Alastair MacLennan/ Rose Frain at Summerhall

Publication: The Times.  
August 2017

Two shows at Summerhall stand out for their excellence, minimalism and elegance. Both engage, in quite different ways, with political and military violence employing an aesthetic of ‘beauty and truth’ in order to make their point.

Alastair MacLennan, an Irishman and graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, has for decades now, been regarded as one of the most talented and profound performance and visual artists of his generation.

His work has evolved markedly but has always kept its course – Zen-derived, slow-paced, quiet and dignified. MacLennan combines performance, object-based installation, and drawings, into what he calls Actuations.

Such an amalgam allows for an expansive vocabulary, which includes oblique commentary on the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’.  In one, a series of newspapers from the province forms an installation. Each numbered newspaper is presented in Perspex so that the work can be read while walking; on one side, which has been darkened like a black-board, are chalked the words ‘BLACKOUT’ while the obverse remains intact.  Such a work speaks of fear, censorship and political manipulation.

MacLennan, influenced by the arte povera movement, uses discarded materials and objects are part of his artistic lexicon: spectacles, lenses, polythene, branches, netting and peat all make an appearance here. In his Actuations, MacLennan makes frequent use of such material, which he often attaches to his body. Attired completely in black, MacLennan moves painstakingly, deliberately and with scrupulous choreography. His performances contemplate and challenge our time-based existence.

Rose Frain has also been influenced by arte povera but unlike MacLennan, most of her objects are not found, or used. They are, rather, procured and here, in many cases, they originate from the British Army.

Frain’s work offers a complex critique of political, military and cultural structures, presented as room-based installation, which makes use of storage cupboards, walls and careful lighting. Within the freshly-painted grey environment Frain explores British military involvement in Afghanistan. It is not a simplistic anti-war protest, but is, instead, carefully nuanced.

One wall is dominated by rows of emergency signalling mirrors; the fragmented reflections of the audience suggest we are all somehow implicated in such military mis-adventures.

In another part of this work, a display of military rations, reflects the multi-ethnic, multi-faith composition of the British armed forces, thus signalling another layer of complexity.

Frain tackles the difficult case of Marine A, tried and sentenced for the murder of a wounded Taliban. She comments that “[her work] references the ambiguities and moral dilemmas of the Alexander Blackman case and the radical vulnerabilities of the human subject.” Here her focus on the language of the battlefield (the ‘c’ word), used under great duress, takes her into the controversial territory of Germaine Greer and radical feminism.

These artists demonstrate the continuing capacity of art to take on some of the great moral and social dilemmas of our time and to deal with them with subtlety and force.