Rachel Maclean – Spite Your Face: Venice Biennale 2017

This year's Scotland + Venice presentation is Rachel Maclean's Spite Your Face in the Chiesa Santa Caterina

Review by Rosamund West | 09 May 2017

In a deconsecrated church on Venice's northern shore lies 2017's Scotland + Venice Biennale presentation, this year featuring Rachel Maclean's 'dark Venetian fairytale' Spite Your Face. The windows have been blacked out, light extinguished and the altar replaced with a huge vertical screen on which the video plays. A statue of St Catherine is floodlit to the left. Entering is a moment of wonder, stepping into the darkness as the sound of one of Maclean's signature twisted musical soundtracks suffuses the space. It sounds sweet, but you can rest assured it will turn out to be very disturbing indeed.

Spite Your Face is a rich, immersive work, which draws deep from its sources then weaves them together into a new, astonishing whole. It was conceived in situ, designed as a site-specific piece drawing on the intrinsic meanings of the grand Venetian buildings and the contemporary world in which it was written. The story of Pinocchio is returned to its dark pre-Disney roots, then transformed as themes both contemporary and universal are explored in one 37-minute-long movie extravaganza.

Pic (full name Pinocchio Gepetto) is a street urchin in a grey, hopeless world. He makes a wish on an iPad in the Other World Offerings temple – a digital recreation of the Chiesa di Santa Caterina – and finds himself transported by the blessing of a fairy godmother / Virgin Mary figure to a golden heaven where (through the application of a perfume named Truth) he is able to become a gilded hero punting rubbish perfume (named Untruth) to the masses. 

Standing atop a golden plinth, Pic rants and raves to an adoring crowd. "Smell that? This place used to smell great. Now it stinks. The facts aren't known because the media don't report them." The parallels with our contemporary post-truth world are clear, and the logical swamp created by the erosion of an objectively verifiable truth are horrifyingly familiar in our era of Brexit and the Trump White House. The gold, incidentally, is perfectly matched to the dictator chic drapes currently on display in the Oval Office. 

The video is looped, and the point of entry is irrelevant – Pic is locked in a circle of wealth and poverty, ascending to the disturbing shiny heaven or falling to the grey despair of his life as an urchin in cyclical waves. It is inevitable that he will be corrupted and his tacky angel will fall from on high. It's a key part of the narrative, but also a clever move for a film which will be presented on loop to ad-hoc viewers. 

Pic the innocent can’t escape his circle of life because need drives him to covet the trappings of wealth, which leads him to lie and fall from grace. In the golden heaven of consumerism his growing nose, growing longer with each new falsehood, is venerated and adored. The experience of lying is illustrated by the slashed wrists of self harm, but Pic begins to get off on the thrill. He signs over his life, blindly agreeing to the Ts&Cs on a golden credit card, then lies on his bed wanking off his nose. 

We are confronted by allusions to the increasingly disturbing relationship between the sexes at a time when feminism grows more prevalent and is met by a rising tide of misogyny. Scenes of sexual violence against Pic’s fairy godmother are followed by a metaphorical castration in a confession booth in a fight to the death on the nature of truth. An extra layer of surrealism in this interplay of gender politics is provided by the fact that Maclean plays all the characters herself. She casts herself as both perpetrator and victim in these disturbing acts.

Spite Your Face could only happen at the Venice Biennale. It is immersed in its location, dripping in the gold of the historical merchants and the contemporary oligarch’s yachts. The staging is astonishing, and the project itself, presenting Rachel Maclean to an international audience of the highest level, is vital.

Spite Your Face, Chiesa Santa Caterina, Venice, 13 May - 26 Nov http://scotlandandvenice.com/years/2017/