Even if you knew her very well, you probably wouldn’t recognise Rachel Maclean once she dons the theatrical makeup and elaborate costumes of her vivid satirical multimedia works. Since graduating from the Painting BA at Edinburgh College of Art in 2009, she has made quite an impression with her visually stunning allegorical films, made using green-screen technology. With the aid of prosthetics and a fabulous wardrobe, Maclean populates her fantastical backdrops with a cast of exaggerated caricatures from all walks of society.
Exuberant and humorous, yet always with an ominous undertone, Maclean’s work both references and parodies many facets of popular culture. She draws on all manner of film genre, from Walt Disney to horror. Dialogue from Sex and the City is combined with lyrics from cheesy pop songs by bands like Black Eyed Peas. Emojis are incorporated into the titles of her work, and inspired her yellow, noseless characters in a recent series, We Want Data! She also makes use of various TV formats, from children’s programmes such as Teletubbies, to The X Factor.
In her most recent work, currently on show at Tate Britain, Maclean deploys mocking wit to confront our obsession with virtual vanity. “I’m curious about comedy as a space where interesting things can happen,” she says. “When I lived in Edinburgh I would see alternative comedy at the Fringe. Comedy is often the sharpest, most direct social satire and criticism, too.” Maclean certainly uses comedy in this way, to question our conceited and ultra-consumerist culture.
For all their bubblegum cuteness, Maclean’s films are also politically conscious. “I’m interested in contemporary politics,” she says. “The past three or four years have been a pretty interesting time to live through. There has been more discussion about politics with people my age than I’ve ever experienced in my life before.” Early works like The Lion And The Unicorn confronted the dilemmas of national identity. Made in 2012, during the lead-up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, it was inspired by the United Kingdom’s royal coat of arms. It was also the work that got Maclean nominated for the Film London Jarman Award in 2013 – an award she has been shortlisted for twice, most recently in 2016.
At just 29 she has been selected to represent Scotland at the 57th Venice Biennale. Eager to know how she’s going to approach probably her biggest career challenge yet, I spoke to her about the hush-hush new film commission that will transform a church in Cannaregio.
So you’ve just come back from Venice, where you were preparing for the Biennale?
Yes, I was there for ten days, wandering around, getting lost, and writing the script for the Biennale work. It was great to be in Venice when it was really cold and foggy and a little bit spooky; it felt completely different to the summertime, when it’s mad crowded with tourists. It was really good to think through ideas in the place that they are going to be shown.
What does it mean to be representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale?
It’s really humbling, and a really exciting opportunity to make new work for a European, international audience. I guess it’s an odd time for Britain, and western politics more generally, so it’s both a scary and an interesting time to be making work dealing with the idea: what does it mean to represent a country? What does nationality mean when there is a resurgence of nationalism and protectionism? It’s interesting to be among all that in an artistic context.
How much of that will inspire the new work?
I don’t want it to be specifically about Scotland or Britain, but the themes are to do with what’s happening now in America and Britain. So, looking at ideas of nationalism, post-truth and lies. And talking about sexism, and the rise in the legitimising of a certain kind of misogyny. I want to pool a lot of contemporary themes, but not make it feel it can only be understood if you’re Scottish or British.
Tell me about Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the venue you’ll be showing in.
It’s a decommissioned church – deconsecrated, that’s the word. It’s a really beautiful location, an historic Venetian church but rough round the edges, characterful. The past two exhibitions I’ve done have been in gallery spaces, where you can do whatever you want. But this time round, you’ve got the context first.
Will the venue influence the work in any way?
Yes it will. There is something grandiose and very dramatic about showing in a church; it lends a certain aura, which I’m keen to play with in the large-scale film.
You studied painting in Edinburgh. At what point did you transition into “painting” yourself to become the characters in your films?
When I was really, really wee I was obsessed with filming things on home video. Then I got into painting, just off the back of what you do at art college, and I was doing quite a lot of work that was almost like collage. I discovered that you can use green-screen and Final Cut software really easily, and that was exciting because it related directly to what I was doing with physical materials. Suddenly, instead of filming what seemed like banal reality, you could film something and then place it into any world you wanted, almost treating moving image like you would treat collage and painting.
Your films certainly splice together a variety of material and references. Why is that?
I like the references I use to come from a popular consciousness, so things are not too niche, so you recognise it and there is a level of accessibility. But I then twist it and make it a little bit darker and uncomfortable to watch.
There is definitely a fine line between the sinister and the grotesque, and the fantastical and the beautiful in your work.
I like playing with that, creating work that is alluring to look at, but at the same time really difficult and grotesque. I want to create the feeling of drawing you in and then pushing you out again.
In Eyes 2 Me you use a children’s TV programme format that culminates with the main character going on a killing spree.
Quite a lot of my work plays with voice as something that is powerful, and how you can be disempowered when voiceless. I was interested in that format within children’s television, like In The Night Garden, where creatures speak gobbledygook while a benign male voiceover explains what’s happening and tells them what to do. I wanted to play with that notion, of a character that’s cutesy but increasingly powerless, controlled by an omnipresent voice from above that tells her to do dark and sinister things.
I want to talk about the presentation of your female protagonists, who flit between different characteristics of childish, seductive and hideous.
My works consider the different experiences of gender and gender stereotypes. In Over the Rainbow, for example, I wanted a lot of my female characters to feel like they’re constantly switching. [I’m] taking that experience as a woman in culture of having to embody different roles simultaneously but not being allowed to let them mix, so not being allowed to be sexy and be a mother. In Feed Me I look at the uncomfortable bridging point between being a girl and being a woman, and how it’s taboo but also fetishised in culture.
Do you think as a culture we’ve become self-absorbed?
I think it’s become more acceptable to be entirely, shamelessly self-involved. I guess the selfie culture has something to do with it. There is something troubling about the X Factor culture of aspiration. It fits quite neatly into the “American dream” idea of society; if you try hard enough and want something bad enough, anyone can get it. It’s a dream that hides a huge amount of inequality and a lack of opportunity. There is something sinister in these programmes, the idea of fame for fame’s sake. It’s a little bit depressing.
Your exhibition Wot U :-) About, currently on show at Tate Britain, encompasses this obsession with screen-based culture.
I started making that body of work in early 2016, [while I was] on a residency at Artpace in Texas. I made We Want Data!, a series of six large-scale fabric prints featuring costumed characters, and then took those characters and made a single-screen 30-minute film called It’s What’s Inside That Counts. I was specifically focusing on our experience of identity on the internet, of social-media selfie culture, mixed with gender identity. I’ve not quite worked out how to explain exactly what it is yet. There are three main characters within it. There is a woman who is almost like a Kim Kardashian cyborg, who is hacked by this collective of grotesque Disneyesque rats that live underground and seems to be surviving on a kind of digital life support.
Who is the character that looks like a spiritual guru?
That’s Happy Man, a mindfulness guru for the tech industry. I was thinking about how mindfulness is appropriated and employed in business.
What was the inspiration behind We Want Data!?
I wanted the tapestry prints to feel like adverts and computer screens. The characters are either on their phones, or they have some sort of computer system built into them. I was looking at technologies like Apple Watch, these self-monitoring technologies. We’re already having a lot of data collected about us, just through using the internet, but now it’s about becoming your own data manager – for your step count, your weight and your heart rate. I find that a little scary. It’s this sense that anything can be turned into quantifiable data so emotions and health and experience of the world can be fed back to you in numbers.
Do you take any measure to make sure your data is not collected, so companies don’t earn money from your information?
No, but I probably should. It’s that idea that Facebook isn’t the product – you’re the product and Facebook is then selling [you] on. Companies like Facebook and Google have done a really good job of marketing themselves in this kind of “Aren’t we nice, aren’t we cool?” way to create the illusion of them facilitating your desires. Whereas there is this whole dark underbelly, which few people have the time and inclination to actually pick apart.
Aside from politics, popular culture, TV and technology, what else inspires your work?
I like my work to go back and forth between contemporary references and more deeply engrained national narratives. For example, in my film Feed Me I was considering the treatment of the Jimmy Savile paedophilia scandal that was in the news for a long time, but it also relates to fairy tales and the idea of the bogeyman or the child-eating ogre: a more historical fear of male sexuality.
What is it about the fairy tale narrative that interests you?
Fairy tales are malleable, they’re always morphing, adapting to have different outcomes, and altering to fit different moments in time. I quite like it to feel that my work, at some level, is continuing that tradition.
You’ve recently started writing scripts. Why?
Previous work, like Please Sir and Over the Rainbow, used found audio clips taken from TV, film and the internet, which I cut up into a script and then mimed to camera. Feed Me was the first film I wrote a properlength script for. I wanted more control over the structure and where the narrative was going, but trying to maintain the odd feeling you get from the channel-changing structure when you cut audio together from different sources.
Is it an intense experience to both direct and act in your films?
The film shoots are usually only about four to five days but they’re pretty intense, and I usually get very little sleep. There is something odd that happens when you wear a costume – you become the character. It’s much easier to behave in the way the character looks. A part of it feels natural the minute you’re in costume.
What is it about Glasgow that makes you want to live and work there, over, say, London, Berlin or New York?
First of all, there is a good community of artists, and it’s cheap. Also, at the moment, quite a lot of people are moving here. Scotland generally is good at supporting artists straight out of college. I was lucky to get a lot of opportunities to just try stuff out and show in artist-run galleries. You can get through your career for quite a long time without necessarily [showing in] a commercial gallery or seeing your work as something that needs to be sold.
You studied in Boston for a time. How did you find it?
It was the first time I had lived outside the UK for a significant amount of time, and it was fascinating being exposed to American culture. There were things that I didn’t really expect to be different that were. When you do a group critique session in Scotland, you underplay everything. If you said “I made this work and I think it’s great” people would think you’re a dick. It’s all about modesty. Whereas in America, first of all you say how great what you’ve done is, and then work from there, which I hadn’t experienced before – the ability to be publicly confident, which is harder to get away with in Scotland.
Do you think that has had an impact on your practice?
Maybe, although I think I’m still stuck with that quite Scottish way of not being too positive.