During the opening week of her Scotland + Venice film, 'Spite Your Face', artist Rachel Maclean spoke to Emily Sparkes about politics, inappropriate nose-touching and pasta pomodoro.
It’s been over a year since I caught up with Rachel Maclean. Since then, she has been selected to represent Scotland at this year’s Venice Biennale, and her recent exhibitions include: ‘Wot u :-) about?’ (2016), Home, Manchester and Tate Britain, London; ‘We Want Data’ (2016), Artpace San Antonio, Texas; Feed Me (2015), British Art Show 8 (2015) and currently featured in ‘I WANT! I WANT!: Art & Technology‘ at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
Last time we spoke, it was at the CCA Café in Glasgow. After chatting for well over and hour, and heading to the till to pay, I handed over my card to be told that it was a cash bar. Quickly sensing my utter horror and embarrassment, Rachel cheerfully paid for our coffees, in what I consider a true gesture of Scottish hospitality. This time around, in a sunny hotel courtyard in Cannaregio, Venice, accompanied by my partner, Greg, and occasionally interrupted by Queen’s Greatest Hits, I again caught up with artist, Rachel Maclean. And we bought her two coffees.
E: I love the green hair! So, how’s everything going?
R: Thanks! Good! It’s exciting to have it set up and it’s at that stage where not many people have seen it yet, but it’s nice to get some reactions, I don’t think you really know yourself what a work is yet until people have seen it.
E: We popped in (Chiesa di Santa Caterina) earlier, it took us a few minutes to adjust, it’s so dark in there compared to outside! The film’s somewhat site specific in the way that it features the alter piece of the church. How did the choice of location come about?
R: It was great in that we got to select a space for the work, and the film came about from thinking about the space. I was interested in using the aura of the church and the altar piece, and quite a lot of my work in the past has used religious imagery. It’s an interesting context, and it’s quite a different proposal to working with a white cube or a black cube, or something that’s notionally neutral.
E: The whole film is so “Venice”. We’ve been mooching around the Grand Canal and we’ve spotted plenty of rhinestone-encrusted tourist caps that look as though they could have fit the theme, what was the process of sourcing costumes?
R: I came here for about a week and a half at the beginning of December and started working on a script, and at the same time, thinking about how I wanted the characters to look. Some stuff I bought in Venice, but it was more the colours of the work that came from Venice and somewhere between looking at Baroque churches and then also these luxury stores, the obscene sort of areas of Prada, Gucci, and department stores of glittery looking expensive stuff. So I was quite interested in playing with that gold and glitter in the sense of luxury, but what the costumes are made of is much more… pound shop, and kitsch, and it’s really just the illusion of luxury, if there is one at all!
E: It’s strange here, you can walk through the residential backstreets that are much more lived-in and run-down and then you turn a corner and you’re outside The Disney Store, it’s quite disorientating.
R: Yeah, the luxury tourism is quite jarring, and you don’t encounter that very often, at least not in Glasgow!
E: The Pic character seems to stand for so many disparate ideas, or as many ways of framing the same problem. The nose is wealth, but it’s also sex, and lies, is it important to have different ways in to your work?
R: Yeah, I want all the characters to feel kind of fluid, and there’s often very sudden kind of genre changes in the film, and sudden changes of character which are inconsistent. I was interested in using Pinocchio because it’s very well known in Italy and it’s not a niche reference point. The growing nose is such a clear signifier of lying, that it’s very direct visual communication, so there’s something that’s on one level very direct and accessible, but beyond that you can start layering things that make it more complicated. So, the nose becomes this phallic thing, it becomes a symbol of power, it changes a lot from simply indicting lying.
E: And that the longer Pic’s nose grows, not only does his social status increase, but his sense of smell gets more and more intense to the point that he can smell the stench of poor! It’s god-awful and it’s so smart on your part. I know when we last spoke, you mentioned the importance of making work that doesn’t function as propaganda. but do you think now with the UK snap election, the rise of Trump and Brexit, is it more important for you to take a definite political stance?
R: I think I’ve always wanted to take a political stance in my work. But I think with everything you’ve said, as well as the Scottish referendum, I’m wanting to take a political stance, but not to align myself with a political party. I think often it’s dangerous when your start aligning yourself with a party because you can’t control what they say, and you have more liberty to make your own points, make your own message. So I did want there to be a political commentary in the work, so it doesn’t feel like it’s on the fence, but not that it’s propaganda for a particular party or politician.
E: The Biennale is so international, and Spite Your Face sees your characters speaking in several different languages. How easy was that to mime?
R: It was quite difficult, yeah! We edit away from that a lot! But I was quite keen that it was the Scottish Pavilion but that it’s not a work that’s specific to Scotland, and the reference points aren’t specific to Scotland. I wanted to talk about what seems to be happening simultaneously in different countries, the rise of populism, the rise of the alt-right, it’s taken different forms in Britain than the US, France to Greece, but you can see overlaps and I wanted to do something general that touched on things that are happening in different places at the same time.
E: Also, the film is shown on a loop, but this work in particular seems very cyclical, like you can’t escape it and it’s just going round and round, in a sort of hopeless or helpless way…
R: I was interested in narratives used by politicians and national narratives, and the ways in which with Brexit and Trump and other situations, when there’s a powerful narrative, and you lie to substantiate that narrative, disproving those lies doesn’t necessarily affect the power of the narrative itself. At an abstract level, a story can have a layer of truth, that It doesn’t necessarily truly have. So, I was interested in playing with this rags to riches narrative which I think is in so much of our culture, and this Britain’s Got Talent style vision of success where it’s all about pursuing an idea of wealth and fame and the sense that’s built into it that if you can dream it, you can do it. Or, if you work hard enough you can make it. It’s at some level a compassionless narrative that ignores all the socio-economic barriers to success, and imagines that success is just a power of will, and this also creates a very specific notion of what success is. That narrative usually ends at the point that you’ve risen from rags to riches but the sense of coming back down and repeating itself again and again is a bit dizzying and sick-inducing and uncomfortable. It’s almost as if the desire to have that end-point is never satisfied, so hopefully for the viewer its in some ways unsatisfying in a good way.
G: Yeah, we got back to the point that we came in on and we’re like “oh god, okay!”
E: What was your thinking behind the points where everything tips and falls, kind of like the turning of an hourglass?
R: I was thinking quite a bit about how with portrait format you’re dealing less with left and right and more with above and below. So it feels like heaven and hell, or a religious or utopian dream of something good being above and reality sitting beneath that, or hell sitting beneath that. Also, thinking about that in relation to the church, and I quite like that idea of the world turning upside down, and I wanted it to have that religious reference.
E: Greg, did you want to say something about the aspect ratio?
G: Yeah, watching the film in the church is like watching it on an iPhone in portrait mode, so the parallels that came to me straight away were things Facebook Live. It seems that so many people get so their facts and opinions from people on Instagram or YouTube celebrities…
R: Yeah, and there’s that bit (in the film) where Pic is making a speech and you see it being transferred through phones and tablets and there’s the sense of being part of a larger network. And there’s a part in the film where you get a sense of Chinese Whispers almost, where this truth is disseminated and becomes something else.
E: That scene really hits home, I think. And it seems that each new film you make is running with what’s popular and reflecting it back…
R: Regurgitating it back!
E: But It makes you feel quite comfortable watching it in a sense because the format is easy to relate to.
R: Yeah, I wanted some of the levels to be accessible and things that you recognise but it’s a little but weird, or not quite right, but you’re comfortable enough that you know what world you’re in. But yeah, the portrait format was interesting because it makes so much sense that if you’re making films with people in them that you mainly shoot in portrait, and I wonder whether that’s something that will develop out of iPhones…
E: I also wanted to ask you how many people were in the room when the, ahem, nose wank happened?
R: Oh yeah! I had to get the producer to do that, I think she was more traumatised by it than I was! But I think there were about ten by that point, but film shoots are weird, because you just need to get it done,
E: “Don’t worry about it, just wank my nose!”
R: Yeah! I worked with a woman called Natalie who did some of the nose-wanking which I also feel quite guilty about! But she was great, totally game.
E: Things you do in the name of art… Before we go, I wanted to ask you if there are other things that you’re keen to see at the Biennale?
R: I haven’t had a lot of time to look at anything yet, I’ve been in this weird mode, but I really want to see Jessie Jones’s show, the Irish show, I’ve seen little bits and pieces and that looks very powerful and very political. And James Richard’s show for the Welsh Pavilion, I really like his work.
E: Well I am sure you have been run off your feet, the show is just wonderful. Anything else you’ve been enjoying in Venice otherwise?
R: What am I enjoying in Venice? I’ve been eating spaghetti Pomodoro non-stop! It’s amazing. Breakfast lunch and dinner: spaghetti Pomodoro!
Rachel Maclean: Spite Your Face is a collateral event of the 57th Venice Biennale, Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Fondamenta Santa Caterina, 30121, Cannaregio, 13 May – 26 November 2017, h 10 – 18 (closed on Mondays).
Rachel Maclean: Spite Your Face will be exhibited at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh (February – April 2018) and at Chapter, Cardiff (October 2018 – January 2019).
Emily Sparkes is an artist, painter and practice-led PhD student at Birmingham School of Art.
Image by Emily Sparkes, with drawings by Emily Sparkes and Greg Basterfield.