When you first see Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s video work, it might not be immediately obvious that there’s method to the madness. Her newest offering – Spite Your Face, a fantasy film on show at this year’s 57th Venice Biennale – has so much going on, it takes a while, days even, to digest.
The 29-year-old is representing Scotland at the festival, and has chosen as her venue the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, a 13th century church and ex-nunnery in the northern part of Venice. As you walk in, the room is entirely blacked out, with an eight-metre video projection in place of an altar. The film plays on a 37-minute loop, offering up a grotesque, darkly comedic and at times violent reimagining of the Tuscan fairytale, Pinocchio. Cleverly disguised with elaborate prosthetics, Rachel plays all the characters in the film herself, but dubs the words of her script with actors’ voices. Like most fairy tales, it’s a cautionary tale, one about the perils of misogyny, propaganda and capitalist greed, but the messages of Rachel’s narrative quickly become entangled within her structure, which has no real start or end point. This sense of claustrophobia, along with a deliberately vulgar and opulent aesthetic, is what Rachel terms “the new baroque” and it’s like nothing else on show at Venice, or much like any other artist’s work today.
In person, the artist is polite and unassuming. She seems keen to get away from the Scottish Pavilion for half an hour during her busy Venice opening week. Over coffee, the 29-year-old explains that she picked up a camera at a young age, “obsessively filming everything” between the years of eight and thirteen. When she later enrolled at the Edinburgh School of Art, she studied drawing and painting, but found herself drawn back to film. “I knew I loved the filming and editing process, and halfway through college, when I was making a lot of collage, sculptures and mixed media stuff, it felt like too many different things that weren’t connected and that in my paintings I was trying to jam too much in. Then I discovered film collage was a space where I could bring in sculptures as props, mix audio from TV and films as the soundtrack, have a narrative and a composition too – all the things you do in other mediums, but sequenced and compressed. It finally felt like I’d found a nice conduit for all my ideas.” Rachel bought some green paint, painted the wall in her bedroom, and filmed “some stuff” in a clunky first attempt at green screen, technology which she now uses in all her films.
After graduating in 2009, the artist won acclaim at New Contemporaries, and she has since been nominated for the Jarman Award twice. In 2013, she won the Margaret Tait Award, and her solo show Wot U :-) About? was housed by the cultural centre HOME in Manchester last year, as well as the Tate Britain Between November 2016 and April 2017. That work represented Rachel’s penchant for appropriating the visual language of social media and the internet; emojis, cutesy colour palettes and glossy graphics. She explains that while she was also, for a long time, interested in the colours and references of children’s television, the work on show at Venice breaks from the aesthetic slightly (albeit still based on a Disney story); with a more limited and darker colour scheme, she wanted it to feel more Venetian, decadent and rich. The subject matter has moved on slightly too, she says; “Thematically, older work like Please Sir… or The Lion and The Unicorn were specific to the political context of Scotland and the UK. I wanted Spite Your Face to be a development of that, but speak to the wider political situation across Europe and America – the rise of the far right and populism, so dealing with some of the issues I dealt with before in a more general context.”
When she was chosen to represent Scotland internationally in Venice, Rachel had no expectation of being selected. She says she felt “privileged and honoured”, yet her favourite thing about it was the level of freedom and control it gave her – from selecting the venue to deciding how she would present the work. She landed on Santa Caterina when location scouting last Summer, choosing it because the space felt dizzyingly atmospheric – “it was the aura and the history of it, even being in there empty was impressive and I could see how a larger scale projection would lend a drama.” She headed out to Venice again in December 2016 to start writing the script for Spite Your Face. “It was shortly after Brexit and Trump’s election and it felt like a scary time of political uncertainty and upheaval,” she explains. “I was interested in processing that. I was scared by both events and upset by what felt like resurgence of conservatism, misogyny, and anti-immigration. I was also annoyed and disturbed by the casual use of lies in the Brexit and Trump campaigns and the lazy substantiation of political narratives,” she pauses for breath, “so that was going through my head.”
The story of the lying puppet Pinocchio felt like a natural fit for the basis of Spite Your Face, given the setting of Italy for the screening, and given the fact that she was working around the idea of post-truth politics. You can clearly see how this manifests in the film; as the Pinocchio character, here named “Pic” (another nod to social media culture), tells lies his nose grows. “It’s a very clear visual signifier of a lie, but I wanted it to become more complex,” muses Rachel, “so as Pic lies he gains a very phallic masculine power, which then becomes a violent, abusive power.” The film takes as its apex a surprisingly violent rape scene, in which Pic violates the fairy character with his nose, a harrowing reference to the recent rise of misogyny and anti-feminism in the mainstream. The fact that Rachel herself is disguised under prosthetics and makeup as both characters lends extra surrealism. Afterwards, Pic’s nose is severed in a kind of castration. “Because the film’s on a loop, there’s no sense of the cycle concluding, it’s just this horrible cycle that’s got no end, like a mistake that keeps on repeating itself,” she says.
"I was scared by both events and upset by what felt like resurgence of conservatism, misogyny, and anti-immigration. I was also annoyed and disturbed by the casual use of lies in the Brexit and Trump campaigns and the lazy substantiation of political narratives."Rachel Maclean
The process for creating the Spite Your Face was not a simple one. After a process of script writing, storyboarding and costume design in Venice, the ambitious artist returned to Glasgow where she lives and works, in order to start working with costume makers, start casting actors to record the voices of her characters, and consult prosthetics experts. The shoot itself took five days, she says, with her playing a different character in front of a green screen each day. There was a team of twelve on the shoot. After that, it was two months in post-production; taking out the green screen, depositing it, making the backgrounds/ set with CGI, and working with a composer, a soundtrack artist and sound designer. Once that was done, she headed back to Venice to spend a few days installing, getting the sound right and fitting the work to the space. “I think four months is quite quick,” she laughs, modestly. “I wanted the work to feel current, and the political landscape right now is shifting so quickly that I wanted to make something which didn’t take too long start to end, so it was still felt fresh when it came out.”
Politically and aesthetically, Rachel achieved her goal; there’s no denying the film feels of its time, even if it does leave you uneasy. “I like how it makes you feel – the idea of the baroque is that the visually the quantity is overwhelming, so it can be at once beautiful and awesome and also difficult to process,” says Rachel, confidently. “I like playing between those two feelings – drawing you in on a level that’s seductive and taking that so far it tips over into something you can’t handle any more, something that makes you overwrought.” By employing certain tropes of digital media – like showing the film in portrait for example, to mimic the iPhone screen, or by copying the aesthetic of advertising culture – the film speaks presciently to our methods of media consumption. You emerge after into the Venice sunlight feeling dizzy, but perhaps more disturbingly, complicit in Pic’s rise and fall. Particularly if you were a Brexit or Trump voter. As the title suggests, Rachel feels that people who voted for either might have cut off their nose to spite their face.
When asked, finally, if 29 feels young to be representing your country at the Biennale, the artist is ever-humble, pointing out that she would like to “suppose there’s a range of ages, and that’s what’s nice about Venice”. But while she might seem a little shy in person, Rachel’s clearly not afraid to shake her audience – she acknowledges that Venice is her chance to make a lasting impact on an international scale and she’s not taking the opportunity lightly. “I want people to see this, remember it and it have an effect on them. My ambition is to take things that are familiar and twist them and disturb them so that next time you see them think you might think slightly differently.” In other words, she takes our political and social climate and shrewdly reflects it back at us with her dark fantasy worlds. Even if that means placing a familiar Disney character in a rape scene. “I wanted the shock of that scene to penetrate the surface, so yes, it’s powerful, difficult and awkward,” she agrees. “But hopefully that’ll make people think a bit more.”