Rachel Maclean: “I was interested in the power of narrative…and how, if lies are told to substantiate (a story), often disproving the lie is not enough to crack or affect the power of the narrative.”
Scottish artist and film-maker Rachel Maclean continues in the compelling, sumptuously styled, satirical vein that is now her trademark with a new 30-minute film, Spite Your Face, a dark Venetian fairytale, commissioned for the Scotland + Venice presentation at the 57th Venice Biennale.
Screened within the darkened interior of a newly deconsecrated church, Chiesa di Santa Catarina, in Cannaregio, Maclean’s work becomes the altarpiece, shown in portrait format as a large-scale projection. It weaves together visual and narrative references to Catholic religious mythology (in particular, that of the ascension and redemption) with the famous Italian 19th-century fairytale about Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to become a “real boy”, and the familiar rags to riches cliché peddled by today’s mainstream media.
For Venice, Maclean has tweaked her usual baroque aesthetic to a more limited but emotionally heightened palette of gold, silver and blue, inspired by research she conducted in preparation for the piece. There are elaborate costumes that reference period Venetian finery, as well as settings that evoke the great religious paintings of the middle ages. This “high” visual tone jars with frequent moments of cartoonish violence and cheesy, promotional kitsch to conjure a uniquely disturbing tale of corruption and depravity. There is real bite to Maclean’s critique of the contemporary “post-truth” political rhetoric and the disappearance of more moral or ethical aspirations in the new digitally facilitated, clickbait media landscape.
Set within two worlds – one a grimy, bleak world of poverty, bad skin and even worse teeth, the other a glittering “heavenly” place populated by silver-skinned arch manipulators – Spite Your Face tells the story of a young, orphaned beggar (played, as are all the characters, by Maclean herself), who is granted his wish to be rich and successful by a voluptuous composite of Roman goddess, Virgin Mary and the Blue Fairy. He is given a bottle of Truth, and advised to use it sparingly. However, although he finds that the Truth seems to heal his dreadful lesions and bad teeth – which brings him acceptance among the rich and powerful, and grants him admittance to their loftier realms – his own path to power is achieved only through lies and deception (as the poster boy for a fragrance called Untruth). In a fascinating twist, every time he lies, his nose grows longer, but his new adoring audience seem to love him all the more for it.
Rachel Maclean is a Glasgow-based artist (b1987) who recently had major exhibitions at HOME, Manchester, and a screening of her previous film It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016) at Tate Britain. After graduating from Edinburgh College of Art, she came to public attention in New Contemporaries 2009, won the Margaret Tait Award in 2013, has twice been shortlisted for the Jarman Award, and achieved critical acclaim for Feed Me (2015) in the British Art Show 8.
Rachel Maclean: Spite Your Face
Scotland + Venice, Chiesa di Santa Catarina, Cannaregio, Venice
13 May – 26 November 2017
Interview by VERONICA SIMPSON
Filmed by MARTIN KENNEDY