Interview: Rachel Maclean on representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale

Rachel Maclean is representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale
Rachel Maclean is representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale
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As Rachel Maclean prepares to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale, the artist talks to Susan Mansfield about her new film Spite Your Face, which is inspired by the story of Pinocchio and the realities of our post-truth times

There’s something more than a little unsettling about Rachel Maclean’s films. The candy colours, the Disney-Princess-meets-Bride-of-Chuckie characters, the kitschy sing-along music, well, it’s all a little too much. Like candy floss, you crave it, and then after a few mouthfuls, you’ve had more than enough.

The artist smiles, thoughtfully. “I’ve always been attracted to maximum aesthetic. I’ve never really had a desire to boil things down to their essence. I like the feeling of there being something quite excessive about the worlds I create. I think very often they are saturated, seductive worlds that push the saturation a bit too far, so it becomes something which is more difficult to tolerate. I like that feeling of push and pull.”

In Scotland’s up and coming generation of contemporary artists, there can be few with a more instantly recognisable style. Although she’s just 29, Maclean’s work has already been shown on major platforms – British Art Show 8, Tate Britain (as part of the Art Now series), Frieze Art Fair – and she is currently preparing to represent Scotland at the art world’s biggest jamboree, the Venice Biennale.

On 13 May, her new film, Spite Your Face, described as “a dark Venetian fairy tale”, will be unveiled in the fading baroque grandeur of a deconsecrated church, Chiesa di Santa Caterina, in Cannaregio. Commissioned by Scotland + Venice, the show is curated by Richard Ashrowan of the Borders-based Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, and has been made in partnership with Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery where it will be shown on its return to Scotland. Maclean says she is “excited” about the venue, where the film will be shown in place of an altarpiece. “A lot of my work is responding to context, at times physical context, at other times a political moment; it felt nice that it’s not a white cube.”

Maclean is relatively unusual among contemporary artists in her determination to engage with a wide public, and address live issues in her work, from narcissism in social media to the rise of nationalism. Critic Patrick Langley described her works as “at once entrancingly strange and disturbingly familiar. They exaggerate pop culture in order to reveal its underlying absurdities, heightening our awareness of reality rather than providing fanciful distraction from it.” All that candy-floss has a serious intent, and more than a few razor blades in it.

She says: “I’m interested in politics, and in talking about things that people can connect to and relate to, that are not too niche. I think art can give us a different way of understanding things, and also be a critical voice which hopefully offers new ways of thinking. I think very often, in a small way, art can change the way you see the world.”

Maclean wrote the script for Spite Your Face in Venice last December, when Britain was still reeling in the wake of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. The city – at its most tourist-free and atmospheric – found its way into the work she was making. “It was really amazing to be there for a couple of weeks at that time of year when it’s quieter and colder and spookier. I became really aware of the wealth there, the luxury consumption and the glitter, and also that sense of water reflecting light. It’s quite a glittery film.”

Wandering around Venice, she was struck by the ubiquity of Pinocchio, the puppet figure from the Italian folk tale about the boy whose nose grows when he tells a lie, and she realised she had found the perfect fairy tale for the post-truth world. “I was interested in the rise of the Alt Right, and in what felt like a sudden shift in the political landscape, the rise of nationalism in Britain and the US and other nations in Europe. I got interested in exploring some of the ideas around post-truth, and what was happening in the political landscape, but feeding that into a fairy tale setting so it becomes more abstracted.”

Maclean grew up in Dollar, Clackmannanshire, the daughter of two art teachers, and spent “a good six years of my life making stupid films” with her dad’s home video camera. She says the music videos, comedy sketch shows and computer games of her adolescence all feed into the aesthetic of her work today. “I think my first experience of Venice was in Tomb Raider,” she laughs. “I still feel Venice looks a bit like Tomb Raider sometimes, which is probably not something I should admit to.”

At Edinburgh College of Art, after a stint of making paintings “with way too much happening in them”, she discovered green-screen film-making, now widely used in Hollywood, which allows collaging of images and backgrounds, and realised she had found a place which could contain everything she was interested in: the kitschy pop-art aesthetic, the home-made costumes, the Cindy Sherman influenced enthusiasm for dressing up. “There’s only really so much you can cram into a painting, whereas a film feels like a space that can hold a lot.”

She still plays all the characters in her films, though the costumes and prosthetics are increasingly sophisticated, transforming her into everything from Disney-esque princesses to cyborgs and grotesque old hags. “I’ve recently found that I really enjoy playing quite grotesque characters. Especially as a woman, you spend so much time feeling like you have to make yourself look good, intentionally setting yourself up as something grotesque is fun and weirdly freeing.”

She has played characters from stories and from life, from Tarzan and Jane to, um, David Cameron. “Yeah, I quite like playing arrogant men,” she smiles. “Jeremy Paxman was quite good fun. I like playing with that idea of power, that you’re effectively stealing somebody’s voice and pressing it into a different context. I’m quite interested in the power that’s in a voice, and stealing it and reusing it, altering that dynamic of power.”

Since graduating in 2009, her films have grown in length and complexity. Instead of cutting and pasting voices, she increasingly writes scripts and works with voice actors. Background, animation and colour-grading is added in a meticulous post-production process. A team of more than a dozen people worked on Spite Your Face. But Maclean welcomes the collaborative approach of the filmmaker more than the life of the solitary artist in his or her studio. “I think the more people you have involved, the more you can see what you’re doing through other people’s eyes. If you work with interesting people, it helps rather than makes you feel restricted.”

She says that what art has given her is a means of critiquing the visual culture which surrounds us, and hopes that her art can do that in some way for others. “So much of our world communicates through images, or moving image. Very rarely would we be interested or even understand news if it didn’t come with a photograph. I think it’s important that people don’t just criticise things within a verbal, written framework but also deal with the way in which the visual image communicates, are able to be intelligent about that, and understand what it is that is being communicated.”

Rachel Maclean: Spite Your Face will be at the Venice Biennale, 13 May- 26 November. Read Moira Jeffrey’s review of the show in next Saturday’s Scotsman.