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The Art of Performance - Andrew McDonald

Date of photography / interview:  19th December 2016

Date of second interview:  2nd March 2018

Andrew McDonald is a painter, designer and, perhaps principally, a performance artist;  indeed, his performance work is probably the most genuinely surprising part of his oeuvre - ‘the maddest thing they had ever seen’ was the reaction of some audience members to one of his early works, The Cone, while others have described his subsequent performance pieces as completely ‘off the wall’.   Wholly individual and original, Andrew’s work undoubtedly adds to the ‘gaiety of nations’. Andrew arrived to London as a young man and when I asked him how he’d perceived it, all those years ago, he says:  “Yes, it was a kind of creative hub, one of several in the country, with a mass of different kinds of venues where art happens. The way London has attracted serious artists from all over the world is one of its most appealing features – it’s full of unpredictable voices and viewpoints. The sheer scale of London’s art scene and the number of people involved means that a responsive audience can be found for a huge variety of creative work, however avant-garde, while one possible downside of the scale of things here is that, amongst so many artists, you can simply get lost.”

The full story:

Having both photographed and interviewed Andrew McDonald towards the end of 2016, I subsequently decided, in March 2018, to get back to him in order to extend the interview.   We met in Andrew’s warm, cosy studio on a day when London was snowbound, with freezing temperatures outside and Spring seeming indefinitely postponed.

Andrew’s studio is located in north-east London, where he is well-known, not only for his extraordinary costumes, objets d’art, and paintings, but also for his remarkable performance art - over the years, he has performed pieces in London, Sydney, Reykjavik, Amsterdam and Vienna.

As the Londoners at Home project developed, I felt that Andrew’s original interview was rather brief so, in order have a better understanding of the background and foundations of his current work, I asked him to tell me a little more about his early days when, as a boy and a young man, he was growing up in New Zealand.

Andrew was born into a family of modest farmers and raised at Langs Beach, in the northernmost region of New Zealand.   His family had Scottish, English and Irish roots, and had settled in New Zealand several generations earlier.   Andrew had two sisters and one brother, all much older than him, for he was a ‘late arrival’, coming at a time when his parents were already in their forties.   He might have been a country boy but his parents were quite liberal in their views, so the atmosphere in their household was therefore rather different from most of the neighbours.  

Andrew’s parents were not farmers originally, but at the time when the New Zealand Government had offered its citizens incentives and cheap mortgages in order to purchase farms, his parents had taken up the offer and moved to Langs Beach.   Andrew observes:  “It might well have been a beautiful part of the country, but the land wasn’t very productive.   My parents had decided to specialise in dairy farming but that wasn’t easy;  indeed, sometimes it was a real struggle for them just to get by.   It was an odd situation to be in:  they had lots of land, yet they were actually quite poor.”   I asked Andrew if his had been a happy childhood and after some hesitation, he continued:  “Well, yes;  or perhaps I should say that I had a mixed childhood.   Often we didn’t have much money at home, and though we did live in a beautiful part of the world, you can’t live on beauty.   Not being able to pay our bills at the local store taught me early on that life in a rural idyll isn’t necessarily easy, or ‘idyllic’.   I revisited that part of the world recently and I realise now, even more, just how beautiful it was, indeed, is.”

“I went to the local primary and, at first, I didn’t like it;  indeed, I liked it so little that I refused to go back on the second day,” Andrew laughs.   “But I did go back, of course, and gradually I made friends.  I would even say that I enjoyed it for most of the time.   Unfortunately, my schooling was disrupted for almost two years when I was nine;  I had to undergo several operations on my hip-joints and this meant staying for long periods in the regional hospital, where I was away from home and from school.   It was a deeply traumatic and painful time and when I eventually got back to school, it somehow never felt the same again - my old friends had sort of moved on without me.   I lost friends and I began to be bullied, because now I came across as being different.   I had become aware of my own sexuality and I confess that I was deliberately beginning to push the boundaries just a little.   I made up my own costumes and I started to dress up.   When I was 10, I even pierced my own ear, in my bedroom, with a block of ice and a needle, while my parents were watching the news on television.   It surely hurt, it took lots of courage and, yes, there was quite a bit of blood, but I was a very determined child.”

“Milan, I don’t remember a particular moment when I consciously, definitely decided that I was gay;  for me, it felt more like a development.  Yes, I was often bullied but at 14 or 15, I just said, ’Fuck You’;  if you insist on calling me names, if you insist on staring at me all the time, so be it;  I am fine with it, there it is, I am who I am.”

Andrew had been so open about his budding sexuality, I asked him how he had discovered the creative side of himself:  “Milan, I think that my artistic flair might have come from my father, though he could only express his creativity in practical applications.   But yes, there was a catalyst, perhaps:  one rather special family moved into our neighbourhood and they became the focus of a lot of local creative endeavour.   They were fascinating and a bit alternative too, you could almost have called them ‘post-hippy’.   Anyway, they brought with them lots of new energy and vitality, and immediately generated a great many initiatives and creative ideas.   The mother of the family became our art teacher and she exposed us not only to what you might call ‘world art’ but also to local Māori traditional art and culture.   I had always seen Māori culture as interesting and while there were Māori children in my school, to be honest, their culture was never the subject of much exploration.   I can’t say that I saw any blatant discrimination, as such, but at that time, of course, the Māori were not treated as equals;  in those days, they were seen as being ‘other’.   It wasn’t explicit racism, but it was only when I was a teenager that the rights of Māori, as members of NZ society, was in any way meaningfully discussed;  only then did attitudes gradually start to shift.”

“In secondary school, initially, I was subject to lots of bullying but by the time I got to15, things had settled down.”   I asked Andrew whether getting through all that, managing to survive, had made him stronger.   Pausing only for a moment, he continued:  “Stronger?   Yes, perhaps, insofar as it made me even more determined to be who I was, determined to survive as best I could without compromising.   Milan, I never accepted the idea that it would have been better for me to keep my desires and feelings locked in, hidden, to live with a dark, inner secret, just so as to make my life easier.   I realise now that that’s exactly what a great many gay and lesbian youngsters do, to make their lives easier.   Could I claim to have had courage?   Perhaps some people might think that, but I didn’t perceive it that way;  for me, it wasn’t bravery, it was simply the only way I could live.”

After secondary school, Andrew applied to go to Art School but he didn’t get in.  This was another traumatic rejection, essentially feeling that he was being told he wasn’t good enough.   But Andrew was determined to progress into Higher Education, so he decided to study the History of Art at the University of Auckland.   There, he also found himself living in a city where he’d very much wanted to be since his teenage years, where he’d long hoped to be able to meet other people like himself, people who made sense to him.  But these things take time and this period was also a time of further self-discovery.   Then, to the great shock and dismay of his family, Andrew decided to drop out of university when he was 19 and returned home.   He had come to the conclusion that he was on the wrong track and had courageously thought that bringing it all to an end was really for the best.

Having consciously swerved off the conventional path, Andrew joined a local arts initiative for the unemployed and this proved to be significant for him - he still thinks of it fondly.   “For me, it was a period of making and living art in the true sense of that word.   I was a queer, post-punky sort of creature, in a small provincial place, drawing huge amounts of attention to myself, but feeling good about it.   I mixed with other people who, like me, were alternative and creative in their approach to life.   Amongst other things, we were taught how to make videos;  we then learned how to work with other, mostly minority, groups, helping them to make videos about themselves.   This was a period when I worked with many diverse communities, learning a lot about the lives of others that I’d never known before - it was a rich and socially engaging time.   It also broadened my sense of the world, of its many peoples, and of the lives these people lead, or are forced to lead by circumstances not of their making.  You could say that I was getting ready to come to London,” Andrew laughs.

And indeed, as a young man of 20, Andrew duly arrived in London.   I asked him if he had felt welcome in London considering that, by then, he was so well attuned to London trends. With a bit of a giggle, Andrew went on:  “Welcome in London?   Well, I wouldn’t say I felt especially welcome exactly.   London gave every impression of carrying on as if I hadn’t arrived at all!   But while London was not all that bothered about me, I have no hesitation in saying that I felt, right away, that this was it, this was the place that would allow me to be me, to be who I am, as a person and as an artist.   Of course, I was hoping that this would be the case, that was what had attracted me to London in the first place.   Everything I admired and had been excited about had emanated from London during the seventies and early eighties.   London was the place I wanted to identify with, the place where I wanted to be!”

Andrew continued:  “I moved into a squat in north London and it was there that I met people who were actually performers.   I began making costumes for them, and backdrops, and I was soon involved on the margins of their performances too.   I also got involved with the Anarcho-syndicalist politics of the time.   Living there was a crucial part of my education, in a way, a process of my learning about people, politics and society;  at the same time, it was all bound together with music, dance and all sorts of other creative endeavours.   It was at that time when I started to perform myself, in a small way, and gradually, as my confidence grew, I started to dress up, and to dance.   I also learned to work with others, to interpret their work, and to react to their ideas.”

Andrew also made his way back into HE, continuing his studies at the London College of Fashion, and later studying Design at the Royal College of Art.

Andrew’s large paintings have repeating themes, where strange, chimera-like creatures, often with horns and hooves, frequently make their appearance, combining two, perhaps even three different entities, seemingly engaged in a struggle to separate yet somehow knowing that they are bound together eternally.   This theme of duality reappears in other media (like the Double Dress Project) and it seems to manifest a kind of deep awareness that though we may all be striving to be free, we are at the same time interdependent beings, always.   These powerful works also illustrate the struggle that is within us all, the struggle to reconcile conflicting desires, needs, hopes, and visions of the future with the other side of ourselves, either devilish or angelic, which is pulling us in a different direction.

Andrew’s performance art is perhaps the most surprising part of his oeuvre - some might even describe it as ‘off the wall’.   As a private individual, Andrew is astonishingly reticent, shy even, but once he takes on the development of a concept or the exploration of a novel creative avenue, he metamorphoses into a truly memorable performer, where the audience often becomes a part of the work and the direction of the piece can be determined by people’s responses to him or simply by the particular site or circumstances in which they all find themselves.   “In my performance art, I also try to explore this duality, the two sides of oneself, and by provoking a reaction from the observers, one is in a position to uncover those vulnerabilities and strengths (in me and in them) that would otherwise remained concealed.”

I asked Andrew what had been his first solo art performance:  “Milan, I am hopeless at remembering the years when I did this or that but I think it would probably have been during 2007, at my original studio in Stoke Newington.   I called it, The Cone.   The cone was a wearable object representing sound transmission and the reception of radio waves. I was dressed as both a receiver and a transmitter and my dance created sound interferences.   I had a clear idea about the sound elements of it all but the rest was pure, spontaneous improvisation.   The audience seemed to love it, though some reportedly called it the maddest thing they had ever seen;  others were not quite sure what to say about it.   From that experience, I knew that I was able to do it, that I could hold the attention of an audience and, above all, put my ideas across in my own way.   This performance was followed by:  As if in a Dance, as if in a Dream;  the Double Dress Project;  Always Water;  Who’s Looking?;  The Fool Comes Dripping;  Show and Tell;  and HorseBirdDog.     

In his performance work, Andrew often uses body painting to remarkable effect.   “Most paints are derived from ground-up minerals, pulverised earth of some description, and I like the feeling of these on my skin;  they dry and crack like parched earth, and they glitter and reflect the sunlight.”   This affinity with nature, and the need to be close to the earth itself, flows perhaps from Andrew’s deep, innate empathy with, and respect for, Māori culture - a strong influence during his boyhood.   “I was fortunate in having teachers who influenced me profoundly towards an understanding and appreciation of this Pacific culture, closely connected as it is to earth, land and sea.”

I asked Andrew what was the source of his current inspiration:  “Milan, this is a very creative time for me just now.   I am not clear in myself what I am doing, which is usually a good sign.  I’m doing lots more sculpture and small acrylic studies in paint, and then putting these two together.   It is early days yet but, gradually, it’s starting to take shape.   I am also considering the creation of another wearable sculpture and that might have the possibility of developing into another performance piece.”  

Andrew had arrived to London as a young man and when I asked him how he’d perceived it, all those years ago, he says:  “Yes, it was a kind of creative hub, one of several in the country, with a mass of different kinds of venues where art happens;  for instance, there were temporary alternative spaces for performance, including bars, pubs and cafes, as well as the more formal performance spaces.   The way London has attracted serious artists from all over the world is one of its most appealing features – it’s full of unpredictable voices and viewpoints.”   Andrew goes on:  “The sheer scale of London’s art scene and the number of people involved means that a responsive audience can be found for a huge variety of creative work, however avant-garde, while one possible downside of the scale of things is that, amongst so many artists, you can simply get lost.”

Something is quite certain:  Andrew McDonald is by now an established name in the world of London artists, someone who will continue to break new ground, and to push the boundaries ever further.   Thinking this, and wishing him well, I left his nice warm studio and plunged into a freezing-cold, gloomy London afternoon.   He is certainly one Londoner who enhances the immense diversity and rich colour of our great city, someone who most definitely adds to the ‘gaiety of nations’.  

Text edited:  23rd March 2018

You are invited to view a selection of Andrew McDonald's past and current work, his performance art, and also a selection of prints for sale, via the following link:


Page modified: 22nd April 2019