Rachel Maclean is taking the contemporary art scene by storm with her startling short films, which tackle big themes through a host of intriguing, and at times disturbing, characters all played by herself. At a team preparation weekend in the Scottish Borders in April, the woman behind the mask talked to Edit about her latest work, 'Spite Your Face', ahead of its premiere at the world-renowned Venice Biennale.
The Haining is a grand Georgian mansion in the Scottish Borders. Upon first encounter, it is a place of unchallenged serenity. It nestles atop a gentle rise and gazes upon a forest-fringed loch. In the April morning sunshine, its Palladian architecture almost coos with contentment.
Linger for a moment, however, and all is not what it seems. At the loch’s edge, bluebottle flies cluster and buzz over stagnant pools. Inside, plasterwork flakes off the walls in sparse rooms. Look closely and decay peeks through.
It is a perfect stage, then, for Rachel Maclean to make an entrance.
With a crunch of gravel under tyre, her car pulls into the drive. The artist has just flown in from Munich where she was attending an awards ceremony.
Despite her 3am start she cheerfully and affectionately administers hugs to her waiting team. They have much to discuss. She is preparing for what is arguably the pinnacle of Maclean’s already flourishing career, the internationally renowned La Biennale di Venezia.
Now in its 57th year, the Venice Biennale could be described as the art world’s Olympic Games: countries select an individual or collective that best represents their country’s art scene and then puts on a show in the great civic artwork that is Venice.
To the initiated, it is simply the place to be: curators, art journalists, gallery owners, buyers and all the other whirring parts that make the art world tick congregate in one place to collectively take stock.
“My first introduction to Venice was through playing the video game 'Tomb Raider',” she says, a comment that befits a 29-year-old.
Since 2003, in recognition of its own world-class art scene, Scotland has sent artists to Venice as part of the Scotland + Venice partnership, run by Creative Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and the British Council.
Maclean, a video artist, is this year’s selection. Having graduated from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) in 2009, she is Scotland + Venice’s youngest ever representative.
Wearing white-rimmed glasses and with a disarmingly goofy laugh, Maclean makes her way into The Haining. In one room a digital projector sits silently.
The previous night, 'Spite Your Face', her 37-minute film commissioned for the Biennale, was screened for a select group of 15 students. Nursing lukewarm coffee and lots of questions, they are waiting for her in the library. Bright sunlight streams through ceiling-to-floor windows.
Chosen from art schools across Scotland, including five from ECA, this group is Scotland + Venice’s Professional Development Programme, an initiative spearheaded by the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery. They are charged with invigilating Maclean’s show in Venice for its entire run in the deconsecrated Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Pairs of students are visiting Venice until the end of November.
The library soon fills with chatter. 'Spite Your Face' has given them a lot to talk about.
The film is the story of the rise and fall of Pic, a young man who is seduced and consumed by the power of lies. It infuses the story of Pinocchio, sprouting nose and all, with themes dominating contemporary politics: truth, populism, inequality, individualism and misogyny.
While she was making her previous film, 'It’s What’s Inside That Counts', the vote for Brexit happened. From this point on, Maclean says it was inevitable that her work for Venice would be political. 'Spite Your Face' is an artist coming to terms with a fundamentally altered world.
“It’s what I like about being an artist,” she says. “You come into a situation, like Brexit, while you are still digesting things that are still happening. It helped me process what was going on and my thoughts about it, but through an artwork.”
The film is visually stunning. In comparison with her previous dayglo work, Maclean has used a limited palette of gold and blue, “to reflect the luxury culture of Venice,” she says. “There’s a lot of glitter.” It is less surreal kids TV, more Baroque.
Maclean has always mixed the child-like with darkness. 'Spite Your Face' maintains this signature. The surface is glossy and infantilised but underneath lurks something ancient and diseased.
In keeping with her previous acclaimed works, such as 'The Lion and the Unicorn' and 'Feed Me', which featured in British Art Show 8, Maclean plays all the characters in 'Spite Your Face' herself.
It was a process initially born out of a lack of budget, but has now grown into a unique style.
“It’s developed into this absurd, bizarre way of making work where I can create these strange plastic avatars that are me, but aren’t,” she says. “I like the idea of identity being a kind of masquerade from the outset.”
She filmed in front of green screen and digitally added a heightened and disconcerting world. The story plays on a loop with no beginning or end, giving no resolution, deliberately adding to its uncomfortable feel. It all adds up to “a hermetically sealed world of illusion”.
Brandon Logan, a third-year ECA student, has travelled from Orkney during his Easter holidays to be at The Haining to see the film and meet Rachel. Like all the students, he pauses when asked for his reaction to 'Spite Your Face'. Then he smiles. “I think the film will make a real splash in Venice,” he says. “It’s a great statement piece for Scotland. It is a voice that will be heard and it’s the kind of engaging piece you want to present to people. It will attract all sorts of reactions, but you want that range of emotion.”
Isotta Page, also in her third year at ECA, is one of the first students to travel out to work on the show. It is Maclean’s biography as much as her work that makes her smile.
“I didn’t think it was possible to exhibit at the Biennale at such a young age,” she says. “Seeing Rachel there is amazing. It encourages young artists to push the boundaries in their own work and encourages us to not be afraid to explore difficult questions we face in everyday life. The fact that she is very young and a woman is incredibly inspiring for me.”
Maclean fondly remembers her time studying drawing and painting in Edinburgh. Her work for the 2009 degree show is still talked about in the corridors and studios of ECA’s home at Lauriston Place.
“It was a very exciting time,” she says. “I had a really good year group with loads of interesting friends doing all sorts of exciting stuff and supporting each other. And you grow up a hell of a lot in four years. It’s a very intense experience: you learn so much and develop so much over a short period of time that stands you in good stead for what follows.”
The University’s links with this year’s Biennale stretches beyond Maclean’s CV. Her show is being curated by Alchemy Film & Arts in partnership with Talbot Rice Gallery and the University itself.
In spring 2018 Talbot Rice will play host to the UK premiere of 'Spite Your Face', which the University has purchased for its contemporary art collection. Elsewhere in the labyrinthine streets of Venice, another ECA graduate will be representing their country. Takahiro Iwasaki, who graduated in 2005, has been chosen by Japan for its national pavilion.
Talbot Rice’s involvement with the Biennale doesn’t end with Scotland + Venice. The Gallery’s director, Tessa Giblin, is the curator and commissioner of Ireland’s show. As a veteran of several Biennales, Giblin is keenly aware of this opportunity’s scale.
Seeing Rachel at the Biennale is amazing. It encourages young artists to push the boundaries of their own work.
“For Talbot Rice Gallery to be involved in two pavilions this year is absolutely extraordinary,” she says. “It’s how our profile will grow, but it is also about what we will learn while doing it. It will change the Gallery. I hope that our horizons shift and stay out there – to include these international dimensions and audiences. What we will bring back from Venice will be very exciting.”
As the weekend at The Haining draws to a close, Maclean can be found sitting on the steps outside the building. Bright purple flowers jut through crumbling masonry. She is beaming after meeting the students. “It’s been really exciting to hear their reaction,” she says. “It’s nice to see the work through their eyes.”
She is also thinking about what lies beyond Venice. A break. And a potential feature film. She is in discussions with a producer and is planning to write a treatment.
“I’m not sure what it would look like,” she says. “I’d like to keep the aesthetic. That’s important to my work. But I’m interested to see what I could do with film. I’m also keen to work with actors, sets and moving cameras on screen. That would change my process totally. I’m always excited about ways in which I can switch things up a bit so I’m not producing the same thing over and over.”
As the sun dims and the air chills, Maclean leaves The Haining. Trains, planes and time will soon take her to Venice and beyond. But in one corner of the City of Water, for the months to come, her film will echo again and again. It is a work worth repeating.
A group of Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh students and their peers from five other Scottish art colleges recently met the acclaimed artist Rachel Maclean as part of Scotland + Venice.
The Students will travel to Italy to unveil Rachel’s show at the Venice Biennale.