Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face

Uncompromising, gaudy, and ruthlessly moralistic, renowned Scottish artist Rachel Maclean reveals the truth behind the luxe life in her modern adaptation of Pinocchio. A home-grown grad from the Edinburgh College of Art, Maclean returns to the capital with another disturbing contemplation on the state of politics and society in the present day.

Disney’s wooden Pinocchio is given a late-capitalism makeover, becoming ‘Pic’, an urchin in the Venice underworld with the desire to ascend into the paradise of the rich and famous. Thanks to a self-sacrifice his wish is granted – via an iPad in an e-temple. He is gifted a perfume branded ‘Truth’ by the temple’s goddess, enabling him to fit in with the upper-echelons of this golden world. However, cracks within the gilt makeup of the lauded elites quickly begin to show, leading to nefarious scenes of greed, gluttony, and sexual violence. The film plays in a loop, the beginning and end weaving together seamlessly as Pic is locked in an endless rise and fall from grace. In this topsy-turvy journey you’ll be left questioning which world is really heaven and which one is hell.
Maclean’s ambition for her latest piece is clear from the moment you enter: a single screen dominates the room without distraction. It’s no surprise that Spite Your Face is the sole occupant of Talbot Rice Gallery’s most lavish gallery space. Originally designed by William Playfair, the Georgian interior illustrates the luxury of the world to which Pic aspires. This reflects the setting Maclean chose at the 2017 Venice Biennale, where Spite Your Face was specifically exhibited in a deconsecrated, blacked-out Catholic church before coming to Edinburgh.
This ambition is visible on every level of the film’s production. Maclean plays every character, becoming both the victim and enforcer of corporate, verbal and sexual violence. She uses green screen and prosthetics to create the uncanny features and outlandish costumes of her Pinocchio-inspired characters. The fantastical style shows the grotesque and gaudy lifestyle brought on by consumerism. This should come as no surprise to fans of Maclean’s work. Prior to Spite Your Face, Maclean has exhibited a variety of films exploring the darker side of society: always maximalist, always bizarre, and always confronting the insidious issues underpinning our lives.

Despite the glitzy graphics and amusing 21st century touches, Spite Your Face seems to have left some of its vitality in Venice. We are all familiar with the idea of fake news, or the corruption of consumer culture. These themes have been well trodden recently to say the least. Maclean’s conscious effort to include buzzword topics seems dated after just one year. It would have been interesting to see the idea of a post-truth society approached from a fresh perspective. However, the moral of this new-age fairytale lacked nuance, and ultimately rehashed the cliché that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Inspired by the demagoguery that influenced Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Maclean misses an opportunity to elaborate on these pre-existing slogans and present a forward-looking perspective. Although an exhilarating reflection of contemporary issues, it fails to add new angles or meaningful argument to the conversation.

Maclean shows us an exaggerated version of our own world: a glitzy dystopia that reflects the class divide, exploitation, and violence in our society. Through this distorted mirror, she invites us to reflect personally on power’s corrupting effect within our celebrity and commodity-obsessed culture. Prepare for a barrage of colour, music, violence, and unapologetic truth.

Talbot Rice Gallery 

Until 5 May 2018

Image credit: Rachel Maclean. Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery.

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