'It's more baroque and a lot less candy-colour and children's TV' – Rachel Maclean prepares for the Venice Biennale

One of the rising stars of Scottish art talks about narratives that tap into people's fears

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'It's more baroque and a lot less candy-colour and children's TV': Rachel Maclean prepares for the Venice Biennale

Rachel Maclean in Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Cannaregio, Venice 2017 / Richard Ashrowan

After the tumult and emotion of Brexit, would a UK citizen setting foot on European soil not immediately question what might be different between here and there? For Rachel Maclean, this year's Scottish representative at the Venice Biennale, her latest video piece is a chance to put that poser into physical form. Freshly nonplussed by the election of Donald Trump, she made a ten-day visit to Italy last December to gather inspiration and write, and was infused with a sense of wonder at the beauty of Venice itself and of concerned dismay at the rise of Brexit, Trump and populist nationalism.

'For me it was a scary time, but also a really interesting one where I could put some of these ideas down on paper,' she recalls. 'The film came about through Venice and that political moment, and they reminded me of the tale of Pinocchio and its relationship to Italy: I felt that story mixed well with the idea of post-truth politics.'

Presented in conjunction with Alchemy Film & Arts, Spite Your Face: A Dark Venetian Fairytale will be seen in Chiesa di Santa Caterina. This deconsecrated church helps pull into relief the contrast between a human search for divine answers just beyond their understanding and the slipping away of that concept to the extent that people may feel they have all the answers now. Maclean is unable to reveal too much about what the film involves, partly for the simple reason it's still in post-production; but the literature which precedes it boldly states that it will cover themes of 'identity, economy, society, connectivity and morality'.

'There are two worlds to the film,' she continues. 'It's going to be presented in portrait format, which has been interesting to work with. I was looking at a lot of painting when I was in Venice, and this religious idea of above and below, heaven and hell, the sense of the world having an overworld and an underworld. I like the idea that the portrait format is less about left to right than our interaction with this up and down, above and below world. Like some of my other films there's a feeling of a binary between two different worlds that seem to exist concurrently but only occasionally have a relationship or a connection with one another.'

This, it's fair to say, sounds like nothing if not an on-the-nose comment; that the left-and-right perspective is dissolving to be replaced by something much more elemental. Like each of her films, Maclean has rehearsed the action with 'real' actors and then performed all the parts in costume herself before a greenscreen backdrop. 'In part, the film is trying to absorb some of the atmosphere and feeling of Venice,' says the filmmaker who has twice been nominated for the Jarman Award, won the Margaret Tait Award in 2013, and will close a solo exhibition of her work at Tate Britain shortly before Spite Your Face opens. 'It's a lot different to my other work, a lot less candy-colour and children's TV. It's more baroque and hopefully feels more like the glittery luxury of Venice and the slightly grubby, dirty underbelly of the city too.'

'It's more baroque and a lot less candy-colour and children's TV': Rachel Maclean prepares for the Venice Biennale

image: Maclean in Chiesa di Santa Caterina / credit: Richard Ashrowan'
Narrative is key here, but not traditionally so. 'With exhibitions you have that idea of a video just looping and looping constantly, so I've written a narrative where there's no beginning, middle or end, it's just this constant loop,' she says. 'It relates to ideas of truth and desire and feeling like you're never quite given a solution where you're satisfied. I was thinking a lot about political narratives, national narratives, local narratives, the narratives we tell to ourselves which form our beliefs. And I think there's been a scary manipulation of truth where facts were manipulated to create a narrative which bought into people's fears and vulnerabilities. I'm quite interested in seeing a response to that.'

Maclean is excited by the thought of reaching such a wide international audience, but she also recognises the irony of the situation. 'With the Biennale you're representing your country, and that's an interesting context in which to think about ideas of nationalism at a time when there's such a resurgence of it in different countries around the world. But I'm interested in thinking less about the specifics of a political situation and more about its general ideas and narrative, which plays into different ways of understanding politics and offering more space to discuss that.'

In Maclean's work, other worlds are always possible: the industrial pragmatism of Glasgow, where this film was made, the eye-opening move outside the comfort zone that exploring the old city of Venice afforded her, and the fantastical amalgam which exists only in her mind and onscreen, a new zone of possibility to explore. 'I'm really excited to see how people respond,' says Maclean brightly. 'It's a scary moment to be alive. But it's also an exciting moment to be alive, to be able to make work which comments upon where we are.'

Rachel Maclean's Scotland + Venice commission Spite Your Face: A Dark Venetian Fairytale is at Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Venice, Sat 13 May–Sun 26 Nov, and at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, in early 2018.

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