Rachel Maclean on Make Me Up

Like razor-wire wrapped in candy floss, Rachel Maclean returns with Make Me Up, which imagines St. Peter's Seminary as a candy-coloured phantasia filled with women forced to compete against one another. She tells us more about this strange world

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 Oct 2018
  • Make Me Up

The work of Glasgow-based artist Rachel Maclean is a riot of colour, but then so is a coral snake. Her wild style takes its influences from children's films and fairy tales, pop music and reality TV, social media and meme culture, using these cosy aesthetics to create caustic satires of our modern world. She’s best known for her candy-coloured video work that employs green screen to place her characters in computer-generated worlds in which the oppressively cheery visuals clash with the films’ troubling narratives.

Take her most recent film, Spite Your Face, which represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale last year. A 37-minute loop, it took the form of a disturbing riff on Pinocchio to explore consumer culture and the rise of the far right and populism across Europe and the States. The surface of the film shimmers gold, but beneath the kitsch there’s cruelty and darkness: it’s razor-wire wrapped in candyfloss.

Maclean is poised to send another bright but spiky project into the world this month with her first feature length film, which makes its bow at London Film Festival ahead of a nationwide tour and television broadcast on BBC Four. Titled Make Me Up, Maclean was invited to make the feature by Scottish production company Hopscotch and Glasgow-based arts company NVA, which sadly closed before Maclean finished the film. The brief was a curious one. “NVA and Hopscotch films came to me and asked me to make a film about civilization, kind of in relation to the Civilisation series from the BBC, but also in relation to St Peter's Seminary,” Maclean tells us by phone from London, where she’s preparing for her solo exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection, which includes Maclean’s first virtual reality work, I’m Terribly Sorry. (If you’ve seen Maclean’s films, you’ll know that the thought of entering one of them using a VR headset is terrifying).

Her starting point for Make Me Up was to look back at the seminal BBC series. “I thought that there was quite a lot of mileage in using Kenneth Clark's voice,” Maclean explains. “I thought there was a humorous way that I could use it to explore his canonised vision of art history, where women don't really factor in unless they're naked sculptures or paintings. So I've kind of taken a feminist angle on his vision of art history, but then fitted that in within this larger narrative.”

This is where St. Peter's Seminary comes in. NVA had been working towards restoring this modernist masterpiece, which has sat abandoned since 1980, but the arts company folded this summer after it failed to secure future funding, leaving St Peter's in ruin. The extraordinary building does rise again in Make Me Up – digitally at least. Maclean has reimagined the distinctive structure as “a Brutalist Barbie Dreamhouse, which is partly a reality TV show and partly kind of like a church congregation with sermons.” The film follows a young woman named Siri who finds herself trapped in this strange building, where a group of women are being put through a series of humiliating trials by The Figurehead, who speaks entirely in sentences taken from Civilisation's audio track.

This lip-synching of found audio is a technique Maclean often turns to. She’s used political speeches, dialogue from Hollywood movies and songs from Disney musicals in previous films like Feed Me and A Whole New World. The research process is laborious, but the results are often disturbing and hilarious. “I find when you sit down and write dialogue for a plot, it's very hard not to have the characters telling you the plot,” she explains. “How do you get them to say this thing to move the plot forward? But I quite like the odd disconnect you get when you've got the plot happening but the dialogue is kind of another layer on top of that.”

Maclean clearly had fun repurposing Clark’s stuffy windbaggery. “Something about the way he says things gives what he says a kind of ritualistic, nonliteral quality,” she says. “And there's always these other layers, which is sort of talking about history and art history. I trawled Civilisation with some help for weeks, just pulling things out and working out where to put them. I hope that it gives this kind of surreal tone to it.” Sometimes it doesn’t even matter what Clark says, it’s how he says it. “It’s such a particular upper-class voice of that era. It really relates to this specific western, specifically British voice of white male power, and I like the fact that that just comes across even in the sound of his voice.”

Make Me Up couldn’t feel more on the pulse of today’s cultural conversation. The dreamhouse in which Siri finds herself trapped may look cute, but it’s far from benign. As well as competing against each other for survival, the women are starved, confined to cells and watched by ogling mechanical eyes that drop from the ceiling, punishing the women if their demeanour doesn’t conform to what’s expected of a “good girl”. It feels like a direct response to the #MeToo era, but Maclean explains she’d been working on Make Me Up long before the myriad stories of abuse in Hollywood broke last summer.

“I think it was kind of around about the time of the film shoot when a lot of it came out,” recalls Maclean, “But it's been an amazing year. It feels like so much has changed in people's perception of certain issues. It's a very significant moment in that it feels like for a long time we've been pretending that feminism is no longer something that women need, that we’ve already achieved the equality that we were looking for. Whereas it seems like we’re now in this moment of reckoning where we're like, 'no, no, there's still a long way to go and there's still a lot of problems,' and that shouldn't be ignored.”

‘If I'm being optimistic, I'd say that we're in a moment where we're witnessing the death throes of the patriarchy’

Perpetuating the misogynistic ideas in Make Me Up and inflicting all this suffering on Siri and the other women is The Figurehead, played by Maclean herself. It’s certainly not unusual to see Maclean in her films; she plays all the parts herself, usually under mountains of makeup, prosthetics and elaborate costumes. What’s unusual in Make Me Up is that for the first time she’s sharing her candy-coloured vistas with other actors. “That part was really fun. I was so lucky that the cast were amazingly talented. And so incredibly tolerant: we had to shoot it in this very cold, massive room in the middle of January, and a lot of them were wearing costumes that were not designed for it.”

Working with and directing actors did prove a learning curve, though. “I hadn't really thought too much before about the style that I act in, I guess because I'm not an actor, I just did it.” Once Maclean got her cast on set, however, it became clear to her that her own acting style isn’t one endorsed by RADA. “I realised I was asking them to do something unusual: I wanted the actors to approach it in this kind of exaggerated, hammy acting style. They were maybe used to playing with more subtlety, but they all got on board with the themes in film and with the idea that overacting can contain loads of subtleties too.”

Make Me Up ends on an ambiguous note. When it comes to gender inequality, it’s difficult to tell if Maclean sees the glass half-empty or half-full. “I don't know quite what moment we're in at the moment,” she admits. “I think in some ways, if I'm being optimistic, I'd say that we're in a moment where we're witnessing the death throes of the patriarchy. There are all these kind of alt-right reactions against feminism and there are figures like Donald Trump, who represents a very conservative idea of gender, but if I'm being optimistic, I'd say that these are just the last wee gasps of something that's on its way out. But then I start thinking about it from the other point of view and think, no, actually what's happened is that up until now we've not quite admitted to ourselves how far we've still got to go before there's any feeling of equality between men and women and that there is still a lot of work to do. So I guess I'm just trying to work through ideas, and work out where we are now and how far we have to go.”

Make Me Up has its world premiere on 12 Oct at London Film Festival, before a UK tour which includes stops at GFT on 14 Oct and Filmhouse on 16 Oct, both of which include post screening Q+As with Rachel Maclean
Make Me Up will be broadcast on BBC Four in November; date tbc
Rachel Maclean is currently at the Zabludowicz Collection, London until 16 Dec