Alastair MacLennan: The most important Scottish artist you've never heard of

'˜Some things don't make the news,' says Alastair MacLennan. He's talking about how in Belfast, at the height of the Troubles, the art school became a kind of haven. Alongside the bombings and shootings, there was another story about the new ways people were making art.

Alastair MacLennan at his Summerhall exhibition

MacLennan is, one might say, the kind of artist who doesn’t make the news. He is more interested in integrity than sensationalism. He doesn’t have a gallery or publicist. Though he is well known and respected as a pioneer of performance art and as a teacher, he doesn’t make a lot of permanent objects. His works don’t get collected, or accumulate in the vaults of big institutions. He might just be the most important Scottish artist you’ve never heard of.

We are sitting in a gallery in Summerhall where his Festival show is partly installed. Soft light floods in through the opaque glass windows. It’s very quiet, very calm. Perhaps MacLennan, who has practised Zen meditation for more than 40 years, brings this with him. Dressed all in black (a decision he made in 1981, a kind of living performance), he has a monastic air and clear, serene blue eyes.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Because of the way his work addresses the Troubles in Belfast, he is the headliner in Summerhall’s visual art programme under the theme To Heal The Wounds Of War, a line taken from the manifesto for the first Edinburgh Festival 70 years ago. Shows like this one, spanning several decades, are rare. It combines his drawings (not usually shown) with installations, objects and documentation of performance works. “I was trained to draw,” he says. “The thing is to find a way to integrate that with the other work.” This is a theme he comes back to again and again. Not opposition; integration.

MacLennan was born in Blair Atholl, Perthshire, the son of a policeman. He studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in the early 1960s, but found it “constricting” and went to Chicago to study for an MFA in 1966. He wanted to find ways, he says, “to look inwards as well as outwards, so you weren’t just representing the illusionistic appearance of something in front of you”. Art for him, he says, was never about career, it was about finding meaning in life.

Several years later in Vancouver, after a time teaching at the progressive Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, he joined a Zen retreat with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese master of Rinzai Zen. For two years, he meditated with the question the master gave him: “How do you realise your true nature when you’re making art?” He meditated daily, made no art, washed dishes in a restaurant at night. “It was agonising. He wouldn’t accept my answers. He was waiting for the subject and the object to be interfused. Then, after two years, eureka, the problem dissolved. That’s the kind of thing that happens in Zen practice, if you manage to overcome binary, oppositional thinking.” He described those years as “a transformative experience. Performance comes out of that too, because you’re not separate from how you’re doing what you’re doing.”

When his father’s death brought him back to Scotland, he took a job teaching in the art school at Ulster Polytechnic (now the University of Ulster) in Belfast. He planned to stay for three years, then head back to Canada. “And I stayed for 42,” he says. “I would never have imagined it”. There was something about the city which energised him: a man who had renounced oppositional thinking found himself living in one of the most polarised cities in the world.

He began to make work about the Troubles. “I felt that you couldn’t avoid it, you’d wake up at 3am with the sound of an Army helicopter overhead, or a bomb going off.” Determined not to take sides, he found himself the object of suspicion, a target for threats. His response was to walk across the city to work with a dartboard round his neck, a walking target. “I knew you could get shot. There were snipers in Royal Avenue. I didn’t know if I would come back. But the principle is more important than getting shot.

“I made the decision not to be intimidated, because art is life, life is art. If you allow yourself to be made frightened to be creative and inventive, in a way you’re denying the creativity that’s in you, and the responsibility you’ve taken on of trying to share it with other people. I don’t know what I’d have done in my life if it wasn’t for art. It’s my vehicle for finding meaning in life.”

In the 1980s, he began to make durational performances lasting for up to 144 hours, in which he didn’t eat or sleep. “I remember thinking maybe I’d better do them when I’m younger – if I was trying to do these things in my 70s or 80s, I’d probably have a heart attack. I was interested in seeing if we could develop other insights into our everyday actuality. I did notice that after you got through the exhaustion aspect, there would be another level of energy you could tap into. Also, you can become so mentally tired, your awareness can move beyond thinking, but you’re still aware, you’re even more aware. I found it very, very useful.”

He continues to make installation-performances, though he’s less concerned with length: “I’m very happy to do 15 seconds, half an hour.” He creates evocative environments using everyday objects. Motifs recur: a long dinner table, black balloons, pigs’ heads, fish. Representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1997, he used prosthetic limbs, like those used by the victims of knee-capping. Often, the names of those killed are chanted or written down. He moves slowly and meditatively through the work, stern, black-clad. One writer described him as “blind man, robber, tramp, shepherd, hunter, witness, poet”. His works exist chiefly as documentary photographs (only rarely on film) and eye-witness reports. MacLennan says: “There’s a transformative aspect, it’s like in poetry. Even in sad poetry, there can be something that transforms agony. I feel it’s really unfortunate the way art’s been commodified. I don’t like the aspect of art as cultural real estate, it makes a lot of people feel alienated, as if it’s got nothing to do with their lives. A lot of people from poorer backgrounds feel like this is nothing to do with them.” Former education secretary Michael Gove’s proposal to remove art from the core curriculum was enough to shatter his Zen calm. “I was horrified. Who, then, would go to art school? For me, it’s not a luxury, it’s a lifeline.”

Today, Northern Ireland today is a very different place. He remembers a painter he knew who worked with the imagery of the Troubles: “When the Troubles stopped he didn’t know what to paint. The thing is not to get stuck, not to become dependent.”

At the same time, many people are still living with the aftermath. MacLennan is an artist guided by compassion: humane, political, economic. More than 40 years ago in Vancouver, Joshu Sasaki Roshi told him that if you can make a difference to one other person, your life is worthwhile. “Emotional levels of trauma are way higher in Belfast than the UK national average. A lot of people are living in very poor economic circumstances, there is a lot of unemployment. The killing, the shooting, most of that is over, but there is quiet suffering. The aftermath doesn’t make the news.”

Alastair MacLennan’s work is at Summerhall until 27 August, with a performance on Saturday at 3pm 
(with Sandra Johnston).