Adrian Slatcher writes poetry, fiction and criticism, and lives in Manchester.
This was written in a rush before Christmas for the Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. It didn’t make the shortlist, announced today but it would be a shame if it didn’t see the light of day. The show, at HOME, has finished now, but I very much enjoyed it, and Maclean is clearly going to be an artist to watch, beginning this summer, when she represents Scotland at the Venice Bienalle. Looking over the piece I think I would have explored a few more artistic precedents – Cindy Sherman for one, but also the video artist Paul McCarthy – but I’ll leave it as it is for now.
The Super-saturated World of Rachel Maclean
The first thing you notice about the otherworldy characters that people Rachel Maclean’s new show Wot u 🙂 about? at HOME in Manchester, is that the prosthetics she uses have removed her character noses. In a good cartoon tradition – think the Simpsons, think LEGO figures – the characters skins are a bright yellow, but between the eyes and the mouth there’s a smooth plateau. These characters – played by Maclean herself – are transformed into either absurdities or grotesques, as if the plateauing of the face is enough to dehumanise, to mutate. In the film “It’s what’s inside that counts”, the two main characters both work for B.U. an internet company that uses advertising to appeal to the mass of drones. This mix of cartoon aesthetics, with the self-help mumbo jumbo of New Age gurus, acts as an easy handle into the work itself. The show itself features all new work, but the relationship between the static pieces and the film is that of sketch to finished painting. The centrepiece movie is reflected in the large digital prints that cover two walls of one of half of the gallery. Here, medieval frescos are parodied, with the guru and the cover girl from the film (think respectively Kim Kardashian and Deepak Chopra via Buddha), as the gods, and around them, instead of cherubims, the little gremlins that are the underworld virus of the movie.
In between the posters and the film are a series of sculptures, oversized grotesques, that are like parallel characters to those in the movie. These are closer to animations from childhood, big-eyed yellow blobs, part ugly alien bad dream, part Monsters Inc. with an aesthetic that owes more to Spongebob Squarepants than it does to any artistic precursors. These blobs are the only child-friendly bits of the show, and even here, their context is a manipulated one. They all hold in their hands a digital device – a large iPad acting as a phone to give you a sense of relative scale – on which status updates, happy or sad, or presented.
If the posters and the sculptures almost seem like mall advertising for the film, as if walking through a cinema lobby where giant figures from the movie you are about to see are static statues on your route, that is also surely deliberate in the staging. For Maclean has made her mark through movies. And this latest one, “It’s what’s inside that counts” is a highly playful, but also darkly sinister snapshot of our current digitised worldview made flesh. In Maclean’s super-saturated vision, the masses are thin, anonymised, dopey drones, who are addicted to the data that they are being sold to power their devices. The company that sells this to them is a parody of all those BT or Sky adverts that encourage you to sign up to their service. In this case, the leading figure is a beautified Disney queen. Moon Unit Zappa would parody this kind of empty speech patterning in “Valley Girl”, whilst the more modern aspect is that sense of the Kardashians at Home, a family famous for being famous. One of the drones is servant to this figure, pampering her and making sure everything is perfect. Like the drones, she too is obsessed with her online reputation. She posts a picture of herself looking radiant and it pings on everyone’s device. She makes them consume the data she is selling them to get more of her looking beautiful.
But there is a dark side, and this is what gives Maclean’s work its edge. For underground, are little trolls, gremlins, who are the true addicts. They no longer care about the content they receive. They live in darkness gnawing on the blue wires. One of them manages to bite into our beautiful poster girl, and all Hell breaks loose, as they redirect the data to themselves. So far, so meta-, but whereas storytelling is part of Maclean’s playbook, it’s a simplification to see this film in a linear context. The other characters – a small, Buddha-headed guru states platitudes about “it’s what’s inside that counts”, a slobbering snake oil salesman who is the other face of “B.U.” As the data fades, the highly saturated world disappears as well and we find ourselves in a desert coffee shop, where a faceless waitress refuses to respond to the guru’s request for service. This is a nightmarish dream sequence, where the trolls have taken over. The world’s meld together as a now bloated character, appears to be giving birth, but the guru’s platitudes have now turned into overt sexual violence. “It’s what inside that counts” turns ugly. The movie continues on a continuous loop, and for once, this art gallery trope doesn’t seem annoying, but written into the piece as the trolls shout out “again, again” and yes, the movie starts again.
But a linear retelling is not what makes the film interesting. If media art has a continuing weak point is that its deeper meaning is often little more than a platitude. On one level, Maclean’s show could be seen to be a manifestation of this. How many years have we to see artists considering the moral ambiguity of our new interactive worlds? Yet, if you treat the subject material as mere material for the playful multiplicity of Maclean’s art, it’s a forgivable weakness. For the film is a remarkable visual feast. On the one hand it is technically consummate, an art film which has the highest production values. But at the same time she loves the messiness of the internet as a visual media. The film is shown across three screens, with the side screens reflecting on the main narrative, for this alone its worth a repeat visit. Yet on every screen are overlays of graphics which owe as much to kid’s computer games or even an awkward Myspace or Geocities layout than something more highly polished. It is this acute graphic literacy – not a note is out of place – which makes the show seem one of the first times that a true “digital native” (Maclean is under thirty) has been let loose on this contemporary subject matter. It feels that she understands the digital world, its contradictions, and equally important, its aesthetic, instinctively and absolutely. Her characters are as brilliantly accurate as the best charicature, and as she remarkably transforms herself to play all the parts, her ability to both embody their “humanity”, whilst subverting it via prosphetics and the absurdity of the storyline, has the surreal madness of the best children’s TV: from the Clangers to Ballamory to Adventure Time.
From an artistic perspective, there can be a sense that your response to Maclean will depend a lot on how willing you are to embrace the kitsch, the obvious, the gaudy. If Koons gave us a sense of how the “image” in modern consumerist life was almost always kitsch, and had a brilliant sense of both the “rightness” and “wrongness” of the pieces he would choose to work on (his stainless steel rabbit, for instance, with its numb surface, or his Michael Jackson and Bubbles, understanding the underlying absurdity of Jackson’s twisted version of childhood), Maclean seems to be doing something similar for a virtualised world. The 2D is the “real” thing because it’s able to be endlessly manipulated, whereas the object – and these sculptures are amongst her first – do seem more like props than fully realised works in their own right. The other artist who comes to mind is Matthew Barney, for his “Cremaster Cycle”, where a Busby Berkeley style extravaganza is staged to defy linear interpretation, instead to be experiential. In some ways, her performative side, makes this work much warmer, despite its underlying darkness, than Barney’s spectacles.
Maclean has been chosen to represent Scotland at the next Venice Bienalle, and given that she is already developing such a toolbox of familiar tropes, through the sheer munificence and complexity of her film pieces, now seems an ideal time to see her before what is truly strange about it, becomes overly familiar. Having caught the film several times, it’s hard to convey the uncanny pleasure this work provides, that super-saturation of images, music (there are a couple of excellent songs in the show) making it genuinely something to experience for yourself. A beautiful, but equally kitsch book, like a Barbie catalogue or a children’s annual, is also available from the exhibition shop.