Once you have seen Rachel Maclean’s videos and digital prints, you never forget them. Set in landscapes somewhere between a dystopian video game and the saccharine world of children’s television programmes like the Teletubbies, they feature a cast of extreme characters performed entirely by Maclean herself. Using green-screen film technology, she performs in flamboyant costumes and make-up against landscapes formed from a collage of found images she manipulates digitally, creating imaginary worlds infused with a “fantastical, unreal glow”, she says. While it is informed by pop culture, her work also draws on the high points of the grotesque in art, from Bosch’s visions of hell, through the savage caricatures of Rowlandson and Hogarth and the hallucinatory animations of Jan Svankmajer to the excessive masquerades of Cindy Sherman and Ryan Trecartin. Like many of these forebears, she turns a critical eye on contemporary culture. Her new work, currently on view in confectionery-coloured rooms with pink carpets at Home in Manchester and Tate Britain in London, looks at “a culture of narcissism or self-obsession” in the online world, and is replete with the tools and language of social media. She has also made works looking at Scottish and British identity, themes she will touch on when she represents Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2017.
The Art Newspaper: Do you intend to seduce and repel in equal measure with your work?
Rachel Maclean: There’s one aspect of my work that I want to be seductive. A lot of the references I use are not niche; they’re things from popular culture that generally people would recognise from everyday life. So there’s an aspect of it which is familiar, welcoming and visually maximal, seductive and alluring. I want there to be something that sucks people in as viewers. But I’m always interested in offsetting that with either something that’s visually repulsive or content that jars with the appearance of the image.
There are many fairytale references in your work. Is the intention to create similar allegories with contemporary imagery?
I’ve always been attracted to fairytales, in terms of how certain stories persist through different cultures in different ages but are subtly morphing all the time to the culture they’re within. I was interested in taking something that was familiar and then reinterpreting it. There’s one aspect of what I do that’s carrying on from something that’s been happening for hundreds of years. But I guess I was interested, specifically in films like Feed Me , for there to be a feeling of talking about something contemporary—paedophilia online and the Jimmy Savile scandal, something that was in the zeitgeist—but relating that to the bogeyman and the child-eating ogre, and that history of the fairytale, a fear of male sexuality that’s much more time-old. I like the way that fairytales do that. You see with Brexit and the success of Donald Trump the ways in which our identities are formed through stories, narratives and mythologies that exist on top of facts and the pragmatic realism of politics and life.
To what extent is theatre a reference?
I go to see quite a lot of theatre. I’ve never done any or been personally involved in it but there’s definitely a different acting style in theatre, and I am interested in over-acting and things being larger than life. I look a lot at comedy actors and satire and parody within comedy as a kind of acting style—taking on personas and amping them up or shifting them on to a more grotesque plain.
One aspect of that theatricality is the make-up and costumes. How do you design your characters?
I usually want them to match up with a stereotype or archetype that’s recognisable, but there should also be something that makes it more complicated or slightly undermines that. Usually, in the films, the characters are slippery; they start off as one thing and then suddenly shift completely into a different personality. In some ways, I see them as being quite strict and constrained, but on another level I like that they can have an instability that’s different from normal narrative characterisation. The current character that I have [in It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016)] is almost like a Kim Kardashian cyborg-style goddess or celebrity who shifts from being in a state of people admiring her, following her in crowds and screaming at her, to seeming to be kept alive on a digital life-support system. So you feel that in one way you understand what she is and then, in another context, you have to re-evaluate her character and personality.
You perform all the roles. Tell me about that experience.
Despite the characters being me, I don’t want them to be about me, I want them to be a very illusory mask that I put on and become something that is completely outside of myself.
Was using yourself initially a practical decision?
I started at art college and it was partly out of being interested in performance art. But I realised I was much more interested in the people on screen not being an investigation of me, in the Marina Abramovic sense, but being something that was distinct and quite other to me—in using my own image and transforming it.
The new work and Feed Me are savage critiques of contemporary life, particularly the online experience.
A lot of my work looks at identity and how that’s changing, and the way that we interact with the identities that we create for ourselves online—being these things that are almost distinct from ourselves in real life, and allowing ourselves to edit a vision of who we want to be and how we want to appear. But there’s also this idea of data collection and the sense, with Apple watches and those kind of things, that we can quantify our own health status, happiness and wellness—that emotions can be translated into data. There’s also the data that’s collected about what you look at, what you buy; you become this commodity in terms of the data that you produce. I was interested in looking at that from different perspectives and presenting it in quite a hyper-dark way.
Your works like The Lion and the Unicorn (2012) look at national identity. Will you revisit this theme when you represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale?
Since Brexit, it feels like I can’t really do a show representing Scotland in Europe without feeling like that’s impacting on it. I’m interested in making a film that goes back to The Lion and the Unicorn and putting that in the context of Venice. It’s always something I have been interested in and it started out when I was at art college. It was more from the perspective of Edinburgh’s tourist culture, and being aware of what Scotland is in a fantastical, fairytale sense, and the reality of what it is to be Scottish and there being this massive divide between these two worlds. With the referendum, Scottish identity very suddenly got politicised in a way that I hadn’t experienced before, so it felt like I had to treat those ideas with a very different lens and a very different perspective.
• Rachel Maclean, Wot u :-) about?, Home, Manchester, until 8 January 2017, and Tate Britain, London, until 2 April 2017