wot you :-) about? rachel maclean talks us through her new exhibition

With high energy and high saturation fantasy emerges a cutting and sharp critique of contemporary culture in artist Rachel Maclean’s work.

Rachel Maclean is having a moment. Recently nominated for the Jarman Award and preparing to represent Scotland at the 2017 Venice Biennale, her largest solo show to date Wot You :-) About?, has just opened at HOME in Manchester. A smaller version of this exhibition will be presented at London’s Tate Britain later this month. Working across film, print, photography, and now sculpture, Maclean approaches social media, its effect on identity, technology, and power structures. Through the high energy and high saturation fantasy emerges a cutting and sharp critique of contemporary culture. The Fifth Sense caught up with the artist on the afternoon of the opening to find out more.

Contrasts and juxtapositions

I like creating the sense of something that’s seductive in my work; seductive maybe in the same way that a lot of popular culture is. You just want to consume it. It has this insatiable quality to it. However, there is simultaneously something that pushes back against that too. There’s something visceral, or violent, or unsettling, and hits you in the midst of that seduction. The series are then printed on a commercial fabric, so they have a glossy quality to them, almost like an advert. I’m interested in companies like Google, where the infantalisation of the adult world, the commercial world, and the world of work merges. The Google office is a kind of crèche or kid’s playroom in that sense. These companies project something glossy and benign, but there is this dark and sinister aspect underneath. I like to play with that feeling – what’s on the surface and what’s underneath. I’m also interested in pictorial words, like emoticons. I wanted to evoke the cutesy-ness that has come into common parlance. So, the title of the show has this cutesy emoticon statement - the smiley – but with this much more aggressive and confrontational tone to it. What are you smiling about?

The power of satire

I like comedy. I grew up watching quite a lot of skit comedy – The Fast Show, Harry Enfield, The League of Gentlemen, Mighty Boosh; often satirical and dark comedy. Similarly, I lived in Edinburgh for quite a long time and I went to see loads of stuff at the festival. I’m interested in experimental comedy and the way it can be used to satirise culture. I’m also inspired by older figures like William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, the use of caricatures, and the idea of the grotesque as a way to satirise political figures or ideas of social class.

Becoming an avatar

When I was a kid I used to obsessively film a lot of stuff on a home video camera. However, I often felt frustrated by not being quite able to realise everything that was inside your head. I then discovered green screen, where you could do that quite simply and low tech. My work started to develop more elaborately – more costume, more props, more make up. Using myself started off from a performance art idea where you use yourself as the subject of your work, but then it developed into something quite different. None of the characters are really about me, it’s almost as if I treat myself as kind of avatar which can become and carry these different people. I like that quality of them feeling inauthentic, unlike if you cast an actor, where you would likely cast somebody who looked like the person you wanted them to play, or sounded like, or could communicate that through their physicality. I’m interested in that level of artifice in my work. The exhibition is about narcissism, the culture of the self, and individualism. I was thinking about the selfie and the sense of creating your own mini celebrity and was interested in how that also plays into the self-conscious narcissism of using myself as the only character.

Anxieties of identity in the Internet age

I’m interested in how emotions and the intangible is being attempted to be trapped down and contained as data by technology, like with the Apple Watch. You end up treating yourself like some kind of video game – trying to get happiness points, or more health points. It’s an insane anxious levelling of the points system. Increasingly, things like personality and emotion are being quantified. I wanted to take a critical approach towards this culture of the self, self-obsession, and the shamelessness that surrounds it, looking at the anxiety that abounds once the online identity becomes increasingly distinct from the real self. The mainstream reality of the Internet has heightened all of the anxieties of gender. I don’t think young girls have been freed from their own sense of physical appearance or their own bodies, but instead feel that you have to be constantly vigilant of the photograph. The film is called It’s What’s Inside That Counts because I was watching quite a lot of make-up tutorial videos online. There is an obsession with your appearance and manipulating it, but often it is worked into this third wave feminist idea that really it’s what is inside that counts. The message about what beauty is and what it means ends up being really conflated and odd.

Misuse of mindfulness

There is an aspect of mindfulness which comes out of Buddhist culture and comes out of something much more meaningful, but it is being reinterpreted by capitalism, particularly the tech world. It seems to have almost developed as a coping mechanism for contemporary capitalism, for living constantly within the digital realm. There’s something I find a little bit objectionable about it politically – so much of it is about putting everything onto the individual, so that the experiences you have are about the way that you interpret them. So, if you experience something that’s negative, it’s because your attitude is wrong, not that things in the external world are wrong and should be changed. There is obviously a degree of truth in that, but there’s something a-political about it which is dangerous. If you are being wronged in the work place, or in the world, being angry can be a productive force and it shouldn’t necessarily be discouraged.

The double meaning of data

Alongside technology, or Internet data, it also stands for identity data – name, date of birth, these things that allow you to cross borders and be a person in the world. Without that, and if you’re a refugee or a migrant without papers, you are to a certain extent identity-less if everything is down to quantifying your ‘data’. I wanted to address that – what else does this data give you that allows you to pass through the world, and live and exist as somebody who is recognised as being alive.

Brexit and binaries

The Scottish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 is in Santa Caterina, a former church. I’m still thinking through ideas but it’s going to be a single channel film looking at the effects of Brexit. I’ve made quite a lot of work in the past about national identity; Scottishness and Britishness. It feels difficult being a British artist, a Scottish artist, representing your country in Venice, without speaking about that and speaking about the idea of what it means to be in Europe, or out of it. Thinking about Brexit, and the recent experience of the Scottish Referendum before that, there has been this real sense of binaries over the past few years in the Britain. Yes. No. In. Out. Increasingly your life is being determined by these very binary ideas, and as a consequence you’re missing out on the grey areas that exist in between that.

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