Monsters, music and emojis: welcome to the world of Rachel Maclean

Published 17 November 2016

Anna Coatman meets the shape-shifting Scottish video artist, whose virtual worlds question the images and identities created in social media.

  • From the Winter 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In a warehouse building in the East End of Glasgow, I’m watching two men transform huge lumps of polystyrene into yellow Emoji monsters. Beside them, children’s dolls lie in a heap, waiting to be decapitated and turned into hybrid “data rats”, pests with a penchant for chewing through internet cables.

    These strange creatures have been dreamed up by Rachel Maclean, the 29-year-old video artist I am here to meet. With just weeks to go before the opening of her solo shows at Manchester’s HOME gallery and London’s Tate Britain, all hands are on deck. The men in her studio who are busy sculpting the polystyrene are artist friends of Maclean’s; the sculptures are inspired by, and will be installed alongside, her new series of large-format fabric prints, “We Want Data!” (2016), and latest video It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016).

    Hyper-saturated and headache-inducing, Maclean’s films are set in digitally rendered, rainbow-coloured dystopias, combining looping narratives and musical interludes. Her aesthetic draws on Cosplay (fantasy role play often involving dressing up as a virtual character), music videos, social media sites and “happiness” marketing, painting an unflattering picture of contemporary consumerist culture.

    These works have also made Maclean a rising star in the art world. Her upcoming solo show is just the latest in a series of high-profile screenings, awards and exhibitions that have introduced her weird and wonderful art to ever wider audiences. She won the Margaret Tait Award at the 2013 Glasgow Film Festival; her film Feed Me was featured in British Art Show 8 in 2015; she was one of this year’s Frieze Film artists; and she has been chosen to represent Scotland at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

    For the HOME exhibition, having such a large gallery to herself will allow Maclean to present her art in a more multi-dimensional, immersive way than ever before. “I’ve always wanted to show sculptures with my videos,” she explains, “because I always make a lot stuff, like props and costumes.” As we inspect a rail of tiny, pink, scratchy polyester dresses that are in the process of being ripped and grubbed up (“these are actually made for real babies”, Maclean says, appalled), Maclean’s dad walks in, wearing paint-spattered overalls. A recently retired art teacher, he has volunteered to help with the exhibition prep.

    He’s not the only family member Maclean has enlisted. Her “wee team” also includes her brother Colm (himself an artist), who is upstairs, in a room with a velvet curtain for a door, intently working on a Mac. This is where Maclean’s films are laboriously crafted.

    In every video work she makes, Maclean plays all of the roles. Dressing up in outlandish costumes, she is filmed performing against a green screen. Then, as she explains, showing me an unfinished scene from It’s What’s Inside That Counts, the green is taken out of the footage and replaced with various maximalist “backgrounds” – be it a rainy post-apocalyptic city or a bleached-out desert – using the Photoshop and After Effects programmes.

  • “Is it strange to see yourself like this?” I ask, as we look at an image from the “We Want Data!” series (pictured above). The image features Rachel modelled up as a kind of cyber-angel with big blue plastic breasts, wired up to a “happiness” generating device, and taking a selfie. “I don’t really think about it at all,” Maclean insists. “The characters are quite purposefully not self-portraits. They aren’t an exploration of me, or anything personal to me; more a splitting of a number of different ideas of identity and stereotype.”

    This interest in identity – particularly in relation to gender – is key to Maclean’s work, and the way that she uses her body as a medium through which to explore this brings to mind the art of feminist artists such as Cindy Sherman and Lynne Hershman Leeson. “Most of the main characters in my films are women, and I’m interested in exploring female identity. At moments all of my characters fit into very clearly defined gender roles, but at others they seem to slip outside of them. I want it to feel like they are simultaneously working within stereotypes, and slightly undermining and complicating them.”

    The way that people use social media to construct identity is also a major theme in Maclean’s art – particularly in the work she has produced for the coinciding HOME and Tate Britain shows. “I’m interested in cultures of narcissism and the selfie. You can create your own self through the images you upload, so you create this hyper-real version of yourself online.”

    So, does Maclean use social media herself? “I keep liking the idea of it, but then I realise I’m not very good at it,” she admits. “Some people use Twitter and Instagram in really interesting ways, almost like making them into art projects. But it always makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable really. Why should I expect or want people to be interested in what I’m eating for tea?”

    Rachel Maclean: Wot u :-) about?, HOME, Manchester, until 8 Jan 2017 and Tate Britain, London, until 2 April 2017

    Anna Coatman (@AnnaCoatman) is Assistant Editor of RA Magazine.

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