Rachel Maclean and Linder talk gender politics

British Art Show 8

Rachel Maclean, Feed Me, Scene 12

As British Art Show 8 comes to Edinburgh, these two acclaimed artists chat politics, princesses and Playboy

At first glance, the pink love heart framed around a blue-eyed and smiling figure peering out from the flagship image for British Art Show 8, which arrives in Edinburgh this month, looks every inch a child-friendly Disney character to die for. Only the fact that the cartoon creation appears to have a bag over its head while wielding a frowning bauble and miming shooting itself in the head jars somewhat.

The image is from Feed Me, the new hour-long film by Rachel Maclean, which is being screened as part of BAS8 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. As with much of Maclean's back-catalogue, the film takes familiar pop cultural tropes and subverts them with a cut-up narrative in which an unrecognisable Maclean plays all the parts against a candy-coated green screen backdrop.

'It's looking at childhood and cultures of happiness,' Maclean says of Feed Me. 'I've always been interested in the fantasy of childhood compared to how it actually is. Children's TV likes to imagine childhood as something that's innocent and sealed off from adulthood, with its own separate world. There's a trope of horror movies as well, where children are so cut off and so different that they can talk to dead people.

'I was thinking as well about Britney Spears, and her transition from a child to a young adult, and how her career began to unravel, with all the contradictions she had to endure. That's interesting in terms of the roles young woman have to have, and how they're not allowed to mix. That's typical of Disney princesses as well, who are always about 15 or 16, on the cusp of becoming a woman.'

Such a concern for gender politics is there too in the work of Linder, the punk-sired artist whose Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, a rug made at the Edinburgh-based Dovecot Studios, also appears at BAS8. For the last four decades, Linder has subverted through a series of taboo-busting photo-montages and expansive performance-based work. For BAS8, seven dancers from Northern Ballet will perform Children of the Mantic Stain, a new work inspired in part by the writings of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun and her lively St Ives social circle. Linder's rug plays a key role as the ballet's 'eighth dancer.'

British Art Show 8

Linder's Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes / credit: Graham Fotherby

'I like the hallucinogenic quality in both Colquhoun’s writing and paintings,' Linder says of the inspiration behind Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes. 'Whilst I was in the midst of my research, I stayed in the artists flat above Raven Row gallery. The flat has never been changed since the last occupant, Rebecca Levy, passed away in 2009 aged 98. I was mesmerised by Rebecca’s choice of carpets, which are a triumph of 1970s design. I used to stare at the carpets in the half light and they would play all sorts of tricks with my optical nerves. I’d start to see things that weren’t there, 'mind pictures' as Colquhoun might have said.

'For the rug design at Dovecot, I created a photomontage of two of Rebecca Levy’s carpets and added all-seeing 1970s Glam Rock eyes so that as one looks at the rug, the rug looks back at you. The dancers from Northern Ballet call her The Diva, and are very respectful to her. They say that she definitely takes the lead.'

Both Linder and Maclean's work is driven by a political root as much as a performative one. 'A lot of my motivation for making art comes from being angry at something,' says Maclean. 'I'm really interested in looking at fairytales to explore class and gender politics, displacing them in a way that's historical, but which makes it something contemporary.'

Linder says that she doesn't deliberately set out to make political work, 'but it always turns out that way. I often work with that which has been discarded, a 1964 copy of Playboy for instance, or a Good Housekeeping cookery book from 1948. The prevailing sexual and economic politics are embedded in every halftone dot on each page. It doesn’t take much to mess it all up. I hijack the images around us, taking them somewhere that they’re not meant to go. I make things right by making them wrong.'

This chimes too with Maclean, who grew up on 'girls magazines, MTV, Disney films and computer games, and that feeds into my work, but it becomes warped somehow.' While Maclean's films are deeply theatrical, she has yet to work in a live arena. 'I think it would be fun to do something at some point,' she says. 'but if I did, I'd like to get loads of people on board and do something Busby Berkeley-esque.'

Conversely, while Linder's performance work has been documented on film, the medium itself is something she has yet to fully exploit. 'I recently collaborated with [French fashion house] Maison Margiela in Brussels and I made a film then,' she says. 'It features a dancer dressed in a MM coat made of blonde wigs, but she barely moves in front of the camera. I remember the huge cinemas in Liverpool that my parents used to take me to in the 1960s before the multiplexes took over. I was also in love with the ceremony attached to going to the cinema. My family always dressed up when we went out. We wanted to mirror the stars. Now the cinema screen has been replaced by the tiniest screens imaginable, so we can hold in our hands what was once projected in Picture Palaces throughout the land. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about all of this, so I make work about it instead.'

Feed Me and Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Sat 13 Feb–Sun 8 May. Children of the Mantic Stain, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, Wed 30 Mar.

Linder Children of the Manic Stain

The Children of the Mantic Stain, choreographed by Kenneth Tindall and presented by Northern Ballet, uses a rug created at Dovecot as the 'eighth dancer'.

British Art Show 8 Artists' Talk and screening: Rachel Maclean

Glasgow-based artist Rachel Maclean discusses her work including new film Feed Me, commissioned as part of British Art Show 8.

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