Rachel Maclean is sat in Film City to talk about Make Me Up, the Glasgow-based artist’s feature-length subversion of prime-time TV that’s about to be shown on BBC 4 prior to screenings in cinemas around the country. Holding court to a parade of journalists in the boardroom of what used to be Govan Town Hall seems fitting somehow for a film about women and, if not in, power.
Following Spite Your Face, Maclean’s dark look at the corrupting power of money that formed Scotland’s official contribution to the 2017 Venice Biennale, Make Me Up dissects popular media clichés of female beauty in a deceptively prettified world. Here the wide-eyed and tellingly named Siri is put through a blender of choreographed conformity alongside a troupe of similarly well-turned-out would-be mannequins forced to compete in an extreme take on trash-TV talent shows where survival of the fittest is what counts.
All this is overseen by a candyfloss-coifed ringmistress with a wig pink enough to resemble Ru Paul by way of an old-school B-52s video. As played by a typically barely recognisable Maclean, the words mouthed by the dominatrix-diva are taken from recordings of Kenneth Clark, the plummy-voiced art historian whose family made their fortune in the Paisley textile trade, and whose seminal 1969 BBC series, Civilisation, gave a very male view of art.
“I saw so much that was political in Kenneth Clark’s voice,” says Maclean. “The power and authority of this upper-class male voice was almost imperial. Out of that came a particular point of view, which came at art history without any idea about female creativity at all. When someone’s revered in the way Clark was, it probably seemed inconceivable that there was any other way of teaching art, but within that you can see the background of how female bodies are treated. Kenneth Clark can sound quite paternalistic, and when you put that together with something like America’s Top Model it becomes quite uncomfortable.”
While Maclean plays the centre’s candy-coloured and Clark-voiced overseer, where she normally reinvents herself as every character in her work, this time out some thirteen actors appear. These include eleven performers as the women under Maclean’s character’s thumb, and include Kirsty Strain, who has worked on several of Maclean’s films.
Alexa is played by Colette Dalal Tchantcho, who recently appeared as Orsino in the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s gender-bending dressing-up-box take on Shakespeare’s rom-com, Twelfth Night. Siri is brought to life by Christina Gordon, whose acting career began at Dundee Rep. Working with such a large company on Make Me Up’s relatively linear narrative appears to be a pointer for Maclean’s next move.
“I’d really like to make a feature film for cinema,’ she says. “I’m really excited about creating a believable world using a straightforward narrative, and I’m getting a crash course in screen-writing just now. Coming from an art background, it’s really interesting that so many films have similar structures, and I’d really like to play about with that.”
One of the more poignant aspects of Make Me Up is its use of the modernist architecture of St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. While Maclean’s film was shot using green screen at Film City, customised images of St Peter’s feature as a dayglo dystopian backdrop. Up until recently, St Peter’s was earmarked for long-term renovation by NVA, Angus Farquhar’s environmental interventionists, whose rejection for regular funding by Creative Scotland caused the company’s demise, with the plug being pulled on the St Peter’s development. With NVA co-producers of Make Me Up alongside Hopscotch Films, Maclean’s film will now be their swansong.
“I wanted Make Me Up to look stylistically unreal,” says Maclean. “St Peter’s was amazing to visit, and it was really nice working with NVA were. It was really sad when they closed mid-way through the process, and it was a really difficult moment in public art in the UK.”
Also on board with Make Me Up was 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the centenary of the First World War that also coincided with the 100th anniversary since women were given the vote. This prompted Maclean to look at the slashing of Velazquez’ painting of a naked woman seen from behind, the Rockeby Venus, which was attacked by suffragette Mary Richardson in protest at the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst.
“She was slashing a painting of a woman, so it feels like a violent act as well as beauty,” Maclean says.
Arriving in the midst of the #MeToo age, contemporary voices of dissent in Make Me Up put into the mouths of Siri, Alexa and co come from the likes of Pussy Riot, Rose McGowan, Germaine Greer, Geri Halliwell and Viv Albertine. Such a disparate display chimes with a new generation of feminist thought and action which, in increasingly reactionary times, has been fearlessly much in evident of late. In this sense, for all its aesthetic and polemical complexities, Make Me Up is arguably a call to arms.
“There’s far more politicisation and awareness of feminism in young women than when I was growing up,” Maclean says. “With that in mind I’d like Make Me Up to open up discussion. I don’t want to force my ideas down people’s throats. I’d much rather the film opens up possible ways of thinking about some of the things it looks at. There are things in the film about weight and eating and body image, which traditionally young women have been made to feel like it’s all their fault, when actually it’s part of a much larger political discourse.”
Rachel Maclean’s new film, Make Me Up will premiere at London Film festival on October 12th before being screened in cinemas across the UK. Scottish screenings are Glasgow Film Theatre, October 14th; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, October 16th; An Lanntair, Stornoway, October 18thTaigh Chearsabhagh, North Uist, October 19th; Dundee Contemporary Arts, October 22; The Barn, Banchory, October 31st.
The List, November 2018