Annual Review 2016/17

Placing Edinburgh art on the international stage

With the support of the University, artistic talent is finding a platform in the contemporary art world.

Rachel Maclean at the Venice Biennale
Rachel Maclean at the Venice Biennale

In May 2017 a deconsecrated church in Venice housed a new work of art by Edinburgh alumna Ms Rachel Maclean, commissioned to represent Scotland at the renowned Venice Biennale. 


Representing Scotland in Venice

Ms Maclean’s 37-minute video, entitled Spite Your Face, was the focal point for a project that connected several important strands of the University to the Biennale. It marked a special alignment of students, staff, alumni, Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), the University’s Centre for Research Collections and the University’s contemporary art gallery, all working together – with significant external partners – to present on this most global of stages.  

At 29, Ms Maclean is the youngest artist to be selected by Scotland + Venice, a partnership run by Creative Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and the British Council Scotland. Every two years Scotland + Venice selects an artist that best represents the country’s contemporary art scene. 

I feel that I’ve been lucky. I owe a lot to Edinburgh and Scotland in terms of people having confidence in me when I was young.

Ms Rachel Maclean

“It was a big surprise,” says Ms Maclean. “I feel that I’ve been lucky. I owe a lot to Edinburgh and Scotland in terms of people having confidence in me when I was young.”

Since leaving ECA in 2009, Ms Maclean’s satirical, day-glow videos have startled critics and the public around the world. Her ability to weave major contemporary themes into her work made her a bold choice for the 2017 Biennale. Spite Your Face is a dark retelling of the Pinocchio story that plays upon the power of lies, populism and misogyny. 

The University at the Biennale

Every Biennale, Scotland + Venice also selects a Scottish-based curator to deliver the show. The University’s Talbot Rice Gallery in partnership with the Hawick-based company Alchemy Film & Arts were chosen as commissioners of Spite Your Face. It was the first time the Gallery had been involved in the Biennale.

“Being part of Venice placed us on an international platform and inspires us to stay there,” says the Gallery’s Director, Ms Tessa Giblin. “Most people, rightly, talk about the impact Venice has on the artist. But we mustn’t forget the enormous impact it has on the professionals working behind the scenes – the curators, project managers, technicians, marketing people, the publicists, the fundraisers. All those involved, in my experience, have gone through an enormous growth curve.”

Ms Giblin, who joined the Talbot Rice Gallery in 2016, has been involved with the Biennale for the past 10 years. While other colleagues at the Gallery worked on Scotland + Venice, she was also commissioner and curator of the Irish pavilion. Working with the artist Jesse Jones, she describes it as “the hardest, most rewarding thing” she has ever done. 

A unique opportunity for students

As well as providing an unprecedented platform for the University’s alumni, its gallery and its staff, art students from ECA were also given a unique opportunity to experience the international festival. 

Scotland + Venice’s Professional Development Programme selected 15 students from across Scotland to invigilate Spite Your Face in Venice. The cohort included five fine art students from Edinburgh. The students stayed in Venice for a month at a time between May and November, working in pairs to manage the venue, Chiesa di Santa Caterina, in the northern Cannaregio district of the city. In addition, they acted as ambassadors for the project, the University and Ms Maclean’s work. Gemma Batchelor, an ECA student taking part, says: “Because she [Rachel Maclean] came from ECA too, we definitely felt an ownership of the piece, and we felt great when people had a positive response to it.” 

The students also had time off to explore the Biennale and to develop their artistic practice. Evenings were spent connecting with representatives from the other pavilions, resulting in screenings, talks and life drawing sessions. 

“I just feel really lucky,” says fellow ECA student and invigilator, Siobhan McLaughlin. “I’ve never been out of Scotland for more than two weeks before. Since coming back, I’ve felt much more confident. I’ve applied for things I never would have thought about before. It has made the art world seem more accessible. I’m much less anxious now about life after university.”

Ms Maclean also appreciates how the experience could offer promising futures for this next generation of artists: “The development programme is fantastic,” she says. “The students I have met who are part of it are really brilliant and have done such an amazing job. I’m so excited for them. I’m looking forward to what they make, and what they do, as a result of the experience. I think there will be an amazing legacy for Scotland and the Scottish art scene.”

The 2017 Venice Biennale experience will certainly live on in the University. The students are planning collaborative shows in Cardiff and Edinburgh with artists they met there. The Talbot Rice Gallery is focusing on commissioning new work and exploring the possibilities of group shows, two defining features of the Biennale. The artist who represented Hong Kong, Samson Young, has been commissioned by the gallery to produce a work for 2019, and Jesse Jones’ Venice work, Tremble Tremble, will be on show in late 2018.

Additionally, the University has purchased the film Spite Your Face to form part of its official Art Collections. In February 2018, nearly a decade after graduating, Ms Maclean will return to the University, and, alongside many others, will attend her film’s UK premiere at the Talbot Rice Gallery.


Photo © Patrick Rafferty, courtesy of Venice + Scotland