Rachel Maclean: Please Sir…

7 November–20 December 2014, Rowing Projects, London

By Valentina Bin

Rachel Maclean– Please, Sir, 2014 Video still 2, Courtesy the Artist and Rowing, London Rachel Maclean – Please, Sir, 2014. Video still. Courtesy the artist and Rowing, London Rachel Maclean – Please, Sir, 2014, installation view. Courtesy the artist and Rowing, London. Photo: Plastiques Photography

There’s a combination of inventiveness, ambition and level of technical skill, not to mention a distinctive baroque sensibility, to Rachel Maclean’s work that one doesn’t see often. Please Sir… is a two-channel video projection loosely inspired by Mark Twain’s 'The Prince and The Pauper’ with a trace of 'Oliver Twist' starring a cockney/Victorian/Glaswegian homeless boy in Adidas stripes and a vermilion-coloured Tudor Prince. Maclean’s videos are collages of lip-synced voices appropriated from popular television and the internet (in this case from various productions of 'The Prince and The Pauper', 'Britain’s Got Talent' and 'The Jeremy Kyle Show'), resulting in cliché-ridden and creepily familiar fictions, characterised by an oneiric causality which nonetheless has a linearity within the storytelling. Wearing extravagant self-designed costumes and garish make-up, the artist plays every character within the film, performances which are then greenscreened on to complex backgrounds.

Please Sir… is a highly sophisticated composition of popular culture detritus, appropriating the lowbrow language of reality, talent and tabloid talk shows

Maclean's performances come across as a caricatured melodrama played out by stereotyped and emptied out identities, formally reinforced by the position of the two screens, which are placed one in front of the other. This makes it impossible to focus on both simultaneously, so that drama collapses into a mash-up of postures, signifiers of taste and absurd political correctness, ridiculing the  ostensibly British obsession with class, national identity and status. Please Sir… is a highly sophisticated composition of popular culture detritus, appropriating the lowbrow language of reality, talent and tabloid talk shows, yet sitting comfortably in the comparably niche context of a contemporary art space. When, in one of the final scenes, the prince asks his twin pauper ‘What is the difference between us?’ he seems to be indirectly questioning the politically charged segregation between kitsch and good taste. However, Maclean’s satire does not take a Bourdieuian sociologically deterministic stance, which condemns those subtle distinctions of taste that are always indicative of class belonging. Her hyperbolic, surreal and absurdist creations offer their viewers an ‘artified’ and guiltfree version of that pleasure most of us have indulged in, namely secretly thoroughly enjoying an episode of X-Factor whilst overly mocking it.

In Maclean’s work the theatrical satire of Pietro Longhi – the malicious yet benevolent eighteenth-century painter of Venetian bourgeois society – meets the maximalist aesthetics of Ryan Trecartin. Yet there is a mysterious and dark nihilism behind her hyper-saturated pop-grotesque visions. The bursts of fake and hysterical laughter that often signal a turning point in the story resound like sharp digs beyond what might reasonably be deemed as satire. Leaving behind an echo of something which quickly loses its hilarity Maclean’s work reaches its climax when these hyperreal frescoes are relieved of their humorous sugar-coating, eventually revealing a disillusioned epilogue: the unstable and anxious identities populating the film never manage to overthrow the status quo, restrained by a vulgar and undeserving elite. The work seems to suggest that until power relations between social classes are radically redefined, we’re all actors of a grim play in which there are no paupers successfully turned royals but only an army of delusional talent show winners.

Online exclusive published 12 January 2015