Aligning 2: Alastair MacLennan & Sandra Johnston

The Customs House, South Shields
26 June - 26 July 2015

Aligning 2 began with five-day collaborative performances based on drawing processes, developed by both artists working simultaneously in the Gallery from the 22 to 26 June. The performances evolved daily between 2pm-4pm, working from different rules, structures and materials, gradually focusing as an installation of residues that now remains exhibited until the end of the installation period.

The collaborative relationship between MacLennan and Johnston has evolved since 2009. To date they have produced several site-responsive performance artworks together for various contexts in Romania, Canada, Poland, USA, Italy, Ireland and the UK. An ongoing experimentation with drawing processes has underpinned the creative practices of both artists, sustaining their interests in acute observation from life and also more abstract concerns of contemplation, ritual, chance and variation.

Viewers were able to engage with the working processes as they emerged and were considered. During this, the total environment of the Gallery space was constantly subjected to change. The drawn traces have become a conduit for evidencing many aspects of the relationship between the two artists, synchronicity and divergence of the two bodies moving in space, sometimes in tandem, sometimes apart. These moments of connection and vitality within their shared concentration has also, by extension, facilitated a gentle reciprical connection between themselves and each person who came to observe, seeing ourself in the other and visa versa. The energy, inward / outward experienced, in the space / place by both artists, simultaneously, is what informs their (ongoing) drawing.

The week-long collaborative performance began with them arriving with a set of materials and objects that they wish to use in some way during the performances – materials which have a long history and have been ‘used’ by the artists in many performances at other venues across Europe and the US. However it is important to note that these materials were used in new, fresh and open ways. Some materials were generously donated by fellow artists in the NE – such as the fragments of shoes washed up on the shores of Holy Island (kindly lent by artist Sally Madge) and others collected from the locality in a bid to bring something of the place to the performances and final installation.

Both artists began their careers as painters and the final installation here has been arrived at by following some of the same processes involved in making a painting, where a mark laid down is either, left, removed, reworked or retraced until the artist is satisfied that the painting has reached a conclusion. In a similar way, the performances during the week began each day with a ‘recipe’ of possible actions the artists wanted to explore within the surface and three dimensional space of the gallery and in so doing some permanent traces were developed and then remained, whilst others were discarded or left in their original state.

This process could also be compared to the interaction between musicians within an improvised session, where one musician may play a chord and the other responds (for example, in jazz, there are often intense solo improvised passages to which other musicians will respond). Similarly, what we are left with here, are the poetic and visual traces of an intense and often very personal dialogue between two artists; a kind of improvised exploration of ideas, thoughts and emotions. Drawing is fundamental to both artists’ practice and some of the traces left from the performances could directly be linked to a form of mark making – to drawing; drawing an action, drawing a breath, drawing a walk, drawing a gesture, individually or collaboratively.

However, what was hidden from the installation, were the many performative actions where drawing is more of an ephemeral mark than a permanent trace – as it has taken place and therefore, become a part of the installation’s ‘history’ and thus only existing as stills taken on camera, as a silent and motionless ‘act’. When making this work, both artists concentration is total, absolute and focused – a little like Zen or Meditation.

Over the period of the performances many visitors came to observe the interactive dialogue between the artists. Some came initially expecting only to stay for 10 or 15 minutes but became so engrossed in, and captivated by, the physical intensity and poetry of the silent physical discourses that they stayed for the whole two hours. Some of these visitors were new to performance art and their comments below demonstrate the powerful impact these events had on them.

Performance Art is a relatively unexplored area for the visual arts at The Customs House – and the installation of the traces of a performance is, generally, a new way of presenting this work. The traditional format for performance art is that it happens as an ‘event’ or ‘experience’ seen only by a closed audience, and all traces of the performance are taken away at the end, so nothing remains. This means that only a relatively few number of people get to experience this activity. What we have tried to do here, however, is to allow the performances, through the material traces left, to come together as a transitory record of an important event and to be seen by a broader audience. A selection of comments from visitors to the performances:

“Energising, intense, terrific and magical”

“Goodness, a really powerful performance – we didn’t know what to expect – moving, powerful, gentle, aggressive, delicate, noisy (but no sound), quiet – all of these and more – opened our eyes to Performance Art!”

“Excellent, meditative – loved it!”

“lovely enriching experience – thank you for making me a part of this emotional journey”

“Excellent, subliminal, deeply moving. Inspired to create / work on my own work, thanks!”

“Very inspiring – the real deal, I feel so privileged to have seen this…the best things I’ve ever seen!”

“So pleased to have experienced this performance. Thank you”

Photography by Phillip Wilkinson

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