CN: misogyny, violence, rape. Have a care before continuing.
13 May – 26 November 2017
Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Fondamenta Santa Caterina, 30121, Cannaregio
Tuesday – Sunday, 10am – 6pm, free entry (also open Monday 15 May)
Rachel Maclean is representing Scotland at the 57th International Art Exhibition, the Venice Biennale, with major new film commission Spite Your Face – a modern-day, dark Venetian fairytale presented as a large-scale portrait projection at the altar of a deconsecrated church.
In Venice’s Chiesa di Santa Caterina, I am sitting in a pew, looking up to where the altar would normally be, watching the distinct yet unfamiliar movements of a gigantic nose being masturbated. A blue, gloved hand runs up and down its glittering gold length, and its owner, a cartoonish young perfume-purveying influencer named Pic, groans with pleasure. “I intended it to be shocking,” says Scottish artist Rachel Maclean, of her contribution to Scotland’s presence in Venice during the Biennale, a 35-minute, looping film with no beginning or end, that follows Pic on a morality tale that pits his conscience against his greed.
It would be hard not to see the political significance of the piece, in a world where outright lies appear to be de rigeur for anyone in the public eye. “I was disturbed by the ways in which lies had been used in the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign, in a lazy sense, to substantiate a political narrative or an idea,” Maclean says. “I started writing the script in December last year and it was a scary time…” One narrative that stands out from the film is the idea of a transformation of fortune, a rags-to-riches redemption (or riches-to-rags, depending on which order you watch the film in), that sees a destitute young boy wind up as shill for a perfume brand called “Untruth.” This creates a fake corporate illusion, in comparison to the magic “Truth” one given to him by his fairy godmother.
“I’ve always been interested in perfume because it seems absurd,” says Maclean. “Really, it’s just a bottle of smelly liquid but it’s packaged in this way that not only makes the object into something more valuable, but it also suggests that you spraying it onto yourself transforms you into something more powerful and alluring.” This idea of a transformative solution to society’s problems critiques these myths that we are told about social mobility: lean in, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, it’s the American Dream. “I was interested in the compassionless aspect of it. The narrative suggests, if you work hard enough and if you dream it, you can do it. It’s a convenient way to gloss over the lack of social mobility in our society,” adds Maclean.
Another uncomfortable moment comes right after the unforgettable nose-onanism, where Pic’s guardian angel joins him in the sexual act. Pic becomes enraged at a perceived insult and ends up brutally raping this maternal figure. It’s uncomfortable, in fact, almost unbearable to watch, even though it’s still, absurdly, carried out by the character’s nose, lengthened from all those lies. “I’ve been disturbed by the rise in visible misogyny,” Maclean says, when asked about this scene. “There’s a level of immunity to it—where we’re just not affected by it. I wanted the rape scene to feel palpably violent and difficult to watch, so that it’s able to break through the surface of that a little bit.”
The Creators Project has the full story, and more photos. There’s also more at Scotland and Venice. I have no doubt this is both and impressive and disturbing work; not one I would find easy to sit through, but I would like to see it all the same.