2018 was definitely the year for Rachel Maclean in London.
The Scottish video artist is best known for her satirical films, made using green screen technology, which poke fun at our obsession with social media, self-image, childish culture, and kitsch. In many of her films, she plays all of the roles herself, using masks, prosthetics, and make-up, while her characters frequently lip sync to existing audio footage. In The Lion and the Unicorn (2012), which was made ahead of the Scottish referendum and offering arguments for and against, her unicorn character lip syncs to Alex Salmond, using audio from an interview with Jeremy Paxman (whose voice is heard via the lion). She also plays the Queen, whom she describes as a “mash-up of our current Queen [Elizabeth II] and Mary, Queen of Scots”, and her audio comes from excerpts of the Queen’s 1957 Christmas message.
Maclean is a Glasgow-based artist, born in Edinburgh in 1987, and graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art in 2009. She represented Scotland at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 with a newly-commissioned work Spite Your Face, at the Chiesa Santa Caterina. Her recent film and TV project with the BBC and Hopscotch Films and arts commissioning body 14-18 NOW entitled Make Me Up (TV film version) was broadcast on BBC 4 in November, and received its world film premiere in London at the BFI London Film Festival in the Experimental programme. In a special guest post, Holly Howe interviews Maclean at The National Gallery in London.
How long do you spend researching and coming up with the ideas for the works?
Quite a while. I always think of researching as something you’re doing as you’re writing a script, and at the same time as you’re coming up with ideas. I couldn’t put a number on it, but it’s quite a while!
There’s a strong element of storytelling and links to fairy tales like Pinocchio or Little Red Riding Hood in your work. Is that something you have had an interest in from quite a young age?
Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in fairy tales and I like the idea that fairy tales are by their nature things that aren’t really authored. They do get authors every now and then, but they are passed through cultures and they’re updated to different cultures, and they change and morph and can mean something completely different while being the same story. I like that idea of taking something that’s familiar to audiences but then doing something that can be completely unexpected with it, such as taking that fairy tale and talking about contemporary culture.
Your films also feature a lot of interesting accessories, including children’s toys. Where does that come from?
I’m interested in that kind of infantilisation of the adult world. And also cuteness. I think cuteness has become a big part of our culture, like emojis or Snapchat filters, and I’m interested in why. So I think a lot of my work looks at that idea. There can be a kind of surface gloss or cuteness that feels benign or harmless but then what happens when you scratch the surface? And what can that hide? It feels to me in some ways to be a kind of visual representation of consumer capitalism where it has this kind of surface gloss but then it’s almost like rot underneath. I hope my work always has that gloss yet rot!
Is there an element of Japanese culture in your work?
I’ve not been to Japan but I guess there is that influence of Kawaii culture, but these cultures are such a mash-up in themselves. Essentially that Lolita girl [as seen in her film “Make Me Up”] is a kind of British Victorian idea of childhood.
I love the way you have dressed the space. Do you always have input into how the work is displayed?
I want it to feel immersive and I think it helps if it feels like you are actually walking into the film to an extent. I also just want people to stay and I think there is partially the sense that you are being welcomed into this world and I want you to stay and take this in and feel that you have become immersed in the films. I think that dressing the space really works and it feels like the world that you are representing feels less distant as an audience member. It’s always difficult with galleries because people can come and leave at will so you’ve got to find ways to keep them.
How do you feel about exhibiting at The National Gallery?
It’s really exciting. It’s interesting for me as I made these works a wee while ago and in a completely different setting but seeing them here really changes how you read them and how I see them too, just walking around the galleries and then coming in and seeing them afterwards, it’s great. I’m always quite excited that when you make art, it’s never static, it’s always changing, and that is to an extent out of your control and I think in an exciting way. So yes, it’s been great.
You made these works before the referendum. How do you feel now knowing the outcome?
It’s been strange because I’ve shown this work at a number of different times and at different points. I’ve had completely different responses from people, where people have come up to me and said “it’s so great you’re making a film saying no, we shouldn’t leave” and then somebody else says “it’s great you’re making a film saying yes” and I think straight after the referendum, a few people said “yes, it’s really prophetic”. So I think it’s always changing. It’s interesting for me to see it after Brexit, and to see how rapidly things have changed and how much more now the idea of Britishness is politicised as well. You don’t know your own work until you get people’s responses so I’m looking forward to hearing what people take from it.
What other artists do you admire?
I look quite a lot at historical paintings and I’ve always loved Bosch and his “Garden of Earthly Delights”. I’m also quite interested in Hogarth and the history of caricature and satire as an exaggeration. And the obvious artists, such as Paul McCarthy, Jeff Koons, and Cindy Sherman as I think as artists they look at pop culture.
What is coming up for you next year?
I’m working on a show for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It’s going to be a show called “Too Cute”, and for it I am curating the Birmingham Museum’s collection and The Arts Council Collection. The idea is that it will feature artworks that toe the line between cuteness and creepiness or the potential for cute things to be creepy.