There is a powerful mood of ambivalence that quivers in and around the work of Scottish artist Rachel Maclean. It can be seen in her cast of cutesy characters with pastel-colored skin and hair and wide-eyed stares, who with saccharine smiles sing in major keys of HAPPINESS and RAINBOWS to a shifting triumvirate of ghoulish TV talent show hosts. Tiny creatures crawl under foot, microbial germs giggle and fuzzy-eared furballs wave their friendly paws. Then all of a sudden everything shifts. The color drains from the scene, blinking edifices tumble down, light turns to dark, make-up fades to ghoulish greys and lips curl round rotting teeth, eyes lower into glares, and children and grandmothers begin to swear and maim and murder, bludgeoning one another with butts of toilet spray bottles, chewing on the limbs of corpses of corporate executives, severing tongues whilst they waggle incomprehensibly, and out of mouths vomiting liquids in pink, blue, black, etc.
We, the viewer, are forever positioned in the centre of this mêlée. Maclean puts us there, staring out at us directly at the camera, sometimes with such immediacy that her nose presses up against the lens as if threatening to burst out of the screen and into our lives. Such is the ultra-thin membrane that separates our world from hers. And here she keeps us wavering, back and forth, back and forth, seized between hyperbolized binaries of GOOD/BAD; HAPPY/SAD; CUTE/VILE; CHARMING/FOUL; REPLETE/VACUOUS; VIVID/DULL; COMIC/HORRIFIC. This mood of ambivalence that Maclean so consistently conjures teeters on a knife-edge in the syntax that separates two extremes: the “/”.
Rachel Maclean’s films are typically shot in green screen with the artist playing all parts, lip-synching to found audio or, more recently, scripted text performed by voice over actors. She is frighteningly chameleonic. Her elaborate costumes, make-up and scissor-and-paste prosthetics serve to muddle her features further, making her either appear virtuous or villainous even when viewed from the back of the arena. In this way she manages to be simultaneously one and the other, GOOD GUY/BAD GUY, BEAUTY/BEAST. For example, in The Lion and the Unicorn (2012) the two animals from the title are reanimated as emblems of alliance and opposition between England and Scotland, intoning the voices of the two countries’ then political leaders, who, done up in drag, sit on opposing sides of a dinner table coiffing North Sea oil from crystal glasses and dividing up and devouring a cake decorated like a Union Flag. In Please Sir (2014) Maclean mines Mark Twain’s dichotomous tale of The Prince and the Pauper to similar ends, setting up a neck-straining narrative of doppelgängers duetting over split screen in a story of ambition versus austerity, a tabloid view of the wealth and opulence of London versus a deprived, drug-addled, gang-ridden Glasgow.
Maclean is a satirist in the great British tradition, a caricaturist after James Gillray or William Hogarth, who in her vividly rendered videos and large-scale Photoshopped tableaux similarly ridicules our politicians and public figures. Her characters invariably speak in glib maxims and move in exaggerated gestures like engorged mantises with heavily embellished wings. By moving between these perspectives of the extreme, she parodies contemporary habits of consumption, of overstated promises and superlative-ridden status updates, the ethos of “more is more.”
In Feed Me (2015), for example – the longest and most ambitious of all her projects to date – we find in fact that more is never enough. It is a remarkable work in which she pushes the pantomime polarity of GOOD/BAD, HAPPY/SAD to even greater lengths. The film depicts a dystopian world dominated by the wickedly scheming Smile Inc., multi-media broadcasters and manufacturers of the HappyChat Beast and HappyChat Baby, garrulous dolls in blue and pink who clamorously exclaim “feed me!” in increasingly threatening voices – a set up for an allegory of corporate greed marked by an insatiable hunger for customer data. For Smile Inc., economic success is conflated with the happiness quotient. In a world where “fifty per cent of the global market share” equals “fifty per cent unhappy,” companies and consumers alike are encouraged to aim for no less than 110%. In a voice remarkably reminiscent of Angela Lansbury’s turn as Mrs. Potts in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) we hear an executive hag sing to her CEO: “Happiness is misleading / dreams require constant feeding / or what you have earned will soon be spent. / But what I want to stress is / happiness and success is / something we have to feed each day.” It’s not enough to be happy, she says; you have to be “TOO HAPPY,” a phrase that rings out again and again in Stage School squeals from the cast.
This theme of HAPPY/SAD is brutally conveyed in a slew of Smiley Face emojis that, along with text-speak abbreviations, reduces language to shallow statements of self-declaration. The Smiley Face and its opposite, the Sad Face, are everywhere. Together they make up two sides of the same coin, a spinning orb on top of Smile Inc.’s HQ, sprayed on street walls, tattooed onto foreheads, emblazoned onto stress balls that squeak “I’m too happy!” from incongruously SAD faces. A child lies on her stomach on a filthy floor finishing her homework on a tablet. In her earphones plays an electro version of the children’s rhyme ‘If You’re Happy And You Know It’ in a minor key. The girl is prompted to choose between HAPPY/SAD icons to questions such as “How likely wud U b 2 recommend our service 2 a BF or ©? / Do u trust da company 2 take care of u? / Do u hav hope 4 da future?” Answer: HAPPY/SAD, HAPPY/SAD… These options constitute the complete range of emotion available to her. And the vacuum that is left between them is soon filled with fear and murder.
To understand Maclean’s dichotomous world, one should consider the environment in which Feed Me was made. Scotland had just undergone a referendum on Scottish independence from the rest of the UK, a vote that saw the country almost evenly split between YES/NO. Less than a year on the country was facing a second IN/OUT referendum, this time on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union. Such binary choices leave no room for nuance thus forcing an anxiety of language – an anxiety that can be stabilized when defined as ambivalence.
Maclean seems to be masterful at capturing such trends in popular culture and politics and representing them as satire. Later the same year Feed Me was filmed, the Oxford Dictionaries announced their Word of the Year was not a word at all, at least in the traditional sense, but a pictograph: a little yellow ball laughing with open mouth and exposed teeth, two huge tears ballooning from curved eyes. The ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ emoji was the most-tweeted emoji of 2015. If the Smiley Face – the ur-emoji – signifies “I’m happy,” then the Face With Tears of Joy emoji surely exclaims “I’m TOO HAPPY!” It is no longer enough to be simply happy. One needs to weep with joy, to overflow with feeling, to gush with glee, ALL CAPS, 110%!
It is about time, it seems, we had some new superlatives.
by Siôn Parkinson
All Images Courtesy: the artist and FVU