Cover story

Her work may be suf­fused with pink but there is noth­ing ditzy about Rachel Maclean, as Vicky Al­lan dis­cov­ers when she meets the artist ahead of the re­lease of her out­landish and provoca­tive new film

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In­ter­view: Rachel MacLean

WHEN Rachel Maclean started at Ed­in­burgh Col­lege of Art, she bought a can of pink paint from B&Q to work with. A tu­tor, she re­calls, came over and told her that she shouldn’t paint in pink. “It was like, he was say­ing it wasn’t a se­ri­ous enough colour,” she says. Her re­sponse then, was:“Why not? Why don’t you take it se­ri­ously?”

Now one of Scot­land’s most sig­nif­i­cant con­tem­po­rary artists at 31 years old, she is ef­fec­tively still paint­ing in pink. Her bizarre and out­landish films are coloured by a po­lit­i­cal and fem­i­nist view of the world that ques­tions every­thing. “I want to take all the cul­ture and colours and aes­thet­ics that we would dis­miss as be­ing silly and ask, ‘Well, what part of you, by say­ing that you’re not go­ing to ac­cept that, is dis­miss­ing any­thing to do with women as of less im­por­tance?’” That, she says, is part of the rea­son, she de­cided to make her lat­est film re­volve around the cult of beauty, and the makeup vlog­gers who are its stars.

Pink suf­fuses the colour scheme of her first fea­ture-length film, Make Me Up. Even her own char­ac­ter – a queer ring­mas­ter-in-a-corset who is lip-synced with the voice of the art his­to­rian Kenneth Clark, pre­sen­ter of the clas­sic 1960s BBC se­ries, Civil­i­sa­tion – has fuch­sia hair. Though this world is coloured in sac­cha­rine hues, it’s far from sweet. Rather, it’s a grotesque and highly politi­cised jour­ney into the sav­agery of the way our cul­ture has de­fined woman, con­trol­ling her body and ex­pres­sion, as well as the pow­er­ful fem­i­nist back­lash that is call­ing it out.

While her pre­vi­ous films have in­volved Maclean tak­ing all fea­tured roles, this is the first in which she has had ac­tors play some of the parts, and lip-sync and mime to found au­dio-clips from ad­ver­tis­ing, dig­i­tal as­sis­tants like Siri and Alexa, and in­ter­views. Among those voices that come out of these pret­ti­fied, pink fe­male char­ac­ters, are those of suf­fragette Mary Richard­son, icon of the #MeToo move­ment Rose Mc­Gowan and one of the mem­bers of fem­i­nist art group The Guer­rilla Girls.

Make Me Up is a fem­i­nist state­ment, she says, but one that’s “got lay­ers to it and dif­fer­ent read­ings”. “I wanted it to feel com­plex to have these voices that are at some points, con­tra­dic­tory. For me it’s more in­ter­est­ing for art­work to be a dis­cus­sion, rather than me shov­ing my opin­ion down your throat.”

This com­plex­ity is one of the rea­sons why Maclean’s work seems a deeper and more thor­ough anal­y­sis of the is­sues around fem­i­nism and women’s bod­ies than any­thing a jour­nal­ist could write. That’s also been the case when she’s tack­led other is­sues like con­sumerism and fake news. For her, mak­ing films is, she says, “about think­ing things through that I don’t to­tally un­der­stand and about which I don’t to­tally know what my opin­ion is.”

Maclean is so calm and mea­sured it’s some­times hard to be­lieve she made a film as grotesque, an­gry and vis­ceral as Make Me Up, or that she was that per­son per­form­ing in it, wear­ing a gi­ant pink bee­hive wig.

When we meet, her hair is blue and she’s wear­ing an elec­tric pink coat and neon yel­low shoes.

“I al­ways like the idea of the aes­thetic be­ing some­thing that feels invit­ing and sac­cha­rine and be­nign, but then there’s a vis­ceral as­pect that kind of knocks you out of that,” she says, as we sit around a board­room ta­ble at Film City, the stu­dio in Go­van, where she made her film. “It’s what seems to lie be­neath the sur­face of this ve­neer of pret­ti­ness.”

Part of the sur­prise of her pres­ence is the voice. In her films, Maclean fre­quently lip-syncs to the voices of oth­ers and it’s a plea­sure to hear her Clack­man­nan­shire ac­cent, rich and rolling. Watch­ing her lat­est film, I was gripped by panic, but ac­tu­ally chat­ting with her is a calm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Maclean has rapidly be­come one of Scot­tish art’s big­gest stars. Last year, she took the Venice Bi­en­nale by storm with her Trump-era anal­y­sis and Pinoc­chio fa­ble, Spite Your Face. This year, with her fea­ture-length film, Make Me Up, she is do­ing what many artists dream of, and reach­ing the main­stream. The film not only pre­mieres at the BFI Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val, but will also be com­ing to BBC4 this au­tumn.

Make Me Up came out of an in­vi­ta­tion by the now, sadly, closed arts com­pany NVA and the pro­duc­tion com­pany Hop­scotch. They asked if she would like to cre­ate a work in­spired both by the sem­i­nal TV art his­tory se­ries, Civil­i­sa­tion, and St Peter’s Sem­i­nary in Cardross – two icons of an era, both cre­ated around the same time. The sem­i­nary was built in the 1960s and Civil­i­sa­tion was broad­cast in 1969. “I re-watched Civil­i­sa­tion,” says Maclean, “and I thought Kenneth Clark’s voice was amaz­ing and there would be some­thing there to play with.”

Among her film’s plea­sures is watch­ing Maclean her­self, made up and dig­i­tally ma­nip­u­lated to look like “a kind of Tyra Banks diva” while speak­ing the words of Kenneth Clark. “I liked the idea of this male voice,” she says, “which seemed to rep­re­sent a very par­tic­u­lar class and a very par­tic­u­lar kind of white male power struc­ture and sense of cer­tainty and a par­tic­u­lar vi­sion of the world and of civil­i­sa­tion com­ing out of this fe­male body. There’s some­thing about tak­ing on a man’s voice – and an ar­ro­gant man’s voice – that is quite good fun. I like play­ing ar­ro­gant men. I guess it’s the cheek­i­ness of it. It’s also play­ing some­one who has such a cer­tainty in their opin­ions and a cer­tainty in their stance on the world.”

Clark’s voice re­ally does be­long to an­other era. His for­bid­ding, up­per-class tones talk of “mankind”, with woman only re­ally fea­tur­ing as the male artist’s sub­ject. One of his lines, picked out in the film, is the sin­gle, Bib­li­cal phrase: “Feed my sheep.” Food, feed­ing and eat­ing are at the heart of the film – from the force-feed­ing of suf­fragettes, to the way women’s re­la­tion­ship with food has been dis­torted by cul­tural pres­sures, and the way we con­sume our­selves and each other on­line. The re­sult is re­pul­sive, sick­en­ing and night­mar­ish.

Maclean is the daugh­ter of two art teach­ers, so was ex­posed to Kenneth Clark as a teenager grow­ing up in Dol­lar. “My dad had the videos and the book, so I was fa­mil­iar with it. I was a bit of a geek and be­cause I was wor­ried I’d got to art col­lege and ev­ery­body would know all this stuff about art, I spent the sum­mer be­fore art col­lege read­ing these big books: Civil­i­sa­tion, EH Gom­brich’s The Story Of Art and Robert Hughes’ The Shock Of The New.”

She will, she says, be in­ter­ested to see the re­sponse to her use of Kenneth Clark’s voice. “To me it seems like a rea­son­ably fair icon­o­clas­tic move to crit­i­cise him be­cause what he stands for feels to me larger than him. He rep­re­sents the canon of art his­tory that is de­fined as male, the artist-pro­ducer is

I hate that whole princess thing but there’s also some­thing madly se­duc­tive about Bar­bie toys

male, and the out­put is fe­male or naked fe­male.”

Make-up is some­thing she en­joys. As a child, she loved dress­ing up. “Hal­loween was al­most big­ger than Christ­mas where we lived. Me and my friends would plan out­fits for ages be­fore­hand. I al­ways liked the sense that you’re not nec­es­sar­ily dress­ing up pretty, you’re dress­ing up to scare.”

The pink world she cre­ates in Make Me Up, is also a re­flec­tion of the kind of princessy toys she re­calls from her child­hood, which have come still fur­ther to dom­i­nate the toy of­fer­ing for girls now. “I loved My Lit­tle Pony and to a lesser ex­tent Bar­bies. There’s some­thing com­plex go­ing on with this aes­thetic of fem­i­nin­ity and pink. On the one hand I think this Bar­bie world is grotesque and I hate that whole princess thing and every­thing it stands for. But there’s some­thing madly se­duc­tive about these toys and this world and the aes­thetic and the way that it sucks you in.”

What’s fas­ci­nat­ing about Maclean is that though her films are bru­tal cri­tiques of our cul­ture, she holds back from con­demn­ing. Make Me Up is partly in­spired by shows like Amer­ica’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race, but she’s not overly crit­i­cal of re­al­ity tele­vi­sion. In the sum­mer, she watched Love Is­land. I think some of these pro­grammes are great,” she says. “These for­mats are se­duc­tive and I want my work to, at some level, func­tion in the same way, so that you’re se­duced for the same rea­sons. That gives you space to sub­vert that and say in­ter­est­ing things in that medium that hope­fully will mean that if some­one goes back to watch­ing one of these shows, they might have a very slightly dif­fer­ent read­ing.”

One of the fas­ci­na­tions of Maclean’s work is the com­plete­ness of her worlds. She is a mis­tress of il­lu­sion, ca­pa­ble of trans­port­ing the viewer via the use of green screen and other tricks, to some al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity that feels like a strange night­mare con­jured out of our so­cial me­dia and re­al­ity tele­vi­sion con­sump­tion.

The real world barely fea­tures. The St Peter’s Sem­i­nary that you see in the film is not the real one, but a ver­sion based on pho­to­graphs she took of the site, pret­ti­fied with pinks and blues to look as if it had come straight out of Bar­bie land. “I want the world I cre­ate to have that edge of il­lu­sion to it,” she says. “I also liked the cheek­i­ness of tak­ing

this ar­chi­tec­ture which is about bru­tal min­i­mal­ism and adding pink to it and adding dec­o­ra­tion, mak­ing el­e­ments of it into breast-shapes.”

Her love of il­lu­sion be­gan young. Her fa­ther, she re­calls, made stage sets for the school theatre shows, and it was while help­ing him that she first fell in love with the idea of cre­at­ing vis­ual uni­verses. “I got quite into the sense of these il­lu­sion­ary worlds. There would al­ways be some sort of hatches that you could run through and back­stage steps and things.”

As a child she never ap­peared in those school shows. “I never did any act­ing. I’m pretty shy. I was def­i­nitely shy as a kid.” She is still, she says, “a wee bit” shy. “I think ev­ery­body has got an ex­travert/ in­tro­vert as­pect to them­selves. I think maybe at school there’s an idea that if you’re loud you’re go­ing to be good at act­ing. But I don’t know if it’s al­ways the case. You need at least enough time to ob­serve other peo­ple when you’re not talk­ing.”

She also, as a teenager, made short films. “When I was maybe 12 or 13 I used to film every­thing on this wee video cam­era and got re­ally quite ob­ses­sive.”

A few years ago, she looked back on those early films, and strangely enough they mostly didn’t fea­ture her. They mostly starred friends and other fam­ily mem­bers. Her younger brother, for in­stance, was fre­quently roped in. “He still is. He worked with me on post­pro­duc­tion and has for the last five years, which is great. He’s re­ally amaz­ing.”

When she left Ed­in­burgh Col­lege Of Art, Maclean moved to Glas­gow and that’s where she is still based, work­ing out of a tiny stu­dio. Her jour­ney has been a grad­ual one to­wards work which is more col­lab­o­ra­tive, but she still re­tains a painterly sense of her­self as au­thor. That’s what makes her worlds seem so com­plete. “It’s what makes sense to me, be­cause I stud­ied paint­ing and as a pain­ter you do every­thing and every­thing comes out of you onto can­vas. That’s the ro­mance of it. So it took ages to re­alise that work­ing with other peo­ple was use­ful and a good thing.”

With Make Me Up, Maclean joins a small band of artists who have tran­si­tioned to fea­ture film-mak­ing – fol­low­ing, per­haps, in the path of Steve McQueen and Sam Tay­lor Wood. She doesn’t, how­ever, view this as a fea­ture film – that is what she hopes to make next. Rather, she sees it as some­thing that was al­ways made for tele­vi­sion. “That was why I was into us­ing the idea of dif­fer­ent tele­vi­sion tropes. I like the idea of play­ing with the tra­di­tion of arts broad­cast­ing on the BBC and us­ing Kenneth Clark and then mix­ing it with a re­al­ity show for­mat, mash­ing to­gether these very dif­fer­ent kinds of TV for­mats.”

She has, she says, hardly shown the film, which she only fin­ished a cou­ple of weeks ago, to any­one so far. Even her par­ents, she says, haven’t seen it – “though my dad helped me with the sto­ry­boards so he’s kind of seen the film in sto­ry­board for­mat”.

Make Me Up is with­out doubt a fem­i­nist work, yet at the same time the mes­sage it con­veys is multi-lay­ered and com­plex. This isn’t just one voice, but a ca­cophony. She feels the film has been part of an “amaz­ing year” for women, one of “grow­ing dis­con­tent”. “The Har­vey We­in­stein/MeToo move­ment re­ally ex­ploded to the point that we just can’t ac­cept any more that we are equal and no longer need fem­i­nism.”

She re­flects on the ex­tent of the shift. “I can’t be­lieve how much has changed. I think when I was grow­ing up there was a feel­ing that fem­i­nism wasn’t re­ally on the agenda. At school we did his­tory and did the suf­fragettes and stud­ied women’s rights but there was a sense of fi­nal­ity about it – as if now we had reached the point where we were equal.”

Make Me Up didn’t start as a re­sponse to We­in­stein, she says. In fact, she had writ­ten a large part of it be­fore the scan­dal erupted. “I don’t think what hap­pened nec­es­sar­ily changed what the film is about,” she says, “but it has made the film part of some­thing larger.” That’s why Maclean mat­ters. Strange and dis­tinct as her aes­thetic is, it’s part of some­thing big­ger – and any­one watch­ing it knows it.

Make Me Up will pre­miere at the BFI Lon­don Film fes­ti­val on Oc­to­ber 12, and is screened at Glas­gow Film Theatre on Oc­to­ber 14 and Ed­in­burgh Film­house on Oc­to­ber 16. It will be broad­cast on BBC4 later this au­tumn

We can’t ac­cept that we no longer need fem­i­nism

Above: a scene from Rachel Maclean’s new film, Make Me Up

Above: a scene from The Lion and the Uni­corn by Rachel Maclean

Rachel Maclean’s 2013 film, The Queen, was shown at the Na­tional Gallery

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