At first glance, the regal-looking pink love heart framed around a blue-eyed and smiling princess peering out from the flagship image for British Art Show 8, which arrives in Edinburgh this month, looks every inch the child-friendly image of a Disney princess to die for. Only the fact that the cartoon creation appears to have a bag over their head while wielding a frowning bauble and miming shooting itself in the head jars somewhat.
The image is from Feed Me, the new hour-long film by Rachel Maclean, which was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Hayward Touring, and is is being screened as part of BAS8 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Like the film, and indeed much of Maclean's back-catalogue, the image takes familiar pop cultural tropes and subverts them with a cut-up narrative in which an unrecognisable Maclean usually plays all the parts against a candy-coated green screen backdrop.
From the Lady Gaga and Katy Perry coloured fantasias of LolCats and Over The Rainbow to state of the nations mini epics, The Lion and the Unicorn and Please, Sir, which mashed up Oliver Twist, The Prince and the Pauper and Britain's Got Talent, Maclean's films have explored notions of identity in terms of class, nation and gender. The image for Feed Me, with its grown-up take on kid's stuff and a dig at the monarchy to boot, conveys an anarchically punky spirit that gets under the skin of its subject even as its surface cutesiness draws you in.
“It's looking at childhood and cultures of happiness,” says Maclean. “I've always been interested in the fantasy of childhood compared to how it actually is. I'm also interested in the infantilisation of adulthood, and how big companies like Google have a ball pit in the workplace, and how Starbucks serve drinks in spill-proof cups, like it's a baby's cup.
“Children's TV likes to imagine childhood as something that's innocent and sealed off from adulthood with it's own separate world. There's a trope of horror movies as well, where children are so cut off and so different that they can talk to dead people or animals.
“In Feed Me there are two worlds. There's this world of a Barbie style Disney princess, and there's this other space that's grubby and full of urban decay, and these two worlds mix. I was thinking as well about Britney Spears, and her transition from a child to a young adult, and how her career began to unravel, with all the contradictions she had to endure. That's interesting in terms of the roles young woman have to have, and how they're not allowed to mix. That's typical of Disney princesses as well. In the films Disney princesses are always about fifteen or sixteen, and are on the cusp of becoming a woman, and that's a fetish I think we have in society.”
All of which suggests an affinity with the work of Linder, the iconic punk-sired artist whose Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, a rug commissioned by the Edinburgh-based Dovecot Studios, also appears at the SNGoMA as part of BAS8.
For the last four decades, Linder has subverted the mainstream in a similar fashion to Maclean through a series of taboo-busting photo-montages that began with her artzine, The Secret Public, co-created with writer Jon Savage, and which fused images from porn magazines with pictures of domestic appliances. Linder created record covers for Manchester contemporaries Buzzcocks and Magazine, while her collage aesthetic was applied through singing with her own band, Ludus, and more recently through increasingly expansive performance-based work.
The latter arguably began back in 1982 when Linder wore a dress made of meat during a Ludus gig at Manchester club, The Hacienda, during which she peeled back the dress to reveal an oversized strap-on sex toy. In her film, Light and Fuse, Linder performed in drag as Clint Eastwood's spaghetti western anti-hero, The Man With No Name. She reprised the role in her four hour performance, The Working Class Goes To Paradise, in which she also took on the mantle of Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement, alongside dancers and three bands playing simultaneously.
For Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2010, Linder presented The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME, a thirteen-hour physical and musical meditation on fame that featured troupes of Lindy-hoppers, jumping jivers and northern soul dancers. For BAS8, seven dancers from Northern Ballet will perform Children of the Mantic Stain, a new work inspired in part by the writings of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun and her lively St Ives social circle. As well as featuring choreographed portrayals of Colquhoun, Barbara Hepworth and sculptor John Milne, Linder's rug plays a key role as the ballet's 'eighth dancer.'
“I like the hallucinogenic quality in both Colquhoun’s writing and paintings,” Linder says of the inspiration behind Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes. “Whilst I was in the midst of my research, I stayed in the artists flat above Raven Row gallery. The flat has never been changed since the last occupant, Rebecca Levy, passed away in 2009 aged 98. I was mesmerised by Rebecca’s choice of carpets, which are a triumph of 1970s design. I used to stare at the carpets in the half light and they would play all sorts of tricks with my optical nerves, I’d start to see things that weren’t there, 'mind pictures' as Colquhoun might have said.
“For the rug design at Dovecot, I created a photomontage of two of Rebecca Levy’s carpets and added all seeing 1970s Glam Rock eyes so that as one looks at the rug, the rug looks back at you. The dancers from Northern Ballet call her The Diva and are very respectful to her. They say that she definitely takes the lead. When I first met the tufters at Dovecot Studios, I talked about liberating carpets and rugs from the floor, and how I wanted to be able to choreograph textiles through space.”
While the rug itself was made at Dovecot in collaboration with Jonathan Cleaver, Dennis Reinmüller and Kristi Vana, Children of the Mantic Stain is choreographed by Kenneth Tindall, with fashion designer Christopher Shannon providing the costumes and composer Maxwell Sterling the score. In this respect, rather than dive into the dressing up box, Linder describes herself as the “walking talking Pritt stick, glueing everyone together,” while the dancers “ventriloquise on my behalf.”
Both Linder and Maclean's work is driven by a political root as much as a performative one,
“My motivation for making art comes from being angry at something,” says Maclean. “I'm really interested in looking at fairytales to explore class and gender politics, but displacing them in a way that's historical but which brings it into something contemporary.”
For Linder too, a political engine is “always ticking over. I don’t deliberately set out to make political work but it always turns out that way, sometimes more so than for other artists who use scale and sloganeering to make their point. Generationally we cut our teeth on handouts and fanzines, paperback books, 7” singles and 12” albums, so debate then emerged from a very tactile and intimate experience of listening and reading. A touch screen can never deliver in the same way.
“I often work with that which has been discarded, a 1964 copy of Playboy for instance or a Good Housekeeping cookery book from 1948. The prevailing sexual and economic politics are embedded in every halftone dot on each page, just as they are in every pixel on the screens that we stroke each day. It doesn’t take much to mess it all up. As Carol Hanisch said in her “personal is political” essay in 1969, women aren’t messed up, they’re messed over. We’re still all messed up regardless of gender, so I rev up the engine and hijack the images around us, taking them somewhere that they’re not meant to go. I make things right by making them wrong.”
This chimes too with Maclean, who grew up on “girls magazines, MTV, Disney films and computer games, and that feeds into my work, but it becomes warped somehow.”
Linder's increasing use of dance in her work too stems from her childhood.
“I’m sure that it’s purely autobiographical,” she says. “I grew up in Liverpool at the same time as the Merseybeat scene was happening, then my family moved to Wigan just as Northern Soul was being birthed. As a student I saw the Bowie/Ferry fandom make way for Punk’s brats, then I disappeared into Manchester’s Black clubs to dance to Greg Wilson’s electro funk mixes in 1981. Music and dance have always been a part of my life,and The Darktown Cakewalk was one way of letting all of these experiences reach meltdown and to then cool off and congeal into different configurations.”
In terms of performance, while Maclean says she'd like to work with actors more, “It's fun becoming all these different characters for a day. I quite like the oddness of it all being me, especially with using prosthetics in the way we've done in Feed Me, with these different layers of masks.
"Using green screen as well is a bit like painting, and allows me to put in a lot of ideas, and use a lot of still images so it's like a photo montage. I quite like the film being this big thing with lots of different ideas.”
While Maclean's films are deeply theatrical, as yet she has not worked in the live arena.
“I think it would be fun to do something live at some point,” she says. “I don't think I could theatre-act, but if I was to do something I'd like to get loads of people on board and do something Busby Berkleyesque.”
Similarly, while Linder's performance work has been documented on film, usually by Daniel Warren, film as a medium in itself is something she has yet to fully exploit.
"I recently collaborated with [French fashion house] Maison Margiela in Brussels and I made a film then,” she says. “It features a dancer dressed in a MM coat made of blonde wigs but she barely moves in front of the camera.
“I love film. I remember the huge cinemas in Liverpool that my parents used to take me to in the 1960s before the multiplexes took over. I saw ‘This is Cinerama' in1964 and I thought that I’d died and gone to heaven, especially when I heard the first 'stereophonic sound' demonstration in Act II.
“It’s not just film that I was in love with. I was also in love with the ceremony attached to going to the cinema. My family always dressed up when we went out. We wanted to mirror the stars. From Hollywood to Huyton didn’t seem such a long way then, but now the cinema screen has been replaced by the tiniest screens imaginable, so that we can hold in our hands what was once projected in Picture Palaces throughout the land. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about all of this, so I make work about it instead.”
Feed Me by Rachel Maclean and Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes can both be seen at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, as part of British Art Show 8, February 13th-May 8th. Children of the Mantic Stain will be performed by Northern Ballet Dancers at Dovecot, Edinburgh on March 30th.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The List, February 2016