With the media continuing to distort representations of women, artists such as Rachel Maclean are taking a stand. We speak to her about the male gaze, NVA and making movies
Rachel Maclean is sat in Film City Glasgow to talk about Make Me Up, the artist's feature-length subversion of primetime TV. Holding court to a parade of journalists in the boardroom of what used to be Govan Town Hall seems fitting somehow for a film about women and power.
Following Spite Your Face (Maclean's dark look at the corrupting force of money and which formed Scotland's official contribution to the 2017 Venice Biennale), Make Me Up dissects popular media clichés of female beauty in a deceptively prettified world. Here the wide-eyed and tellingly named Siri is put through a blender of choreographed conformity alongside a troupe of similarly well-turned-out would-be mannequins forced to compete in an extreme take on trash-TV talent shows where survival of the fittest is what counts.
All this is overseen by a candyfloss-coiffed ringmistress with a wig pink enough to resemble RuPaul by way of an old-school B-52s video. As played by a typically barely recognisable Maclean, the words mouthed by the dominatrix-diva are taken from recordings of Kenneth Clark, the plummy-voiced art historian whose family made their fortune in the Paisley textile trade, and whose seminal 1969 BBC series, Civilisation, gave us a very male view of art.
'I saw so much that was political in Kenneth Clark's voice,' says Maclean. 'The power and authority of this upper-class male voice was almost imperial. Out of that came a particular point of view, which came at art history without any idea about female creativity at all. When someone is revered in the way Clark was, it probably seemed inconceivable that there was any other way of teaching art. But within that, you can see the background of how female bodies are treated. Kenneth Clark can sound quite paternalistic, and when you put that together with something like America's Next Top Model it becomes quite uncomfortable.'
Maclean normally reinvents herself as every character in her work, but this time out some 13 actors appear alongside her as the centre's candy-coloured and Clark-voiced overseer. These include 11 performers as the women under Maclean's character's thumb, and include Kirsty Strain, who has worked on several of Maclean's films. Alexa is played by Colette Dalal Tchantcho, who recently appeared as Orsino in Twelfth Night at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, while Siri is brought to life by Christina Gordon, whose acting career began at Dundee Rep. Working with such a large company on Make Me Up's relatively linear narrative appears to be a pointer for Maclean's next move.
'I'd really like to make a feature film for cinema,' she says. 'I'm really excited about creating a believable world using a straightforward narrative, and I'm getting a crash course in screenwriting just now. Coming from an art background, it's really interesting that so many films have similar structures, and I'd really like to play about with that.'
One of the more poignant aspects of Make Me Up is its use of the modernist architecture of St Peter's Seminary in Cardross. While Maclean's film was shot using green screen at Film City, customised images of St Peter's feature as a dayglo dystopian backdrop. Up until recently, St Peter's was earmarked for long-term renovation by NVA, Angus Farquhar's environmental interventionists, whose rejection for regular funding by Creative Scotland caused the company's demise, with the plug being pulled on the St Peter's development. With NVA now co-producers of Make Me Up alongside Hopscotch Films, Maclean's film will be their swansong.
'I wanted Make Me Up to look stylistically unreal,' says Maclean. 'St Peter's was amazing to visit, and it was really nice working with NVA. It was really sad when they closed midway through the process, and it was a really difficult moment in public art in the UK.'
Arriving in the midst of the #MeToo age, the contemporary voices of dissent in Make Me Up put into the mouths of Siri, Alexa and co come from the likes of Pussy Riot, Rose McGowan, Germaine Greer, Geri Halliwell and Viv Albertine. Such a disparate display chimes with a new generation of feminist thought and action which, in increasingly reactionary times, has been fearlessly evident of late. In this sense, for all its aesthetic and polemical complexities, Make Me Up is arguably a call to arms.
'There's far more politicisation and awareness of feminism in young women now than when I was growing up,' notes Maclean. 'With that in mind, I'd like Make Me Up to open up discussion. I don't want to force my ideas down people's throats. I'd much rather the film opens up possible ways of thinking about some of the things it looks at. There are things in the film about weight and eating and body image, which traditionally young women have been made to feel like it's all their fault, when actually it's part of a much larger political discourse.'