Alastair MacLennan

© Alastair MacLennan, EMIT TIME ITEM, 1999. Photo Paul Couillard.

b. 1943, Scotland

Alastair Maclennan was born in 1943 in Blair Atholl, Scotland. He studied at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee from 1965-66; and received his teacher training from the College of Education in Dundee in 1966. From 1966-68, he studied in the USA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he received his MFA. 

During the 1970s and 1980s he made long durational performances in Britain and America, of up to 144 hours each, non-stop, usually neither eating nor sleeping throughout. Subject matter dealt with political, social and cultural malfunction. Since 1975 he has been based in Belfast, and was a founder member of Belfast’s Art and Research Exchange. Since 1975 he has taught at what is now called the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland, and for 11 years ran the postgraduate Fine Art Programme in Belfast. He is curently Emeritus Professor in Fine Art (University of Ulster); an Honorary Fellow from the Dartington College of Art (Devon); and an England 
Honorary Associate from the National Review of Live Art (Glasgow, Scotland).

He continues to travel extensively in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and North America, presenting actuations (his term for performance/installations). In 1997 Alastair MacLennan represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale with intermedia work commemorating the names of all those who died as a result of the political trouble in Northern Ireland from 1969 to date. He is an original member of the European performance group, Black Market International.

EMIT TIME ITEM by Alastair MacLennan

FADO continues its 12-month duration performance art series, TIME TIME TIME, with EMIT TIME ITEM, a new work by internationally acclaimed Irish artist Alastair MacLennan. Famous for his ‘actuations’, MacLennan’s term for his performance installation works, he is a key practitioner in the field of durational performance.

In EMIT TIME ITEM, MacLennan uses the number 30 as a departure point to explore the past 30 years of political and social turmoil in Northern Ireland, known as ‘The Troubles’. The piece will run for 30 hours, presenting a subtly but ever-changing image of 30 place settings at an expansive white table. Like MacLennan’s previous work, this piece deals with political, social and cultural malfunction. ‘The Troubles’ are an ongoing concern for the Belfast-based artist, who represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1997 with an intermedia work commemorating the names of all those who died as a result of the political trouble in Northern Ireland since 1969.

In keeping with TIME TIME TIME’s curatorial focus on duration and its effects in performance, MacLennan will place an emphasis on marking time as his key role as the performer in the work. He writes, “As well as ecology of natural environment, there is ecology of mind and spirit. Each is a layer of the other, interfused, three in one. The challenge for us today is to live this integration. Already we are late. Time we have is not so vital as time we make.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, MacLennan made long durational performances of up to 144 hours each, non-stop, usually neither eating nor sleeping throughout. Since 1975, he has been based in Belfast, and was a founding member of Belfast’s Art and Research Exchange. He is currently a research professor at the University of Ulster, travelling extensively throughout Europe and North America presenting his actuations. MacLennan is also a member of the European performance group, Black Market International.

MacLennan says of his practice, “A primary function of art is to bridge our spiritual and physical worlds… Art is the demonstrated wish and will to resolve conflict through action, be it spiritual, religious, political, personal, social or cultural.”

TIME TIME TIME Interview with Alastair MacLennan

FADO (Paul Couillard): You’ve done a lot of durational performances. What interests you about duration?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I’m interested in the physicality of time. Time is what we all live in and through, so I use time as a medium. In a usual day people (maybe) work for a bit, sleep for a bit, eat for a bit, have some recreation–but if one breaks that pattern and does some kind of ritual work or engages in art activity that takes up the whole of that time–day and night–then different kinds of experiences open up for the individual making the work.

FADO: You’re talking about yourself as a performer?


FADO: One aspect of durational performance is that audiences rarely see the full work. Most people only see a small portion of the overall piece–whether they’re the two-minute tourist or someone who’s very engaged in a piece who stays for an hour or comes several times. What do you hope an audience member takes away from that fragment of the whole?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Obviously if one’s doing an extended piece of work, say for 24 hours, one would expect members of the audience to be there for only a few minutes, or to come and go. They’ll take a slice of the whole of that activity. One hopes that from the slice they will get some implication of the whole work. When we meet somebody on the street, even though that person is 25 or 42 years old or young, we’re seeing only a slice of his or her life, and yet the whole of it is there.

FADO: Do you always do long works?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: No, not necessarily. I’ve been attracted to those, but I also do shorter ones, almost like lecture/seminar-performances, half an hour to an hour, or very short performances, just a few minutes long–work that might seem to be the opposite of the long works, although it’s the long works that people would associate me with.

FADO: You’ve done things as long as 144 hours. Is that your longest work?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, in terms of a live performative event, where day and night there was a concentrated focus on my carrying out a series of ritual actions, non-stop, throughout. That would be the longest, six days and nights. I stopped because I had to be at (another kind of) work starting the next day.

FADO: Do you find it gets harder as you get older?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes and no, but when doing a long piece of several days and nights without eating or sleeping, the hardest point is partway through, during the second or third night. It’s very difficult psychologically to keep going. The body calls out for sleep, rest, sustenance–but if one can push through that, work past this point, work through the discomfort, giving oneself totally to it, it gets easier.

FADO: When we were talking the other day about this kind of work, you asked me if I had ever had a moment during a piece where I thought “why am I doing this?” Has that happened to you?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, that’s the small ‘self’ rebelling against the effort. In the longest ones, I have these queries come up, and it’s a question of just living with them, seeing through them and seeing them through.

FADO: Does that usually happen when there is nobody else around, or when there is an audience there?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: It could happen in both situations. I remember when I was carrying an awkward weight around my neck. It wasn’t heavy, but it caused nausea, and it was very difficult continuing the work feeling this condition. One can get past this by ‘losing’ oneself in the work.

FADO: When you do a series of actions, is it planned out what you’re going to do? Couldn’t you have switched to carrying the weight in a different way, or did you have a particular visual in mind?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: To answer the question in a more general sense, usually there is a skeletal structure, but within that, there is flexibility for development or change. There is always the possibility that something can happen that one has had absolutely no foresight about. Even though one is prepared, to a certain extent, for how things might go, it is possible for some completely unforeseen event to change or challenge the whole nature of the work. One should be prepared to drop the plan if appropriate, and just deal with the actuality of what is there in real time and space.

FADO: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you decide your plan isn’t working and you must try something else?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I recall a situation working with the group Black Market International. I was late in arriving, and had no time to prepare. I had my bags with me but the group had already started. I had time to get there (with the bags), and that was the piece. The work became just being there, somewhere between observer and performer, in transmigration.

FADO: In your longer pieces, other than having some tea or water, you frequently don’t eat or sleep. Is there a reason for that? Have you thought of structuring a performance to allow pee breaks or time to eat or sleep?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There have been some in which I have eaten and slept, but it’s a decision one makes beforehand–will I do this one without eating or sleeping, or will I do this one with breaks every five minutes? etc. It’s an integral part of the planning.

FADO: You seem to like that idea of not eating and not sleeping. Is that about focus?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Partly focus, partly attention. Also, without eating one might not have so many breaks.

FADO: So you can stay in the piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes. Works don’t have to be this way, but for me it’s an integral element, to become totally absorbed by the situation one is in and make that be the food and drink, if you will.

FADO: Is being focused your goal as a performer?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes. I don’t want to be distracted. That wouldn’t be sufficiently challenging or fulfilling to me.

FADO: In EMIT TIME ITEM, I noticed you often seemed to have your eyes closed.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Not totally closed. It probably looked that way; I might have bumped into things otherwise. (Laughs.)

FADO: Actually, somebody who was watching said, “Oh, he has his eyes closed but he’s walking perfectly next to that table without varying; it’s amazing.”

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: They’re nearly closed but not really, they’re barely open. It helps focus.

FADO: The image you were creating in EMIT TIME ITEM encompassed the entire room. A long table cut the room diagonally from one corner to the other, so audience members had to confront this physical reality, and come very close to the table, as soon as they entered the space. The audience couldn’t be completely outside of the image, in a way. Was that distracting for you?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Not at all. The presence of the audience is built into a sense of a range of possibilities and probabilities of how the image of the table and the inclusive performative presence of audience and artist work together.

FADO: I’m wondering about how the audience is affected by being surrounded by the work. In theatre, one usually has a stage, and most visual art is placed in a way that distances the observer. Last fall, 7a*11d [International Performance Art Festival] presented a series of curatorial talks [SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED, 1998], and I was struck by something that came up in a presentation by Slavka Sverakova. She was describing the work of younger artists coming out of Ireland, and one of the directions in which their work seemed to be moving was to make the audience’s role more participatory. For example, she showed the work of an artist who did tableaux, where a picture was taken of him in a particular setting, and then he would ask different audience members to do the same pose in the same setting and have the picture taken–so that the audience experienced the exact same physical situation as the performer. I think there is a trend in performance to increase the audience’s experiential relationship to the work. In terms of your own work, how do you see the audience’s role?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I feel that audience members are spectators too, who can absorb the presence and atmosphere generated in the space. I trust they’ll absorb these without necessarily being (artificially) pulled into the work. I don’t want to force individuals into behaving in pre-coded ways. I would like them, in their own time and way(s), to intuit and absorb what is taking place, and to be there for as short or long a time as they feel they wish or need to be.

FADO: You mentioned the physicality of time as being an important element. What do you think time brings to a piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Our culture is not very good at being with time. There is a tendency to ‘kill’ time, or not to be aware of time–a sense that it’s oppressive. We are also fearful of time passing, of the aging process. Of import is attending to what we’re going through rather than hiding from it, escaping from it or seeking diversion from it.

FADO: One of the things you told me about EMIT TIME ITEM was that you wanted to mark time.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: This work was specifically trying to mark 30 years of “the Troubles”, as they’re called in Northern Ireland. Having said that, the real subject of the work was time, using one hour to stand for one year: so, 30 hours for 30 years.

FADO: The work struck me as being very tight in terms of its formal structure. For example, you were marking 30 years, so you set 30 place settings at a table over 30 hours. One could read very specific meanings into all of the items you used, whether it was the tags like toe tags that you attached to the hat on the table and to your coat, or the contrast of the pigs’ ears and the fish, or the specificity of the place setting of a cup [earth] with water, a candle [fire], and the balloon [air or breath]. I could see a layering of visual metaphors, which is a kind of work that has a long history in terms of visual art or iconography, but perhaps isn’t as common in terms of what one sees on one’s TV set. Do you have specific meanings for each element that you bring into a piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There are a range of different meaning associations that I use with all the elements. It’s not as though the fish or pig ears mean only one thing each. If people could put single definitive meanings on each of the images, and the imagery couldn’t function more evocatively in terms of possible plural inter-associations, I would find that too limiting. I prefer situations where the images can inter-effect or inter-effuse and there are a range of sliding, inter-penetrative and associative linkages between the elements.

FADO: Some of the elements you used in EMIT TIME ITEM are things that you use over and over again. For example, you’ve used fish and pigs’ ears in many pieces. Do those things have very personal meanings as well as whatever collective unconscious or more universal readings might be made?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, they do. I also have a sympathy with pigs and fish, though I eat fish. Fish are considered a Christian symbol: that’s one ideal of the fish. I like using real fish, with the gap between the symbol and the real thing. With an actual fish, because it’s dead, an odour develops. The smell and aspects of temporality are all physically there. I’m interested in the time aspect that is manifested, the stages the body goes through in transitioning its state.

FADO: The pigs’ ears completely changed colour over the 30 hours. They dried out and became quite red; one could see scars developing. You said you have a sympathy with animals. Does it disturb you at all that you’re using dead creatures in your performance?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, it does. Certain aspects of the work are also negative or questioning. One wants an arrow pointing both ways simultaneously–positives, negatives and questionables–to be included and be implicit there.

FADO: Every piece has to have tension to have meaning.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Also, the tendency in our culture of disinclination to listen to self and to others. Pigs are very intelligent creatures, much abused.

FADO: Their flesh is also considered to be one of the closest to human.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Indeed. Then there’s the use of ‘pig’ in western phraseology as a disparaging term.

FADO: Somebody who saw the piece asked me, “Those pigs’ ears–is he trying to say the people who do this are pigs?” That was her first interpretation of seeing that element used in the work. She was one of the students [from an art class at York University] who came. They were all asking questions, wanting to know the exact meaning of each element.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: That’s part of our consciousness, the way we’ve been educated to analyze and take apart a whole situation and then try to reconstruct the whole through understanding the parts. While this methodology has certain benefits, it also has real drawbacks.

FADO: Finding those kinds of meanings can stay very much on the surface.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, and one hopes for more than the sum of the parts–more than basic Gestalt thinking. There’s also a patterning in the work, a visual rhythm that generates its own meaning associations, which include, but to a certain extent have autonomy from, elements used in the patterning.

FADO: You structured EMIT TIME ITEM so that there was a repetitive element to it. You were creating a cumulative effect, so that each place setting looked the same, for example. Or your actions–you had more than one action but they were also repeated, so that in the third hour you might do something and then in the sixth hour you might do it again. Do you find there is a particular meaning or satisfaction that comes from repetition of action?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There can be, although for me it’s not so much the actual repetition of the thing as the way in which repetition is done. I mean ‘way’ not as a noun but as a verb–the nature of the doing and the nature of the being. The state one is in as one is doing the activity, whether it be a repeated action or not, is most important.

FADO: If you were doing a repetitive action, would you try to maintain one feeling, or is it important that the feeling change?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: The feeling can change, but an equivalent relation produces the feeling each time.

FADO: Do you mean the performer’s commitment level?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There’s that–commitment to what’s happening as it’s happening, in the now moment. But also, to give an example from the work: I used clocks at each place setting I was laying by hand–not digital clocks, but ones with hands going around in a circle. They were placed on the table, which the public and I were going round, and the place settings were going round it. Layered circling took place.

FADO: Cycles.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: In a way, the 30 hours of the performance is 24 plus 6, making 30 to match 30 (years).

FADO: When you say “24 plus”, you mean one cycle, ‘plus’?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Cycle within/outwith a cycle.

FADO: It continues. The ‘plus’ suggests that it doesn’t stop there, even though a performer has to decide on a beginning and an end because that’s the nature of the beast.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: A work can last until one is no longer a living, physical human being. I have a piece operating which started in the early ’80s and will physically finish as I die. That is an ongoing work.

FADO: Is that work publicly announced in any way, or is it a private piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: It’s a private piece, but it’s also public.

FADO: I guess it’s public now because you are talking about it on tape!

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: It’s essentially invisible. If I reveal particulars concerning it, it becomes physically clear. I wear black until I die.

FADO: Linda Montano, who was the first artist in the series, has done a lot of work in seven-year cycles–for example, with the chakras–but she has also declared her entire life to be an art piece. So in a sense, every moment of her life is a performance. She told me the reason she did that was because, for her, the important thing about performance is focus or attention. Declaring her whole life to be an artwork gives it a certain intent or focus or attention, to boost it to a different level. So I said to her, “If that’s the case, Linda, you could have come to Toronto and been here for whatever length of time and said, ‘That’s my performance; I lived it.'” But in fact she created a very specific event with costuming and various elements. I asked her why, and she said, for her the event is like the birthday party. Our life is a whole bunch of things, but we still have these particular moments of celebration.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, I understand that. One of the dangers is that words are easy. During the ’70s, the period of conceptual art, on the one hand it was very freeing for many artists, but on the other hand, language lets us off the hook of real commitment, which involves body, mind and spirit as well as words. I see doing live works as celebratory, but also as providing the opportunity to become grounded again in making art as a basis for locating meaning in one’s life. It’s not just a little extra on top; it’s taking everything back to the roots of one’s experience as a human being and examining that again.

FADO: Do you have a stock answer for the question of the purpose of art, or the meaning of art, or why you do art?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: People often talk about the impossibility of definitions of art, and one’s heard that the real value of art is in its not having a value, or the worth of purposelessness. Living in Belfast, one of the things that keeps me here is questioning the purpose of art in a context like this. Here where there’s been a lot of killing since the late ’60s and it’s been hard for some people, and particular families and communities, I ask(ed) myself the question: Is art icing on the cake, not necessary in the first place, or is it actually something much more substantial and deeply needed in our lives? Belfast was a good place to come to terms with questions like that. It still is. For me, art is the demonstrated wish and will to resolve conflict through action. That pertains to working in any medium whatsoever and incorporates the worlds of politics, religion and culture–in any combination, private and/or public.

FADO: As an artist, what is it that attracted you most to performance as a medium?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: The focus on creating relationships in actual time–and, if anything, defocusing from undue attention to the so-called ‘finished’ art object. In performance, real emphasis is on the creativity of being and doing and the inter-relationships involved, in such a way that the work cannot so readily be ‘cut off’ and used as cultural real estate. With particular kinds of artwork, we’ve given undue significance to the ‘object’ rather than to the creativity that goes into the making of the work.

FADO: Commodification.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Commodification of the principles of creativity. There’s a massive discrepancy in understanding. We’re actually clutching at shells and skins and husks of creativity in valuing only the finished object. Very often, the heart of it–the life in it–is gone, so I deliberately place attention on the actual making, focusing on the physicality of time. There’s a superficial and crass understanding of how to value creativity in what is loosely termed ‘the visual arts’ in our culture.

FADO: You’ve used the word ‘ritual’, which is traditionally associated with religion. Do you think there is a spiritual aspect to art?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, I do. In language, the meaning of words alters over time–and spirit is one of those. Spirit is important. Without it, I wouldn’t be making work. I won’t define what that word means; if anything, I’m defined by it.

FADO: The question comes up for me when we’re talking specifically about durational work, because when I look back and try to find examples of cultural events involving somebody doing something for an extended period of time, one of the few places I find that form is in religious rituals.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I’m stating (amongst other things) disappointment with the world of fine art as we know it in terms of its offering any fully satisfactory answers to the questions of what it means to be alive in the world. I also find religion problematic, with its dogmas and frozen hierarchies, though certain processes within differing belief systems could be useful if freed from such.

FADO: Do you ever think of your work as having a message? In talking about something like “the Troubles”, you’re tackling a politically charged issue. But you’re not saying “this side’s right; that side’s wrong.” I don’t think that’s the intention of your work at all.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: First and foremost, one wants to move people, if possible, by the work. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s both/and.

FADO: An artist like Rachel Rosenthal, for example, has very specific messages that she’s trying to get out through her work. It’s a call to arms, in a sense. Your work seems to be more about approaching the tension, maybe giving a picture of the tension but not identifying “this is what’s wrong,” per se.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: What’s important is to try to fuse with what’s going on as it takes place, not being cut off from any situation. Being alive now, we share responsibility for the time we have together, individually and collectively. It’s not a call to arms. I don’t think you can actually ‘force’ people to change their minds. You can ‘lean’ on people to change their lives from the outside in, but it’s only the individual him or herself who can change his or her life from the inside out. I’m more interested in that; it’s a much more fundamental concern for evolution of human consciousness. I prefer not to force people, but to allow them the opportunity to be in a situation, with a situation. One hopes that if the work is even partially successful, they’ll be able to reflect a little while there. There are a range of things one might wish people to reflect on, but I don’t want to pre-fix how and what people should feel and think. I don’t want to force people into believing this or that. They should feel free in relation to that which is there to be considered. Having said that, one does want a core of meaning to be emitted from the work for an audience. That would be part of the aspiration I would have for the work as an artist. Living in Belfast, where many people have very specific religious and political views, one realizes how limited by dogma many such stances are. Most are of the ‘either/or’ variety. One doesn’t want to make ‘either/or’ art; one wants to make ‘both/and’ art.

FADO: Not just replace one set of dogma with another–

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Or have everyone believing he or she’s got the only ‘truth’ and knows what’s good for the public. I think the statement “physician, heal thyself” (before presuming to heal others) is appropriate.

FADO: My last question comes out of that statement. When you do a work, is there a personal agenda in terms of self-transformation or research? Do you set yourself a specific task? Do you do work in order to push yourself?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes. Each work I do has an aspiration. I want it to be the best work I make. There’s a self-generated caution against being complacent. One strives to make the work be as real within its limits as possible. There are aspects of personal change in that.

FADO: One sometimes hears it said of performance: “I’m just doing it for myself and the audience gets whatever they get out of it.”

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: That can sound very blasé. On the other hand, unless one pleases one’s self, how can one hope to please an audience? The audience is looking ‘through’ the performer to get information, entertainment, pleasure, a sense of fulfillment, etc. It’s how one defines self in relation to other(s) that becomes crucial here. If there’s a fluid sense of self in relation to other, there isn’t selfishness. Who is the work for? How is one being used as a conductor through which forces flow to others? What kind of instrument is one allowing oneself to be? There are issues of responsibility here. These are questions one asks oneself in making actuations (performance/installations). One must give oneself completely to the work, and to ‘other.’

Writing Blue

Writing Blue is the smell of interpretation. Composed of materials that many "know", blueberry candy offers a flicker of nostalgia. Grounded in blue cypress like a hunch that comes from speculation, it is the lavender that offers overwhelming explanations.

Top Notes

blueberry candy

Middle Notes

lavender, mens shaving cream

Base Notes

hyacinth, blue cypress