IT is with near perfect symmetry that Rachel Maclean’s exhibition Happy & Glorious opened at Glasgow’s CCA the same day as the kick off of the referendum campaign proper.
Rachel MacLean: Happy and Glorious
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Not because Maclean is going to tell you how to vote. Nor because she might ever tell you how she is going to vote. But this trilogy of recent videos, presented under the auspices of the Generation programme, is the closest to a state of the nation visual arts exhibition you are going to see this year. And what a portrait: ugly beautiful; absurdly, horribly gorgeous; blighted and blasted. Maclean paints a picture of the union, the empire and of class struggle that is lurid and sensational, near hypnotic in its attention to detail and at times post-apocalyptic.
When it comes to native loyalties Maclean, who lives in Glasgow and studied at Edinburgh College of Art, is above all a digital native and she grasps what mainstream politics seems unwilling to admit: that identities, be they national or personal, are fluid, unstable and ultimately unreliable and should not be leaned on or pandered to. Maclean’s world is a universe of its own. Reflecting both globalisation and the unlimited terrain of the internet, its backdrops are constructed both from images of real places and outrageous digital montage, a place where familiar landmarks like Edinburgh Castle or the Finnieston Crane are uprooted and adrift and where historical time has come unstuck in a perpetual now.
Her landscapes are populated by slippery avatars: hybrid creatures as preposterously believable as Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden as Dickensian workhouse pseudo-royalty, David Cameron as a pink-faced and dandified British lion, and Alex Salmond as a periwigged creature that is half unicorn, half Young Pretender. While each of her characters has an often-recognisable voice that is snatched from the internet, from political debates, TV game shows or crummy versions of classic tales, each is physically played and painstakingly lip-synched by Maclean herself in elaborate costume and make up.
The earliest of the three works on show is The Lion and The Unicorn, commissioned by Edinburgh Printmakers in 2012 and set in the handsome Traquair House. Here, in a palette of pastel loveliness offset by rust and blood red, an old monarch who combines the characteristics of Elizabeths I and II presides over an unseemly dispute over a union jack cake. The Lion and the Unicorn paints the uncomfortable fit between the romantic rhetoric and pragmatic politics employed by both sides of the Indy debate and exemplified by David Cameron’s truly awful recitation of Robert Burns against the baying hordes of Prime Minister’s Questions. But if the Unicorn spends much of its time playing an eminently reasonable man, the romantic underpinnings of both nationalisms seep through the film like the blood and oil that bubbles up through its narrative.
A Whole New World, supported by her Margaret Tait Award and premiered at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, takes a much wider world as its backdrop. A polyglot mashup of the legend of St George, it stretches across a ravaged landscape in which the mighty have fallen: a perpetual sunset of empire presided over by a bronzed and embittered Britannia. There is a romantic sub-plot in which a blue-faced ethnic princess falls in love with a foot soldier of empire, who wears a fine camouflage kilt and clerical collar to match his pith helmet. There are echoes of Tarzan and Jane, The King and I and James Cameron’s Avatar. The dragon is both external scourge and vengeful invading army. It might be rampaging British imperialism, but it is also perhaps globalisation laying waste to linguistic and cultural differences. The imperial narrative is not just a British one: Maclean’s aesthetic is omnivorous in its appetites. From the exotic setting of the Prince of Persia video game, via the slaughter of a poppy-filled Flanders field to Disney’s Lion King, it portrays imperialism without end.
Maclean’s newest work is her most technically accomplished. The two screen video installation entitled Please, Sir… in which a prince and a pauper face each other across the gallery is a version of Mark Twain’s story of interchangeable identity for our time melded with a modern Oliver Twist. The pauper is both cockney rebel and ravaged Glaswegian: a Dickensian urchin who sleeps in a snow-tinged landscape beneath a London streetlamp, overshadowed by the Red Road flats. In the background are the great symbols of Britishness: a statue of Queen Vic, a red telephone box and that giant X from the X-Factor are but fallen monuments. In a nod to Glasgow 2014, the pauper is clad in tattered Adidas stripes.
To see all three films together is to see the work’s strengths and weaknesses. There is sometimes a mismatch between the intensity of Maclean’s vision and her ability to realise it and the heterogeneity of her sources can be exhausting. But it is also possible to revel in her audacity and her peculiar tics. In each film the symbolism of food or wine (the pauper drinks blended whisky, the Prince glugs champagne while his court laugh uproariously at the concept of the “weekend” when every day is a holiday) draws on fairy tales of magic transformative potions as well as hallucinogenic drug culture. She does a fine line in repulsive dentistry and shocking noses. The sheer multiplicity of her faces, costumes and identities and the total commitment of her green screen technique is astonishing.
For Maclean, who is not yet 30, to have produced three such complex films in swift succession is more than impressive. There is a concomitant danger, as she is able to muster better resources, that greater thematic coherence and polished production values will come at the price of the very particular discomfort of her earlier work, which seemed so firmly rooted in the untethered strangeness of global internet memes. For the moment though, there is time to revel in Maclean’s powerful channelling of our time and place: Ewan Bremner’s tour de force as Spud in the interview scene from Trainspotting, David Cameron comparing One Direction to the Beatles and modern urchins singing and dancing for Britain’s Got Talent. Not a happy exhibition, but perversely, grimly glorious.
• Until 13 July