The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University, Belfast

In partnership with Bbeyond and supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute the Naughton Gallery commissioned four Polish and two Belfast-­based artists to present performances on the campus.

In 1981 Zbygniev Warpechovski (b. 1938) delivered a memorable performance on the subject of Solidarity being crushed by the totalitarian regime at the Art Research Exchange in Belfast. His 2009 performance juxtaposed dreams about poems with dreams about a young muse (performed by Kinga Kedziora) expressing an anguished faith in creativity. Back on Earth, Jerzy Beres (b. 1930) offered the traditional Slavonic gestures of sharing (splitting a log) and greeting (a glass of vodka) as signatures for friendship. Jan Swidzinski (b. 1923) reduced his gestures to two movements of hands, and conjured a merry-­go-­round of ambiguity from four words: was it Life? Art? Beginning? End? Waldemar Tatarczuk (b. 1964), wrote words with fallen leaves on a pathway, using his foot: ‘It was, It is, It will not be.’ The leaves and the words ceased to be two separate phenomena in an induced metaphor for cycles of being. Through the fellowship of poetry with love, friendship with sharing, life with art, death and renewal, a concept of togetherness emerged.
The performances by Sandra Johnston (b. 1968) and Alastair MacLennan (b. 1943) evoked still different kinds of togetherness. Their collaborative practice (mode of togetherness) came about by chance: as a response to an organizational error during the Borderline project in Timisoara, Romania, in 2009. There were two artists and only one slot. That experience motivated their performances in Belfast: Stillest (in two parts) and Gust to Dust.

Alastair MacLennan and Sandra Johnston: Stillest and Gust to Dust. Performances at Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast, October 2009. Images courtesy of
Alastair MacLennan and Sandra Johnston: Stillest and Gust to Dust.
Performances at Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast, October 2009. Images courtesy of

Part 1 of Stillest involved the barefoot performers holding a pig ear in each hand and each pushing a fish, very slowly, from one end of the black and white tiled floor to the exit door. Dressed in matching black trousers and tunic they meandered towards and away from each other. Johnston later remarked that the fish kept sliding into proximity with the other one.

Stillest part 2 in the Senate Room, with the audience seated along the walls, switched from synchronised to parallel actions, and at a poignant moment, to an interaction. Divided by a row of tables, the performers delivered their solo actions. Johnston could not see MacLennan at all; he could only see her silhouette against the windows.
MacLennan balanced a large tree branch horizontally on his head; Johnston pressed a glass of water against her neck, approximately against the thyroid gland: gestures related to energy levels. She managed to do this for almost an hour, a remarkable feat of will (when I tried it at home, I started choking in seconds). The mind and body forged a double bind: intention controlled the will, the will invented skills that controlled the body: a matter of holding it still, overcoming natural reflexes, or simply avoiding failure. This togetherness requires complete abandonment of dualism, and of the neat division between perception, cognition and action, of any separation between thought and embodied action.
This mental investigation into how quickly the body uses energy then switched from the two separate actions to one that involved both performers at once: Johnston turned and moved slowly towards MacLennan while he continued balancing the branch on his cranium. The vacuous frozen gestures of both arms functioned as counterweights to the heavy unwieldy load, keeping his neck and head steady. Johnston placed her glass of water in one of his hands, the hand that was engaged in sensitive balancing. The continuous componential thought process (do not let the branch slip) was opened by a ‘catch and toss’ thinking, the source of which was Johnston’s interaction. She altered one part of the chain of MacLennan’s action with asynchronous input behaviour, utterly unexpected in relation to her previous solo action. She prompted an adaptive process that forged emergence of functionally valuable side effects, like softness, gentleness, caring, giving, sharing, giving up, cooperation, collaboration, working together, etc. This was togetherness of brain and body, body and mind, thinking and feeling, calling for more than a componential explanation, which would be insufficient in the face of the emerging values, continually at risk of failure.
In a mute, stationary, durational performance Gust to Dust, given later outdoors on the lawn, the two performers held a large tree branch each (cut from MacLennan’s garden). The body appeared to be extended by the branch soaring vertically up. Incredibly they manage to carry the weight for the better part of an hour. Freeing their hands at the end, they scattered seeds into the wind.
These performances involved unimaginable physical discomfort for the artists, placing their bodies amongst the ‘cognitively inert’ creations, like rocks and volcanoes. This remnant of dualism was swiftly undermined by making dead fish, pigs’ ears, tree branches, and water into components as essential as the bodies and minds of the two artists. These selfreflecting universes wiggle out of traditional analysis, reminding us why the study of creativity had to expand to include neurology.
If I were to apply one context only, I would interpret these performances as metaphors for life in Northern Ireland, the fish relating to its livelihoods and religion, the branches cut off and difficult to balance relating to fragmentation, alienation and loss of coherence. The emerging values of togetherness signal the chance of better life.
Aiming took place 22-24 October 2009.