In Conversation: Rachel Maclean
by Anna Kovler
Glasgow-based artist Rachel Maclean is known for dramatic, highly staged, satirical and grotesquely funny films that poke fun at British politics and other current topics like the rise in plastic surgery, effects of social media, and cuteness culture. From the time she was a child, Maclean loved to dress up in costumes, and in many of her films she plays every single character, wearing elaborate wigs, makeup, and prosthetic devices while speaking in audio clips sampled from famous people including the Queen of the United Kingdom. Meticulously constructing her worlds through elaborate costumes and digital environments, Maclean blends the real and virtual in a way that is seamless and sometimes disturbing.
The immense range of Maclean’s costuming allows her to shift her appearance and identity, often pushing this to its limit, making her completely unrecognizable. Incorporating everything from old master paintings to national symbols and pop-cultural ephemera into her work, the resulting mashups are mesmerizing, adorable and scary at the same time. While critiquing patriotism, vanity, and galvanizing political issues, Maclean offers beautifully dense, funny and surreal scenarios that are never preachy or one-sided.
I spoke with Rachel to find out about her process, what it feels like to inhabit so many characters, and what she’s working on next.
Anna Kovler: How do you make everything look so fluffy and cute and dreamy in your videos?
Rachel Maclean: I’m obsessed with adding glows to footage, because there is this sense of technology moving in a certain trajectory, becoming more and more high resolution. Nobody questions if it’s a good idea to have higher resolution, because you can see all the pores, and you can’t hide behind an illusion anymore, so I’m removing some of that sharpness. I like fantasy and the world being slightly blurred.
AK: Your work is a mixture of theatre and film, but I know that you originally studied painting. Does this foundation still influence how you make art?
RM: Yes, absolutely. I studied painting but then moved into video pretty soon thereafter. Something about green screen appeals to me. I liked film and shooting things since I was a kid, but when you just shoot something it comes out really banal, and green screen can defy things like perspective. The thing about green screen is that it allowed me to work in a moving image but also cut characters and make backgrounds and compose things very specifically, all at the pace of making a painting. Post-production feels like a slow process of making a painting. I’ve been looking a lot at Hogarth and Goya and other caricaturists and thinking about how things are composed for paintings versus how they are composed for film.
AK: When you are the only person appearing in your videos under different guises, does this role-play ever influence your real-life self? Do you ever live inside these characters longer than the duration of making the work?
RM: No, not really! It’s more like a caricature, and it’s totally detached. I treat it like it’s not me at all, I just do it for the duration that it’s needed.
AK: Because you are interested in costuming, I wonder if you noticed a shift in how people dress since the 90’s. There seems to be less variety in the average urban style.
RM: Yes I think that's definitely true. There is a sense that the hipster style, which was regarded as an outsider style has become an insider style, and a sense in which people define themselves through consumerism. What you wear and who you are is defined by what you buy, whereas in the past it had a deeper root than just shopping.
But at the same time there are microcosms of subcultures that have been more popularized, the way RuPaul’s Drag Race has popularized drag. When I was in college, going out was limited to what you can wear without looking weird, now there is more room to play with identity.
In the 90’s in the UK there was a moment when people from working class backgrounds in the arts had a more “fuck you” anti-establishment attitude and style. Whereas now, because it’s more expensive and competitive it feels risky to do that, and there is less narrative around that, which is sad.
AK: Some of your work makes fun of today’s beauty standards and things like YouTube stars getting plastic surgery. Where do you think we are at in terms of women’s liberation?
RM: It’s a strange moment for feminism. In a lot of ways it's a good moment, because the word doesn't have as much stigma attached to it as when I was growing up. Feminism wasn’t really discussed at all when I was a student. I had the experience I think many women do, which is that a lot of the fears and anxieties you have are not personal to you, and can be connected to larger trends. There is more dialogue about feminism in the media and the Me Too movement has catalyzed the realization that we are not there yet. We are more aware that there are entrenched issues that we are not over yet. I think women are much more engaged now with a more fluid idea of gender, way more fluid than when I was in school. And at the same time there is the alt-right movement trying to return the world to a white housewife society.
AK: What are you thinking about and working on now?
RM: I’ve been thinking about the purity of the white wedding dress, and the idea of marriage and what you wear on your wedding day. In the 70’s my mom and her friends were into wearing trousers at their weddings, but it seems more traditional today. People are selling you things to appeal to your insecurity, and there is a rise in plastic surgery too. It’s hard to tell if we are regressing or it’s just a conservative style that will disappear soon.
In my work I want to play with things that are associated with femininity, like pinks and blues, and to help people question how they register things aesthetically. I think in the art world you are taken more seriously if you make work that is more masculine, so I want to challenge that. I want to use makeup and bows and frills in a more subversive way.
Rachel Maclean’s exhibition Native Animals will be on view at Arsenal Contemporary New York from September 24 – November 9, 2019. Current exhibitions include Make Me Up at Kunsthalle Winterthur in Switzerland, and Tales of Disunion at Kunstverein Wiesbaden in Germany.