9 May 2017 — Writing

Welcome to the New Baroque: Reflections on Spite Your Face

by Richard Ashrowan

Richard Ashrowan, Curator for Scotland + Venice 2017 and Creative Director of Alchemy Film & Arts, offers his personal reflections on Rachel Maclean’s new film commission, Spite Your Face.

From the bright sunlight of Fondamenta Santa Caterina, a rippling light reflects the water’s surface onto the tranquil surroundings of Cannaregio. Entering Chiesa di Santa Caterina from here, viewers of Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face are plunged into a very different world. Amid the penetrating darkness, we encounter a luminous eight metre high projection, a lavishly flamboyant world of blues and golds, positioned at the altar of a former church once dedicated to the cult of St Catherine of Alexandria. A statue of St Catherine is gently illuminated, a handful of church pews punctuate the space, and the sound of the film surrounds and engulfs us. Already, we have travelled from one world to another, “It’s not Heaven, it’s a New World”.

There is no beginning or end to the rags to riches story we see unfolding, described by the artist as “a dark Venetian fairytale”, its driving narrative endlessly loops, fixing us in an uncertain time and place. There is a discomforting uncertainty in not being able to find a fixed point in which to anchor ourselves in the story. Drawing in part upon the Tuscan fairytale The Adventures of Pinocchio, whose central character Maclean has renamed Pic, Spite Your Face is on one level a morality tale, yet this tale is not one in which the lessons are ever quite clear. Following the looping trajectory of the film, we find that consequences lead to actions, redemption leads to the fall, characters fall upwards or encounter different versions of themselves in the same scene, the present permeates the past. It is a fantasy world in which temporal and architectural perspectives, identity, action and consequence are all made warped and mutable.

Children’s morality tales have featured in Maclean’s work before, notably in Please, Sir… (2014) an adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. We may accept such stories as culturally benign, yet they also function to support the social values of their time. [1] Their sweet, dreamlike fantasies frequently conceal dubious constructs of wish fulfilment and a deep rooted misogyny, both subjects that Maclean exposes in this current work. The original Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883) [2], was a morality tale aimed against laziness, lying and indolence. It features an undisciplined boy marionette who refuses to study and unquestioningly follows his whimsical and unrealistic desires. He is constantly deceived and led astray by others. Terrible things happen to him, his nose grows astonishingly long when he lies and he is turned into a donkey. Collodi’s story spoke to the particular concerns of his time: the illiteracy and naivety of the peasant class in the context of mass migration to industrialised Italian cities. Maclean’s brand of contemporary Baroque fairytale speaks to our own hidden anxieties in a similar manner.

As a starting point, the original text of Pinocchio serves Maclean’s purposes well, though viewers will find few scenes directly drawn from it. [3] In the original text, a crowd of doctors, in the form of a crow, an owl, and a talking cricket debate whether Pinocchio is dead or alive. Maclean translates this scene into a riff on the questionable nature of truth, as a citizen disputation leads to a chatter of ever more exaggerated Chinese whispers. In Collodi’s text, the blue haired fairy is “a lovely maiden with azure hair”, who seems to be both dead and alive at the same time. She holds the moral compass for Pinocchio’s life, his “little mother” who asks him to obey her and not to tell lies, and in return she will transform him into a real boy. In Maclean’s hands, the character of the Fairy becomes an increasingly complex figure, at first mothering and guiding him, then challenging his behaviour like a disapproving parent. As Pic grows, she assumes the role of lover, until finally she becomes his accusatory journalist confessor. Pinocchio’s marionette life began as a talking log of firewood and Maclean works a particular mischief on this scene, translating it into something uniquely humorous and grotesque, as Pic’s own severed nose begins speaking to him, served up on a platter.

In her more recent works Maclean writes her own scripts which are voiced by actors, and subsequently mimes these to camera. This technique is one of the defining hallmarks of Maclean’s oeuvre, a technique she began in her earlier work by re-voicing found dialogue. Its effect is to generate an unnerving friction between sound and image, a knowing illusionism we quickly become complicit in as viewers, but which remains with us as a strange and uncanny sense of displacement. She plays all the characters in her films herself, using custom prosthetics, make-up and costume. Her approach here is tightly controlled, her total vision for each film coming together only in the final edit as she constructs the worlds they inhabit. As in the work of Cindy Sherman, who also uses her own self as a canvas to expose the deceptive role of socially sanctioned images through a broad range of unsettling characterisations, Maclean steers clear of identifiable self representation. Like Sherman, Maclean’s own presence in her work always seems sublimated to the ideas she is aiming to express. Her characters are fictions, which are simultaneously beautiful, grotesque, excessive, and gender defying, and they are as equally unnerving.

The iconography of child-like innocence that Maclean employs in much of her work can lure us into a comforting sense of familiarity, leading us to accept what might otherwise be questionable. We are not inclined to judge young Pic’s dubious ambitions too harshly when he wishes to “become a rich man and enter the world above,” nor do we question the kindness of the Fairy who appears to indulge his wishes. But it does matter what we wish for: our wishes are always ripe for exploitation, and the corporate machinery of wish fulfilment and self deception lies in wait for us. This has been a recurring concern in Maclean’s work (Germs, Feed Me, It’s What’s Inside That Counts), and we are never quite sure if Maclean’s target is the corporate exploitation of benign desires, or the superficiality of so much human desire itself. The Fairy, at first occupying a position of moral rectitude, seems also to be strangely complicit in Pic’s corruption and demise, peddling a cure-all bottle of Truth as the ultimate, if not limitless, form of absolution. Is this really so different to the UnTruth that Pic later promotes to achieve his fame?

Disarmed by her characters, we may find ourselves unprepared for the scene of sexual violence that follows. The innocuous setting of the fairytale ultimately morphs into a visceral sense of real-world horror, as Pic rapes the Fairy with his nose. Maclean has used such strategies to similar effect in Feed Me (2015) and more recently in It’s What’s Inside that Counts (2016). The sexualised abuse of male power is a prevailing theme, and Maclean points out the insidious presence of misogynistic imagery within advertising, celebrity culture, video games and the music video genre. “We have become desensitised by the prevalence of misogynistic imagery in contemporary culture” she says, “and my way of addressing this is to confront it in a direct and visceral way”. Responding to a question about her portrayal of sexual violence following a screening of It’s What’s Inside that Counts at Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival, Maclean said:

“There is a violence toward women in images… we are taught to read things verbally, and tirades against women are often not verbalised. It’s just there all the time, and it is this constant violence, but it is not verbal so it doesn’t seem so obvious to us. My portrayal of these things is part of that anger, a feeling that I want to communicate that visually…. there’s something disturbing in seeing that … and I think it is legitimate to visualise the violence toward women that is beneath the surface of our society.” [4]

As with so many of the themes embedded in this work, Maclean here brings the darker underlying currents of our culture to the surface. She tackles aggressive consumerism, the vacuous and disingenuous claims of politicians and advertising executives, and the sexually predatory behaviour of powerful men with characteristically dramatic formulations of excess. Maclean doesn’t want us just to know these things, she wants us to feel them. In their searing intensity and sense of excess, her films recall those of Paul McCarthy. Maclean’s world of warped appearances seems less misanthropic and wilfully brutish than McCarthy’s, yet they seem to provoke an equally visceral, dark and disturbed response. It is as if our humanity is being turned inside out, exposed for what it is, dressed up and sold back to us.

In Spite Your Face, Pic’s violence is directed toward the Fairy. In the particular context of its presentation in a former church, this begins to echo the representations of violence toward women in the Christian tradition, which were depicted and retold for a moral purpose. The blue haired Fairy appears in the film after visually morphing directly from a statue of St Catherine, which also stands illuminated within the church. In her 2011 print diptych The Innocents and Massacre of the Innocents, Maclean has previously drawn on religious iconography, retelling the story of King Herod’s massacre of young male Jewish children in Bethlehem and their martyrdom, recast by Maclean in an orgy of flesh, and drawing on the traditions of its representation in painting. In Spite Your Face, the direct correlation suggested between St Catherine and the Fairy draws our attention to the Christian stories of the virgin martyrs, of which St Catherine was a central figure.

Chiesa di Santa Caterina has been a deconsecrated secular venue since 1807, part of the Marco Foscarini School, founded during Napoleon’s second occupation of Venice (1805-1814). The original Augustinian nunnery [5], disbanded by Napoleon’s Italian Viceroy, was founded in 1288 and dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. Her story, and the cult of her worship, spread throughout Europe from the eleventh to the early sixteenth centuries.

According to legend, St. Catherine was martyred in the early fourth century. She was a queen in her city, and after converting to Christianity, she protested to the Emperor Maxentius against a decree that all Alexandria should worship his pagan idols. She proved herself a powerful orator and rhetorician, converting Maxentius’s wife with her arguments (he had his wife’s breasts torn off for this), the captain of his guards and fifty of his best scholars (who were all burned to death). Maxentius was captivated by her beauty, but she refused his sexual advances, wishing to preserve her virginity. The price she paid was to be imprisoned and beaten. She was then threatened by a horrific torture device of four wheels studded with knives (now known as the Catherine Wheel), which was miraculously destroyed by divine intervention. Maxentius beheaded her and her body was carried to Mount Sinai where it began to exude healing oil. [6]

Such violence against women, portrayed through the lives of the virgin martyr saints, finds its way into the iconography of religious painting through the ages. The fact that Chiesa di Santa Caterina has been a site of contemplation around St. Catherine’s story for centuries generates a particular resonance as we watch Maclean’s film. The church and its convent were once extraordinarily wealthy, a place bound up with the economies of power, religious authority and artistic patronage of the time. [7] St Catherine’s legend has attracted significant recent critical attention for its pro-feminine morality, in which an intellectually powerful and educated woman is brutally silenced by a sexually aggressive male emperor.

Rachel Maclean wrote the script for Spite Your Face in Venice in December 2016, shortly after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and just after Donald Trump had been elected as President of the USA. The artist has said the film’s title itself alludes to the possible implications of Brexit, to “cut off your nose to spite your face.” At this time, Italy was also undergoing its own constitutional referendum, in which a ‘no’ vote was forced through by the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement (M5S), founded on protest voting against the political elite. These political contexts, characterised by alarmingly simplistic forms of political rhetoric, are the background for some of the central ideas in Spite Your Face. This is not new territory for Maclean, who has an uncannily prescient instinct for societal trends, both political and cultural. In one of her most powerful and politically incisive works, The Lion and the Unicorn (2012) she explored the debate about Scottish independence long before the Scottish referendum of 2014, appropriating the Queen’s speech, and interviews with David Cameron and Alex Salmond. In A Whole New World (2014), her target was British imperial history and notions of empire, conjuring a dystopian and all too familiar world of imperial rhetoric and national pride.

Spite Your Face steers clear of identifying any singular political figure or movement. Maclean instead satirises the increasingly infantile language of today’s political leadership. The language of truth and untruth is employed to cleanse the “stench” of the lower world that seeps into our bright, golden and aspirational world above. Maclean here holds a mirror to current xenophobic political rhetoric founded on a fear of contamination by the other, while also pointing her finger at the increasing divide between the worlds of the super-rich and the ordinary poor, how primitive fears are stoked in order to maintain the status quo. This upper world, however, is no ideal world. It is permeated by a palpable sense of paranoia. There is something of the quiet revolutionary revealing itself in Maclean here, as this rarefied world depends on the maintenance of a fragile collective collusion that might so easily crumble. In It’s What’s Inside That Counts, it was rats gnawing away at data cables, in Spite Your Face, it is the stench seeping in. These are the threats, and they are also the potential forces of revolution.

The language of truth vs untruth, used so simplistically and effectively to appeal to the masses, is a binary that immediately becomes slippery and unstable within the film. After Pic enters the upper world, he is confronted by a version of the classical liar paradox of the two doors, perhaps best exemplified by the statement “this sentence is a lie.” If the sentence is true, then the sentence is a lie, but if we take the sentence to be a lie, as it says it is, then it is true, which means it must be a lie, ad infinitum. We are stuck, like Pic, and as viewers, caught in the endlessly looping structure of the film itself, in an inescapable world of paradoxical uncertainty, where nothing can quite be true, but neither can it be false. The ambiguity of this riddle can perhaps only lead to the conclusion that nothing, ever, should be believed.

Much has been said of Maclean’s aesthetic choices, referencing children’s television, Disney films, fairytale versions of celebrity, advertising and social media culture. Many of these visual tropes have become highly characteristic of her work and are further developed in Spite Your Face. The film traverses perfume ads and high end department stores, celebrity interviews and I-pad interfaces for wish-making. It is perhaps pertinent that Maclean’s first experience of Venice came through playing the computer game Tomb Raider. Yet in Spite Your Face, she performs one of her most ambitious acts of cultural synthesis to date.

Drawing aesthetic inspiration from Italian Renaissance painting, in stunning blues and golds, Maclean seamlessly layers contemporary glitz onto pictorial historicism, in a manner we could find strikingly bizarre, but which appears entirely coherent. In originally adopting the portrait format for her film as a response to the geometries of the altar space of Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Maclean built upon the above and below construction common to hierarchical modes of representation in Renaissance religious painting. Equally, the confused and warped perspectives of the lower world draw heavily on the early perspective paintings of Giotto (1266-1337). Maclean also makes much use of continuous narrative in this film, depicting Pic in the presence of his older or younger self within the same frame. She cites Masaccio’s fresco The Tribute Money (1420s), which features St. Peter appearing simultaneously three times on the canvas in different parts of the story, as an inspiration for this flattening of temporal linearity. Her background rendering of The Ideal City paintings of the 1480’s for Pic’s political disputations seamlessly morph into a Tomb Raider style version of Venice. Nothing could be stranger, nor more strangely familiar.

Maclean’s baroque sensibilities, coupled with her astonishing capacity to synthesise and combine an enormous range of social, political and cultural influences, mark her as one of the most original and radical voices on the contemporary art scene today.

Richard Ashrowan

Curator, Scotland + Venice 2017 and Creative Director of Alchemy Film & Arts


[1] See Melissa Gronlund’s essay The Power, The Glory, The Culture Industry for a discussion of Maclean’s work as modern day fairytale in Rachel Maclean : wot u :- ) about? (2016) Hayward Publishing / HOME, exhibition catalogue.

[2] His real name was Carlo Lorenzini (1826-1890). He was born in Florence and lived most of his life in the town of Collodi in Tuscany, which today has a themed ‘Pinocchio park’.

[3] See The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, 1883, Trans. Ariel Fernandez C., Chapters 1, 16 and 25.

[4] Q&A at Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival 2017 / https://player.vimeo.com/video/207459390

[5] See Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice by Jutta Gisela Sperling (1999, University of Chicago Press) for a fascinating discussion of the place of women in Venetian convents, including Santa Caterina, and its economies of power and patronage. At one stage, Santa Caterina housed 100 nuns, and the convent attracted criticism for the fact that 99 of its members where from noble families.

[6] St. Catherine is also known as St. Katherine. There is no evidence that St. Catherine was a real person and it is likely her story is a concatenation of various myths, historical figures and traditional virgin martyr narratives. See St. Katherine of Alexandria (Jacqueline Jenkins and Katherine J Lewis, Brepolis, 2003) for an account of the legend, the spread of her cult through Western Christendom, and critical discussion of her story in relation to pro-feminine Christian narratives.

[7] Chiesa di Santa Caterina once housed numerous painted works devoted to the saint, including Paolo Veronese’s, the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (c. 1575) (moved to the Accademia in 1925), a cycle of six canvases, Episodes in the Life of Saint Catherine, by Tintoretto and his workshop, which once hung along the sides (now at the Patriarchal Palace), plus two 17th century works by Sebastiano Mazzoni, Scenes from the Life of Santa Caterina (moved to the Accademia). St Catherine has been a subject of numerous Renaissance painters, including remarkable depictions by Raphael and Caravaggio. She is often depicted with her shattered instrument of torture, the Catherine wheel.