Rachel Maclean on Wot U :-) About?
Just arrived at Manchester’s HOME is Rachel Maclean’s new exhibition Wot u :-) about?, the first solo show by the young Scottish artist in the North of England. We meet her to talk collaboration, national identity and preparing for the 2017 Venice Biennale
Despite being relatively early in her career, Rachel Maclean has developed her own unmistakeable, complex visual language. She utilises a woozy blend of art historical reference and ever-evolving internet tropes to build a hyper-saturated world mirroring the absurdities and underlying darkness of contemporary life. Her films employ pitch black humour alongside cartoonish, candy-coloured characters (acted out by the artist herself using green screen) to build disturbingly familiar narratives of a dystopian future-present.
The HOME show presents an all-new body of work developed in partnership with the gallery, including a new film, large-scale sculptures and a series of large-format prints. The film, entitled It’s What’s Inside That Counts, stars a Kim Kardashian-style character based around a smiley emoticon. Says Maclean, “She’s presented at first as a kind of figurehead for a data company and then later in the film she’s become this fallen figure on some kind of digital life support.” The fallen star of our networked world is accompanied by a series of rat-like mutant characters who live underground and chew through data cabling, at times seeming like junkies, at others like hackers. The rats also appear in the sculptures, characters running through the whole show.
This exhibition has been developed collaboratively with a wide range of creatives, facilitated by HOME. Says Maclean, “For the film I was working with a reasonably big crew and collaborating with Julian Corrie (aka Miaoux Miaoux) for the soundtrack.” Other collaborators include a songwriter for musical theatre, who brings a twisted song and dance aspect to the production, make-up artists and a pair of recent Glasgow School of Art graduates who’ve been advising and fabricating the sculptures. “So yeah, it’s been a big team compared to past projects!” she laughs. It's a long way from her original production process of self-shot footage created in front of a homemade green sheet.
After HOME, Maclean is off to Venice to begin developing her work for the Scottish pavilion at the 2017 Biennale. “I’ve been out to the venue and I've got some ideas,” she says. “I’m really excited about it. To be in Venice for a bit alone and making work that’s in response to that will be amazing.” It’s an odd time to be developing a body of work presenting a UK national identity onto a European stage, a fact Maclean is quick to acknowledge. “A lot of things changed in my head after Brexit in terms of thinking about Venice and the ideas for that. It feels like you can’t really be a British artist working in Europe, at the Venice Biennale without thinking in some way about Brexit and how you deal with that sense of national identity.”
This isn’t the first time her work has been swept up and distorted by current affairs. “I think it’s something I noticed when I did The Lion and the Unicorn,” she says. This video work used the heraldic imagery of Scotland and England to explore notions of identity and nationhood. “At the point that I made it, 2012, it was a couple of years before the Scottish referendum so it didn’t feel like that kind of very, very intense atmosphere that started happening shortly before it, imagining the possibilities of independence.” She embraces this evolution of meaning, though. “I find that kind of interesting. I guess it’s what I sort of enjoy about making art. You make something with certain intentions and then even by the time you’ve finished making the work your initial intentions might have changed, due to what it’s become or due to the sort of political situation.”
An even more extreme distortion is currently underway, as one of the characters in her I Heart Scotland exhibition of 2013 was a golf-obsessed Donald Trump, featured in the wake of his Aberdeenshire course-building controversy. The meaning of that figure continues to change daily and is ultimately uncontrollable. Rachel Maclean sums up the strange place we find ourself in with this potential future leader of the free world. “Weirdly I feel that now Donald Trump is beyond satire. I’ve not seen anything yet that’s really satirised him in a way that feels anything more than he already is. He’s so hyper-exaggerated already that you can’t imagine doing a parody of him that would go any further than he has already.”