I wrote this exhibition review during Peak Maclean Fever (date: approx. 17/10/18) and sadly the show at the Zabludowicz Collection is no longer on, but I still think it's interesting! Plus, her show The Lion and The Unicorn, about the Scottish Referendum, is worth a visit to the National Gallery and on until this Sunday (Feb 3rd). So anyway. Ms Maclean...
Candy colours. Barbie. Sparkles. Plastic. Sickly. Grotesque. There are a lot of words that spring to mind when first confronted with Rachel Maclean’s distinctive work. The Scottish digital artist has established herself in the contemporary art world as a unique voice, whose satirical and disturbing work comments on a wide range of topical themes behind a façade of kitsch. She toes the line between comedy and horror to critique contemporary society, and the individual’s place in it. Her show at the Zabludowicz collection features Spite Your Face, her 2017 Venice Biennale commission, the shocking VR experience I’m Terribly Sorry, and a gallery edit of her new feature film Make Me Up which also held its world premiere at the London Film Festival this week.
On initial confrontation, Maclean's barbie aesthetic, all shimmer and frills, can be off-putting. Maclean herself dons many of the excessive costumes and elaborate make up looks to perform in front of green screens. Make Me Up is a candy coloured fever dream, the girls dressed as dolls and controlled by pink Big Brother eyes, sickly in both its shameless look and uncomfortable initial treatment of its protagonists. Spite Your Face takes the kitsch aesthetic down the Baroque route instead, complete with matching wall hangings, but the themes of subjugation and media observation are also there. Along with the overly shiny computer-generated backdrops, the films' narratives reveal their purpose in exposing and condemning our reliance on technology and media. Her critique of the Internet is interesting coming from an artist who works directly within the cyberspace, almost biting the hand that feeds her. Both the films and the VR express the need for technology we currently have, as an inter-subjective reality it is impossible to detach yourself from, though the downfalls of her characters – and in the case of I’m Terribly Sorry, the interactive viewer – condemn our reliance on it.
There are many elements which betray these themes directly, concepts taken from current media and society such as Terms & Conditions, or her motif of surveys in gaging happiness and contentedness. While these are obvious and date her work rather quickly, the darkly comedic element helps contextualise these things we take for granted and think twice about how we behave in a rapidly developing technology-driven society (I haven’t been so carefree in agreeing to T&C’s since). These elements appear in previous works too such as Feed Me (2015), but in this show they also serve to make the films, particularly Spite Your Face, more accessible. Unlike Feed Me, which is thematically fascinating but dense and difficult to follow, SYF shows Maclean's developing sense for mainstream narrative while retaining her satirical and unexpected flair.
SYF is a fairy tale for the digital age, written in the run up to the EU referendum and the Trump election. Using the story of Pinocchio, Maclean subverts our expectations with characters that hold their own set of morals, doomed to run in a cycle that charts the rise and fall of a protagonist (his own antagonist) much like modern politicians. I think it works particularly well in its critique thanks to its direct but well considered references to current politics, and convinces us of its importance in a culture of fake news by examining the grotesque consequences of lies. Make Me Up, on the other hand, doesn’t quite manage to pull its threads together. It is an ambitious and exhilarating experience, tackling the game show format for a study of the role of women in art. The use of Kenneth Clark’s voice from the 60’s series Civilisations is brilliant in attacking the misogyny found throughout art history thanks to its associations with class and patriarchy. It is spoken by a female master presiding over subjugated girls, a critique of AI systems which resemble females in voice but are mostly programmed by men (also clear in the girls’ names, such as Siri and Alexa). From here, the narrative spirals into a feminist nightmare for the age of social media, but becomes thematically tangled. Maclean has many ideas, that is for sure, and many issues in modern society she wants to address. These are valid concerns she chooses to lampoon in her films, though beneath the facade of kitsch there is not much originality to her ideas. Her intention to combine ideas about suffrage, art history, female beauty and eating habits seems misguided at best, as each of these topics jostle for space in an already overstuffed film. It works slightly better in the full feature version, but still she doesn't give these topics the time or depth they require to bring anything new and insightful to the table, and unfortunately this subtracts from the overall experience.
Nevertheless, the combination of impressive visuals and a developing sense for narrative (when compared to her earlier, perhaps more inaccessible films) do manage to elevate current but well-trodden themes. In this show, Maclean delivers two satisfying and thought-provoking films, and managed to really freak me out with her first foray into VR. Maclean, you have a new fan.
Check her out http://www.rachelmaclean.com/
Image credits to Rachel Maclean.