MacLennan. Gray Watson mentioned in his text Alastair MacLennan: A Poetic Invitation “that the title 'Healing Wounds', is often used by MacLennan for more than one of his works, contains an in-build ambiguity “ (Watson, 9). In Plymouth MacLennan mentioned that he thinks, it is very important to be prepared to sense what seems to be the opposite. “Sometimes when we are dealing within performance, it can be very much like visual poetics. And sometimes suggestion or evocation, sometimes ambiguity can be more effective (…) than what is obvious (… ) remembering to forget, forgetting to remember”

ecology of mind and spirit
And with the last phrase of “remembering to forget, forgetting to remember” we are suddenly in the middle of the topic which MacLennan explains with the ecology of mind and spirit. He stresses the importance of realising how we process things and how we recycle things, not only through the view of needs and urgencies in physical terms, but we should also view our mind with similar thoughts.

“seeing the mind as a kind of soil, in which we can plant seeds and the seeds come, whatever we grow. And for instance if we are consumed with negative thinking and all kinds of oppositional, antagonistic, ego driven concerns it is as if we are doing a lot of negative things to the soil.”

The word which came to my mind was immediately 'imprint' and something that seems beyond our conciousness control. If we have negative thoughts and if we are almost only reactive to situations or even react very badly, this will make an imprint on our soul.

“...people have negative thoughts (…) almost reactively to situations, action/reaction, like when somebody reacts very badly or has bad feelings. But if we can imagine what this is doing to the state of our mind, out of which a lot of our later thoughts and actions come from. We are often polluting the mind. Even in a later reaction, it would be only reaction and not a form-giving moment. Not something that would be organic or holistic but fractured, factional, binary and oppositional, with a bit of aggression. And it doesn't have to be this way.”

MacLennan recognized a diaspora of artists and he thinks that it is more than healthy if we could evolve this more. If an artist goes away to other places and other situations, mixing with other societies, he will encourage diversity in art and within art. For MacLennan it is important to let art make a transition to other areas, other disciplines, also to other countries, to get a new view on whatever topic. With this new view, mirroring on the artist's own being, his own culture will be different and new perspectives will come out of it.

BREAK - a small exercise // While you are reading this text, please realize the walls around you. Within these four walls you might be in an institution, but try to realize that these walls are just a construct. And if you imagine these walls not being here, where are you? And to think as much and to feel as much about the outside as inside and as inside-outside. Don't rely on the institution. Here we are, what happens if the walls collapse? (according to an exercise Alastair MacLennan is practising with his students)

Afterwards MacLennan would give the advice, that you should take yourself with you, wherever you are and that this is, what we do all the time. In this sense we should not see the spiritual and the physical worlds separately. In his view, it would be necessary “to bridge our spiritual and physical worlds” , which means to find ways where both parts could inter-fuse each other with the aim to experience life more holistically in everyday life. “We walk down and we see something (…) we see naturally a kind of interchanging of energies. “ As I understood, to perceive the present moment, while we are at the same time part of that moment. We cannot be separated from the present moment.

the present moment and the obstacles
According to MacLennan you should not try to use the force of opposition. Encourage just the momentum of it, but then use this force as an aid by finding a way to embrace it and work with it, as something that helps and also tests the evolution of one's own work. “If a fish is going upstream and there is a big boulder in front of it (…) the fish will find a way of navigating through this way (…) So the obstacle does not become something important – just finding a way to navigate around.” Now the question arises, whether I would become a bit too lazy if no obstacles would cross my path?

Once MacLennan was asked to give a talk on his own work and he went well prepared to the lecture hall. After he started the talk, with all his images and preparations of what he wanted to say, the electronic devices broke down completely. Thus he had to make a decision. After apologizing, he saw a chance in this situation, an opportunity to do something together. There was a group of people, who might never meet again in this particular combination and in this specific situation.

“There is nothing missing. (…) we make something from that. And I had no clou what would happen in two seconds time – you can't know. But something even better can evolve when you realize that everything is fine.”

He sees the chance to create something out of very little - because everything is there. He argues that even in a performance the seeming absence of something can work very well. I believe that absence does not exist, for me it is only a different kind of presence. When MacLennan was growing up, he felt as “an outsider looking in and an insider looking out”. He said that there were “double-take overlays”, which he now uses. And that he can slip into the dualistic thinking and he can slip out of it. “If I am thinking in a dualistic way, I can feel like an outsider, cause almost all people at a conference have different motors. Some of them maybe come from wealthy backgrounds, I did not come from such background. So I can sometimes feel as an outsider... but then I slip into this other mode” So he can use the mode of being in the present moment and the binary thinking as well. If he feels the need to change mode, in order for a better understanding of the given situation, he enters the frame of binary thinking, but if he feels the limitation of this, he can also move on towards a nondualistic way of thinking.

“Just as we can put on the glasses and take them off. That is often how I think of it. Sometimes I think of the glasses for physical purposes to see. Sometimes I think of the mental glasses, to put on mental spectacles for conceptually based thinking and then take them off. The problem for most of us is that we put conceptual glasses on and are not aware, that we have them on and so we never put them off. So we get trapped by them. “

private and public unfinished business
What makes the art? For MacLennan it is the quality of the interlinks, which means “art is life – life is art”. And he often asks himself why stop at a certain frame? What if we could expand the frame? One aim of his work certainly is to use all the rooms in which he has already been staying and all the rooms which he will enter in the future, as long as he lives.

“If we are a painting, before we know, when we move and go around, we are like a paint stroke. And so we are part of the process of this ongoing art work. So if the quality of the interrelations are important within the frame, they are equally important out of it. You are trying to make it as beautiful as true. Try to make the interlinks you have with whoever and with whatever you need in ordinary living as you would do within the painting. For me, that's it. “

I can only emphasize this - everything is unfinished on one hand, but on the other hand every moment is a completion. According to MacLennan people live private lives and they take this life with them wherever they go. There is a kind of flexibility within the parameters of what we call private and of what we call public, but there are times and situations in which the public becomes private and the private becomes public.

“These inter-fusions of private and public are always unfinished businesses. There are certain things somebody may wish to do in their life, there are still good things to do, there are still good processes to engage in more, these all are unfinished businesses. But also as an artist someone may want to make more comments on political, social, cultural situations and think of the state of politics, or religion, or philosophy, the way things happen. Or, something happens in the society he or she is living in, which is needing improvement, needing development and you might regard that as unfinished business, to be worked on. “


I decided for two reasons to write about Alastair MacLennan. Both reasons were very personal. First, I wanted to know more about how one can find peace within oneself, even as an artist. Although I did not ask Alastair MacLennan this particular question. I am pretty sure, that peace inside a performer is one foundation for a performance practice wich wants to create a deep concentration and energy in space and time - at least at the moment of action. Second, I was searching for an artist who also believes that art is life - life is art. It is important for MacLennan of how we are settled as human beings in the world and as an artist you should take the performance-energy with you outside of the ritual of the performance.

“If we are not hypocrites, we should be able to get on with whoever we meet. So this, for me, would be an aspect of taking the value on the benefit out of the monastery into the everyday where we are.”

The encounter with Alastair MacLennan, opened for me a way to a wider view on my own artistic production and I had the opportunity to go deeper with some issues, which I have already asked myself. My emphasis in this paper is not on the visual result of the art of Alastair MacLennan. I am much more interested in understanding the process of finding a basis for one's own art work and the connection with the processes in life. MacLennan updates his artistic principles as far as possible again and again, and tries to combine them with the more complex context of everyday life.

“I would not see encounter, real encounter as a conflict, I would see it as just being in the situation. Just being in the situation and not separate from anything that is taking place there, that happens simultaneously - simply that. “

For my own practice I learned that you need a network of openness, vigilance and a lack of interest in labeling things and circumstances. I think that we should say simply yes, if someone invites us to share a moment with him or her. “The game” is over when one partner says no, instead of yes. As long as both are saying yes, you can cooperate. It is important to be aware of how you look at situations and that you change perspectives very often. So that things will look different, even the opposite - but there is always the other side of the reality. MacLennan really wants to connect his art to the audience, to be aware of the moment and not think of the audience as such. The artist-audience-relation is based on cooperation in the sense of a poetic network.

“If you are putting something down, just be totally prepared. They can pick up a kind of quality of engagement, this involves something. It is not about entertaining. The quality of engagement - that's it!”

A third interesting point came out of the encounter. Teaching is part of the art for MacLennan, as was our interview itself. For MacLennan his job is to be a mirror in which the student sees his or her reflection. And this is exactly my point of view for my performance art, but till this moment I never thought about it as a principle for teaching, too. But now I think that this is a convincing path for the process of teaching, too. The viewer should be mirroring him or herself in my performance work. I am not willing to give an answer with my art work. I would like to raise questions. The recipient can choose for himself whether he needs an answer or not.


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Alastair MacLennan. 23.01.2010. Ilka Theurich. Plymouth UK

first published in:

Episodi 3
CONVERGIN PERSPECTIVES – Writings on Performance Art
Edited by Annette Arlander