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The Vacuum Issue 1 spacer Issue 1
Knot Naught: Alastair MacLennan A Retrospective Ormeau Baths Gallery, 23rd January - 1st March
by Colin Graham
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What is an actuation? It's what Alastair MacLennan does, and it's a more dignified word than 'happening', which has a hippyish, sixties feel about it. MacLennan is a performance artist of international repute and the retrospective of his work at Ormeau Baths Gallery is a good chance to ask yourself what an actuation might be, and whether you'd want to be at one.
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Knot Naught Alastair MacLennan A Retrospective
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Whatever MacLennan's artistic ideas and visuals might say, a major part of his art is apparently simple endurance. The exhibition is mainly made up of photographs of 'actuations', and the information on each includes an admiring note of how long they lasted (6.5 hours non-stop, for example, or 144 hours non-stop, in the most extreme case). Seeing the photographs of these events gives little sense of what it must have been like to be there. The exhibition often appears to give snapshots from a story that MacLennan is unfolding in each piece. But you won't be able to put those stories back together again from what you see at the Ormeau Baths. Having myself witnessed MacLennan in action in England I only know that he is capable of day-long inaction of the most surreal type - surrounding himself with long branches, string, and dead fish, he looked like someone fishing for common sense in a Salvador Dali painting.
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The Gallery's blurb for the exhibition points out the curiosity of having on show pieces of art which are finished and gone once the artist has ended the performance. They're right; you had to be there, though some of the photographs do give you a good sense of audience reaction, which ranges from the frankly bemused to those who cover up their confusion by rubbing their chins knowingly. And his audiences react in this way because MacLennan's ideas sometimes seem a mish-mash, an arbitrary collection of the lost and found, flotsam and jetsam. It's only when you get half way through the exhibition and see repetitions in what he does that it begins to take on some meaning. He has an odd sense of a party, for example, setting out long tables with white clothes, plastic cups, black balloons and the obligatory fish, all looking like a corporate nightmare version of the Mad Hatter's tea party. Later on, the same table and balloons appear, this time with an architectural mound of black soil. His most striking piece, for me at least, is one in which he doesn't appear. In 'Naming the Dead' he tied pieces of paper with lists of those killed in the Troubles to Ormeau Bridge. The photographs show people stopping to read the lists. Because it was May 1998, when Northern Ireland was voting on the Good Friday Agreement, there is a real sense of a true 'happening' taking place. So that's what an actuation is.
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