Alastair MacLennan,Lie to Lay, 2017

Published on the occasion of the exhibition Air A Lair,organised by Summerhall, Edinburgh ( 2nd August -24 September 2017) the catalogue contains brief tributes by Richard Demarco, Dominic Thorpe, Paula Blair, Roddy Hunter and Brian Patterson. and a substantial, insightful, erudite  essay  Drawing Breath  by the co-curator Dr Sandra Johnston. It connects numerous invitations to perform  abroad with Belfast where he keeps a permanent studio. His  performance art  developed early  when he briefly lived in United States and Canada, before he came to Belfast in 1975 and stayed, frequently  flying out to international gatherings, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere. One memorable exception was a collaborative performance with Adrian Hall and Andre Stitt in New Zealand, who have lived in Belfast  decades ago.

The catalogue contains  twelve drawings and stills from sixteen different performances. Roddy Hunter muses about the difference between the two,  Drawing remains, drawings remain, while connecting the ephemeral with stability of marks on paper with what action and drawing have in common: “… eyes closed but the mind still sees” and “drawing without seeing, without knowing”(p 41). Facing Hunter’s text is an image of two I- Ching’s hexagrams: 51(The Arousing) and 64(Before Completion), a reference pertinent to MacLennan’s drawings made in 2016. They all share one condition that derived from  I Ching:  29 strokes, a condition MacLennan adhered to in all drawings made in 2016.

Both the drawings and MacLennan persistent devotion to “a precise rule”  are given sustained attention in Sandra Johnston’s  nine columns that forge a kind of panorama of his art practice:  She cites MacLennan’s view that precise rules offer a means of working inwards, beyond the aesthetic consequences that emerge on the page” (p4) The formulation presupposes very narrow concept of aesthetics and  a guaranteed easy split up of aesthetic experience into  “what emerges on the page” and its consequences, both somehow privileged if the artist uses a precise rule.  This view presupposes that only a precise rule can make art open- ended. It puts unreasonable trust into a stability of  the “aesthetic consequences that emerge on the page” during the creative process. That page, an object, is not only forbidden to embrace a chance, but it keeps being governed by that precise rule to condition our experience. Whereas, there is a tacit agreement that  all art suffer an open end, a poetic force which   no “precise rule” can guarantee.

However, it may be a matter of Brechtian rejection of catharsis  and of commitment to feelings that do not culminate in any kind of cleansing or irritation or anger.  In other words aesthetic categories linked to feelings that are good in diagnosing definite need but not definite means to satisfy that need.

Aesthetic categories are growing  with and out of art practices constantly, continuously.  This has been recognised:  J. L. Austin noted in “A Plea for Excuses” that the  classic problems are not always the best site for fieldwork in aesthetics: “If only we could forget for a while about the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.”

In 2011,  Sianne Ngai, a professor in the English department at Stanford University wrote

 The book I’m currently completing is on the contemporary significance of three aesthetic categories in particular: the cute, the interesting, and the zany.” 

Johnston’s  assertion  that  MacLennan’s  “precise rules” the “working inwards”  lead to  “side-stepping one’s own preconceived formulae and aesthetic preferences, an inner battle with complacency”(ibidem) appears to align with Ngai’s explanation of zany as pertinent to performing:

While the cute is thus about commodities and consumption, the zany is about performing. Intensely affective and highly physical, it’s an aesthetic of nonstop action that bridges popular and avant-garde practice across a wide range of media: from the Dada cabaret of Hugo Ball to the sitcom of Lucille Ball. You could say that zaniness is essentially the experience of an agent confronted by—even endangered by—too many things coming at her quickly and at once.(

Johnston quotes MacLennan’s thinking about Hexagram 29 in the I Ching: it is called The Abysmal (Water). It sets an example of action in “dangerous” situations …not avoiding any dangers… retaining its own “essential” nature… being  thorough … and moving on. She enlivens the discussion with her memories of tutorials, in which MacLennan  instilled in her the ability to perceive how and that  “unattended things can hold the veracity of the process”(p9). Meticulously, and carefully,Johnston links drawings to performances and concludes:  “…the act of drawing is also present  in the continuity of his  movements as lines in motion over time…”(p10). Based on some duo performances,  she invents a category of “ feral imagination” as re-occuring characteristics, illustrated by Drift 3(2014): “MacLennan stood on a crossroads between one of these thin, white erratic seams intersecting the grey beds, one leg either side of the line. Positioned on his head was the weathered corpse of the seagull….” She acutely pointed to the absurd simultaneity of ordinary(dress)  and “derelict and pagan”  item  offering the reader a beautiful thought: “Humility is key to how the work informs in the present tense, responding to the immediate moment through attrition and ‘poverty’ of means, replaced instead by a valuing of small gestures.”(p14) That is one way his art works as in this image from Bbeyond Monthly.

In the other way,  he encumbers his body by “various burdens” as if ” …to create a space of protection around this ‘innocent’ object.”  (p15) This appears in sharp contrast to his erasing (blacking out)  the “lived” days from his diary  – as in ‘what you cannot remember becomes irrelevant’.

From the performance in front of the Queens University in Belfast 2o12, Photo Juergen Fritz

May be  the protecting is an offering to the forces of forgetting, like a prayer or like lighting a candle.

p 25 of the catalogue – photo by Monika Sobczak

“Contemporary zaniness is not just an aesthetic about play but about work, and also about precarity, which is why the threat of injury is always hovering about it.” (Sianne Ngai)



The drive to adorn the head he shares with the purist  instinct well documented  in nature.

Festival Corporea, 2017 -accessed on their webpage

Those additions are not just to camouflage, adorn, play with … they are essential synecdoche for ancestry and future generations.   In human edition they often appear as a part of power game. Getting some advantage.  Getting others to give something, share something.

In Finland’s Nuuttipukki tradition men dress like this and go around demanding food.

The deer demands predictable  future for its genes.

Both are directing their sign to the future of the species.

MacLennan  finds his objects both by chance and planning –  for similar end: the future  couched in unremarkable natural objects  whose main role is to signify equivalence between art and nature, between work and creativity.

accessed on his web page


2016 -Ulster Museum, photo Jordan Hutchings

He  often appears handicapped – to minimise the possibility of hierarchy assumed between a seer and the rest.  Instead the visual  experience is constructed by the paradox: a man in ordinary daily dress carries useless object and paints one lens of his glasses black an inhibition for seeing clearly.   Instead of glaring visual acuity  he offers the seeing less. The whole issues a warning  that the substance consists of   the summary of praxis and play, ordinary and mad, useful and imagined, all in not known  proportions. The idea is reminiscent of Plato’s Demiurge in Timaeus  – cutting, weighing, mixing similarities and differences.    Even if it fails, it still makes an impact by rejecting the expected.


Note: If and when I find the missing acknowledgement for the photographs I accessed on the internet, I shall amend it here. Sorry.









About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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