Catriona McAra explores the “nauseating and knowing” world of Scottish artist Rachel Maclean.
The work of Rachel Maclean is made of sugar and spice and all things gleefully eccentric, with a hint of black humour thrown in to season her aesthetic cauldron. On one level, her work appears to re-present that fantastical domain which you would be transported to were you to mount the winged, commercial Pegasus of My Little Pony. Maclean’s work at first appears to be positioned “somewhere over the rainbow” but on closer inspection we quickly realise that this particular brand of Munchkinland is all masquerade, and that the Wicked Witch of the (capitalist) West has run off with the ruby slippers. Here fantasy is used to tease and ultimately poke fun at our reality. Maclean’s work occupies the bridge between the sticky sweetie wrappers of little girls’ sleepover parties and the garish nightmare of late capitalism. The work is at once nauseating and knowing. It subverts from within and claws at the safety valve of our civilised screen (Foster, 1996, 113). As the artist herself explains, it marks that moment of rupture, that inevitable, tragic moment of postmodern hysteria when the precocious princess of pop shaves her head, attacks a car with an umbrella, then lets it all hang out on the graphic dissection table of cheap, glossy magazine covers. Pure post-pop-surrealism, the work of Rachel Maclean offers a version of kitsch that has been complicated; fetishistic surfaces that have been surgically enhanced and somehow injected with creative depth.
Skin and Bone, Rachel Maclean
Skin and Bone, Rachel Maclean
The pressing question for my purposes is this: can we realistically build an aesthetic theoretical framework around this practice or does it lie deliberately beyond the realm of comprehension? It is possible that theory can neither accommodate nor keep up with this digitally enhanced imagery; academically sanctioned, regurgitated postmodern assemblages of hybrid culture lag miles behind this unique aesthetic. The work is beyond the “faked sensations” of Greenbergian explanations of kitsch (1939), and seems to disrupt the reproductive logic of the Baudrillardian simulacrum (1981). The bastardised intertext pushes parody to its limits. As Susan Stewart reminds us: “both kitsch and campimply the imitation, the inauthentic, the impersonation” (1993, 168), but here the grotesque carnivalesque ogres, in the fancy dress box of Maclean’s imagination, obliterate any straightforward attempts at cultural classification.
Candy Girls, Rachel Maclean
Candy Girls, Rachel Maclean
Maclean’s practice marks an important moment for the feminist project though, in the parlance of the last 30 years, one might question what exactly do we “wanna”? The roll-call of “high” art historical references (Bosch, Michelangelo, Poussin) blends all too smoothly with those dystopic icons of 1980s’ and 90s’ “girl power”: Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and more recent exaggerations of the sugar pop industry and generational continuum: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, et al, whose music has become as, if not more, reliant on methods of visualisation in its dissemination. Lauper’s (somewhat under-developed) early 80s thesis proposes that “fun” might be the goal of the third-wave feminist message. Maclean’s work should certainly be viewed this way first and foremost, especially in its ventriloquized lip-synching of well-known lyrics and comedy sketches, and in its playful uses of props, digital deities, jewel-encrusted shrines, flamenco dancewear and fluffy bear costumes. Indeed it is hard to think of another example of when sheer tastelessness has been served up so deliciously.
Maclean forms part of a confident generation of Scottish feminist practice. As a direct contemporary, I have to admit that I find myself turning instinctually to my intellectual mothers for guidance in the navigation of her garish landscapes and their inhabitants. In many ways the film theorist Laura Mulvey’s essay on Cindy Sherman, ‘Cosmetics and Abjection’ (1996), could be re-read with Maclean’s work in mind – Sherman no doubt a visual soul-mate of Maclean. For example, the “gradual collapse of surface” (72) in Mulvey’s text and Sherman’s photographs is mirrored in Maclean, as is the use of “soft-core pastiche” (69) “nostalgia” (66) and, once again and most importantly, “fun” (65). They appear to share a visual vocabulary and speak a similar language in which words often fail. Like Sherman, Maclean is the only actor/model in her work. The costumes, prostheses, and face-paint are reminiscent of Sherman’s Old Masters and fairy tale series but the overall mood of a Maclean seems more akin to Sherman’s later bulimic pictures.
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Triptych, Rachel Maclean
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Triptych, Rachel Maclean
When discussing the vulnerable “blonde clown,” a staple of the Sadeian pornographic imagination, the writer Angela Carter was prompted to evoke the chamber-pot of Jonathan Swift’s Celia and the revelation that this otherwise perfect specimen of feminine wiles should shit like everyone else: “how can it be possible such a precious being, all angel and no ape, should ever do such a thing? God must be very cruel to shatter our illusions so” (1979, 74). Here Maclean’s fallen angels and earth-bound Care Bears not only defecate but wallow in the multi-coloured excrement of commodity culture. Carter’s flatulent trapeze artist, Fevvers, offers another archetype for Maclean’s myriad characters, especially this new body of defecating damsels. Here the fairy tale has dropped its veneer and the monstrous bursts forth and runs riot; that moment in the dream or narrative logic when we realise that the anti-dote will only transform the bogey into something more ominous and even more terrifying. - pearrls.com/

Interview by Ivan Knapp.

Artist and Filmmaker Rachel Maclean lives and works in Glasgow. Her videos are rapidly gaining recognition as symptomatic of a wave of new video-based art that addresses the psychological precarity in contemporary discourses surrounding identity and new media. Her films have been exhibited across the UK and internationally. Recent solo shows include Happy & Glorious, CCA, Glasgow, 2014; I HEART SCOTLAND, The Edinburgh Printmakers,  2014; Invites, Zabludowicz Collection, London, 2014; Quick Child, Run, Trade Gallery, Nottingham, 2014. Rachel is also the winner of the Glasgow Film Festival’s 2013 Maragaret Tait Award and was nominated for the 2013 Jarman Award. Rachel’s solo show at Rowing Projects, Please Sir…, is on until the 20th December.
Ivan Knapp (3:AM): Your early work reminds me of the way Mike Kelley used objects in relation to Melanie Klein’s theory of good and bad objects. For Klein and Kelley, objects trigger the traversal of psychic positions in a person in a way that seems particularly analogous to the way they function in your narratives. How has your thinking about the role of objects, and interiors more generally, developed in the way you produce your films?
Rachel Maclean: On a practical level the reason I started using objects is because I was making sculptures and it felt that there was something interesting about making a sculpture that would be something that you actually handled, it became something that was active rather than something you just looked at. Quite a lot of the objects in my work are things that you actually consume, so there’s oil The Lion and the Unicorn which this thing that’s drunk, and the coke bottles in A Whole New World, on the one hand it’s almost like product placement, where you see it appearing again and again, and on the other they are quite ritualistic.
3:AM: It’s almost like you are affording the objects animism. Objects that have the potential to activate consumers, to borrow a phrase from the marketing lexicon…
RM: I think in certain adverts there is something like that going on, in Coke adverts there is that aura that comes from the idea that you consuming it is more than you just liking it, it changes you, or your identity in some way.
3:AM: In the more recent works there seems to be a turn towards the cinematic, a shift partly evinced by your use of HD, that is distinct from the early films which had applied a particular ‘youtube aesthetic’. Where, for you, is the proper viewing context for the newer films? And are the films made with a gallery space in mind?
RM: I suppose it’s somewhere between intention and practicality. When I was making work at college I didn’t have the chance to work with a crew or good cameras. I think I was also into the idea of referencing homemade youtube videos. So it was like really mad low tech effects and the kind of thing that you get teenagers uploading to youtube. With the new films – A Whole New World and Please Sir - I was looking at reference points for landscapes, digital cgi landscapes, and kind of looking more to that video game aesthetic. It doesn’t look real but it seems to have developed its own reality. It’s a hyperreality – so detailed that it doesn’t match what we see in real life.
I did this course in video compositing, and it was all about using effects to imitate a camera, so if you are making something that’s entirely virtual you have all these mistakes you need to imitate, like dust on the camera, like lens flares. Normally when you’re shooting something you want to avoid them, but in video games they are always there. It doesn’t imitate your eye as much as imitating the camera and that is how you recognise it as being believable or not.
3:AM: It’s interesting that you explore these fantasyscapes through dialogue borrowed from TV shows with participatory formats – Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly, X Factor – that are all also ostensibly aspirational, or at least trade off this aspiration fantasy…
RM: It was interesting using Britain’s Got Talent in that it plays into the idea that we can all fulfil our fantasy, but it relies on a format where there is this celebrity elite who are the judges. You see people coming from notionally nothing, but more often there is this kind of ridicule, them wanting the dream but not actually getting it. I think there is something quite dark and delusional about them.
3:AM: Perhaps this delusion finds a complementary representation online, where you can always be your better ‘self’, living fantasies virtually – which is very much a trope in your films. But a better you is also another you, it’s a multiple. There can be the you that likes looking at really far out porn, and  the you who really likes baking – are these selves inherent to late capitalist social discourse or is this more of a generation-specific techno-masquerade?
RM: Maybe a bit of both. In that it’s not something that the internet has invented. We all conform to perform certain identities that fit within certain roles, but the internet has accentuated it and made it more visual, to the extent that you can mediate yourself and actually edit your life. It’s an interesting form of self-portraiture. The selfie generation self-portrait is a not a probing, warts and all, self-portraiture. It’s a complementary vision of yourself, you select your most complementary aspects and attach things onto that… an ultimate you.
3:AM: It’s interesting that you use words like ‘edit’ and ‘select’ in relation to your work.  Do you use social media a lot?
RM: I’m not a selfie taker or anything like that, but I’m interested. I don’t want to moralise, a lot of what it reflects is already there in society. What it does do is provide a platform to explore identities.
3:AM: Is the platform coercive?
RM: When the internet first started there was the idea that by losing yourself you could become something that was post-gender, an idea that has proven quite naïve in a lot of ways, because the internet is a reflection of society.
3:AM: When Juliet Mitchell talks about hysteria as a response to being lost in sameness, unable to differentiate oneself from others, she offers a way of thinking about social relations that appears pertinent to the way the internet mediates peer relationships.  Digital work that problematizes the mediated subject seems to have been getting more attention on this side of the Atlantic over the last couple of years, I’m thinking of course of Cecile B Evans, James Richards, Ed Atkins, Shana Moulton etc. – is this symptomatic of the specificities of a certain stage of digitisation and the behaviours it gives rise to more generally?
RM: I get the feeling that digital art has been bigger in the States than has been here for a while. But I do think that the technology is more available now. It’s a more affordable and accessible medium. Even 5 or 6 years ago it was quite difficult to get access to a lot of software, and that means its less techie and more mainstream. But I still just think it doesn’t sell very well, people still want something that will stick on their wall.
3:AM: How did you find working specifically with ideas of Scottish national identity during the year-long (official) national debate? Did the ferocity of opinion ever become obfuscating, or did it instead bring things to the surface, did it help or did it hinder?
RM: It felt more and more uncomfortable the closer it got to the referendum, in terms of trying to stay neutral. It was also difficult with people assuming I’m going to vote yes, and then presuming I’m anti-English and then having to defend myself. I found that kind of accusation weird. Also I found it difficult people assuming I was yes and then having a kind of wink-wink “you’re a nationalist too” kind of thing. But, then the whole experience does bring to the surface anxieties people have about national identities.
3:AM: Do you feel like that is the same kind of thing you try and do in your videos, bringing anxieties to the surface?
RM: I hope so (laughs).
3:AM: The creation of identities, national identities or private ones, requires the destruction (or temporary destruction at least) of previous identities. What, if anything do you think the result of the referendum has had on the Scottish psyche, or the mythology of that psyche?
RM: I think it has had a positive effect. I mean the SNP don’t represent Scottish identity, but they used to project a very masculine vision of Scottish identity – they used Mel Gibson’s face on one of their flyers – it very aestheticized and romanticised politics. It didn’t take them very long to clean themselves off that, towards something more natural, much less historical and dirty, and much more about the future. I think Nicola Sturgeon has probably helped in that sense. She’s not exactly a charismatic speaker and I’m not her biggest fan, but I think hers being the face of Scottish national identity is much better than having Alex Salmond’s face. He stands for a nationalism that I don’t have much sympathy with, a nationalism that is very conservative.
3:AM: There seemed to be a discernible difference between the political stance of Scotland’s visual artists and its writers on independence, with the former, on the whole, throwing their weight behind the no campaign. History does entwine independence with writers in Scotland, Hugh McDiarmid, Alasdair Grey etc, but would you agree with that observation, and if so, is there anything you think is peculiar to the imaginary of the Scottish visual artist and the Scottish writer – or is it a professional thing – has the Turner prize got anything to do with it? Do artists need common markets where writers need mythologies?
RM: I think it’s quite interesting. I didn’t know any Scottish writers who didn’t get forced to come out one way or the other, and most of them came out on the yes side. But I think it has something do with the context for art, and I think this is problematic, but a lot of Scottish writers write in dialects, particular to the Scottish experience, the poetry and literature of the past. It’s rooted in Scotland, in terms of character and place. But in art there is this idea that there shouldn’t be a barrier to understanding it, it should be translatable – transcultural, that you can make something and it can be made sense of anywhere in the world.
3:AM: But I suppose the art market is funded by elites, which are, by virtue of the way the world is, international. Whereas many more people can afford a book so the market for writers is perhaps more domestic whilst not everyone can buy a piece of art.
RM: What is also problematic is the success of Scottish artists and the Turner prize, and their international reputation. So people like Douglas Gordon have flats in a few different places, but Scottish writers still tend to be based very much in Scotland.
3:AM: You were part of the Generations shows. How did you feel being placed within a trajectory of Scottish art?
RM: It was a really good experience. But from the outset I was aware that there was a type of politics at work. A lot of people weren’t happy about that. But none of that really affected me, in a nice way I felt quite separate from that kind of anxiety between some people getting selected and others not.
3:AM: But the inclusion of you hints at the project as a survey of a visual vernacular, and I wonder whether you think that idea stands up and where you would place yourself within that – James Hogg and Douglas Gordon spring to mind?
RM: I think the aesthetic of my work doesn’t fit with what you would expect of Glasgow. But I’ve always looked at a lot of Scottish artists. Some of the first video installations I saw were of Douglas Gordon’s work. I think, as a Scottish artist, or as a young Scottish artist now, you are living in the wake of what a lot of people have done, and what they set up. I think when Douglas Gordon and people like that were working here it was a case of either staying and seeing what you can make of it or just go to London, whereas now there is so much that has been established that you’re in the debt of what a lot of people have done.
3:AM: Is it very important for you to be working in Glasgow?
RM: Yes, I think so. Some work I’ve made recently has had a lot to do with being in Glasgow, but it’s not always necessarily like that.
3:AM: The notion of fracture, divorce and reconciliation that the referendum put to the front of the political agenda invites the question – do you think Scotland is a split country in the aftermath? And if so, is there a lingering sense of guilt or anxiety?
RM: I hope not. I think the only people I knew that voted no were older – my family …
3:AM: A generational thing?
RM: I think so. You live in a bubble. Most people that I knew were all going to vote yes. The only people who didn’t were my parents. You realise how much of society you don’t have any contact with. So much comes from either social media or the web, but official media / old media was firmly behind ‘no’. My family read the Scotsman and watch the BBC, so I suppose people aren’t getting the same information, the same reflections.
3:AM: A lot of different dialogues then? It’s been argued recently that a key feature of contemporary video art is the use of dialogue to position the subject publically, do you find the balance between the public and the private problematic? Or is this where you find the dialogue that matters?
RM: I intentionally select sources that are recognisable and popular in the sense that they are not obscure or cultish reference points. So I’m keen that there is an access point.  I don’t intend for the characters to be self-portraits, it’s more of an emptying. I’m quite keen that they are defined by their appearance. I don’t see them as being me in any way, and when I edit I don’t see them as me.
3:AM: Is this perhaps because the dialogue in your work is always with yourself or from another to another – eliding the central term, ‘me’. You are either subject and object or neither. Rosalind Krauss said the paradigmatic situation of the body in video is between the parenthesis of camera and monitor – these are brackets you seem to slip in and out of. Where do you locate yourself in your work?
RM:: On one level there is narcissism. Or a sense of the narcissistic in creating worlds to contain you, but I’m interested in the idea that you’re actually breaking that, by playing all these parts you belong to nobody, that you are nobody in this world that is all made up of you.
3:AM: Do you ever feel lost?
RM: Ha-ha not really. I dressed up as four characters in one day recently and that felt quite weird – I was also pretty sleep deprived. No though, it’s always acting, you don’t become these characters, it’s very ‘surface’ level. Even with the voices, it’s about taking someone else’s voice – it’s not mine. Without someone speaking there is no real way to locate who someone is. Also I like the idea of power, there is something violent about taking someone’s voice without their permission.
3:AM: There is an aporia here, being everywhere and nowhere, that is performed both by the characters and by the structure of the films…
RM: A lot of the characters play off different stereotypes. I’m interested in characters containing several contradictory reference points in a confusing sort of way. I also think it has a lot to do with how you deal with gender, consciously or unconsciously, in society men can seem to be more consistent in their identity that women, women are expected to have multiple identities but society can’t always deal with them when they are put together.
3:AM: How important are discourses of dematerialization for your practice?
RM: I think with any shift in that direction there is nostalgia for what has been lost, people only realised how nice records sound when they started to listen to mp3s – there’s always a pulling back and forth.
3:AM: The green screen creates these immaterial objects – but, in comparison to the artists we’ve mentioned – you are more physically there…
RM: With green screens, it’s not entirely cgi in the sense that it’s not entirely a construction. It’s film so it has a relationship to that kind of technology but it’s also an environment that depends on the figure – and the relationship between the material and the immaterial is very interesting.
3:AM: Ed Atkins has said that there is an inherent violence in the retreat to virtuality, is there a knife blade between you and the green screen, is there a severing?
RM: What I’ve become interested in is the way that these technologies are used in industry on a cultural level. I think there is something about the green screen that has been used to explore fantasy worlds, where you can explore a fantasy or fairy tale space. It’s something that is new and digital but at the same way it references fantasy literature so much, it visualises desires that have always been there. I’ve always been interested in fairy tale and myth in that it is somewhere where society projects certain anxieties and desires.

3:AM: Today there seems to be a degree of equivalence between objects, possessions and tastes to the extent that, when taken together they reveal the contemporary individual as the sum total of their consumer choices – cultural tastes included, a kind of portrait as playlist – it seems appropriate that this is a kind of immaterial enhancement designed to placate the anxiety of an increasingly dematerialized living…
RM: Potentially. My characters are the sum of their parts, what they wear and what they consume, rather than any fundamental sense of identity.
3:AM: Are you tempted by to make a physical space for your films?
RM:: I did some stuff like that at college. I do want to make more sculpture because I do make a lot of objects that become costumes but the reason I haven’t recently is that it just takes so long to make videos. I feel more comfortable in a space that’s transformed. I want to find a way around feeling like you are in a white cube, when you are very embodied. When you are in a starkly lit space you feel less able to immersive yourself, lose yourself.
3:AM: In Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism, Rosalind Krauss observed that ‘analysis’ supposes a medium, and such can be rooted in a psychological condition – is the psychological medium a tenable substitution for the physical medium after the internet?
RM: Maybe, that would be quite interesting. I don’t know. It would be an interesting set of parameters for exploring contemporary art. The taxonomy might be quite difficult, video can hold quite a lot of mediums within it.
3:AM: Finally I want to return to something Krauss said in the same essay; that “the medium of video is narcissism” – in your work it feels like narcissus is peering into a very rippled pool…
RM: I guess when I started making videos it was a case of understanding it as “you point it at yourself”, I think it does explore a narcissistic, constructed self.  In my work, to be completely honest, I’m not interested in exploring any kind of ‘authentic self’. - www.3ammagazine.com/3am/an-ultimate-you-fantasyscapes-and-youtube-aesthetics/

Please, Sir...

GLOSSARY by Sabel Gavaldon

ASCENSEUR SOCIAL. [French, literally: social lift.] There’s not even a word for it in English. The French are always concerned about the way it functions. As in any other type of lift, small talk becomes a matter of survival. (See MOVING UP IN SOCIETY.)

ASPIRATION, ASPIRATIONAL. Its proper use is to describe unreasonably huge artworks erected in public spaces: “I was immediately drawn by the iconic presence and sublime scale of this aspirational sculpture commissioned by Anita Zabludowicz.” (See AUSTERITY.)

AUSTERITY. It’s rare to find, particularly among its most fervent advocates.

CLASS DIVIDE. Evidence suggests it existed long before Margaret Thatcher said otherwise, just like society itself. (See UNSEEING.)

ENTREPRENEURSHIP. Generally overrated. Again it’s borrowed from a French word: enterprise. It’s tempting to trace its genealogy back to the Vulcan Time of Awakening, 1800 years before the launch of the Federation starship commanded by captain James T. Kirk. (See TALENT.)

HIGH AND LOW CULTURE. Are always there to define one another. Once every five years, someone has the audacity to signal the equivalence between Shakespeare and Mickey Mouse. And a minute later the world keeps on spinning on its axis. (See MICKEY MOUSE.)

IMMANUEL KANT. He’s said to have had nothing for breakfast but a single cup of tea, making no exception to this rule throughout his entire life. It’s no wonder that Heinrich Heine called him the Robespierre of philosophers. (See AUSTERITY.)

KITSCH. Pejorative for “mass culture”. Its original use among the elites was to ridicule anyone who tried to move up in society. Naturally, it ended up defining modernism by opposition. (See HIGH AND LOW CULTURE.)

MICKEY MOUSE. Quote this fragment of Walter Benjamin’s notebook, dated 1931: “From a conversation with Gustav Glück and Kurt Weill. Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see for the first time that it is possible to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen.” (See CLASS DIVIDE.)

MOVING UP IN SOCIETY. Statistically unlikely. There’s usually an uncle involved.

ROBESPIERRE. The Kant of politics.

SATIRE. Apply generously as needed. I believe it was the writer Eloy Fernández Porta who said that punk is not a juvenile attitude, but Juvenal’s attitude.

TALENT. Praise it, make money out of it, but don’t venture to define it. (See TALENT SHOWS.)

TALENT SHOWS. One friend tells me that it’s in rather poor taste to say that they are of bad taste. (See TASTE.)

TASTE. A typically bourgeois form of aesthetic judgement we’ve inherited from Immanuel Kant. The house in Königsberg went to his three nieces, Amalia, Minna and Henriette. (See IMMANUEL KANT.)

UNSEEING. In The Golden Bowl by Henry James, Charlotte makes a fascinating remark about the dealer in a little shop in Bloomsbury where she and Prince Amerigo had been lingering: “The Prince was to reply to this that he himself hadn’t looked at him; as precisely, in the general connection, Charlotte had more than once, from other days, noted, for his advantage, her consciousness of how, below a certain social plane, he never saw… He took throughout, always, the meaner sort for granted — the night of their meanness or whatever name one might give it for him made all his cats grey.” (See CLASS DIVIDE.)

ZAPPING. Like receiving the sacraments for Christians, using the remote control is less of an action than it is a process of becoming. Be sure to mention the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal and his thought-provoking writings on this matter (i.e. sacraments not TV).
- rowingprojects.com/projects/please-sir