Twisted Fairytales: Rachel Maclean’s candy-coloured, post-internet apocalypse
What do you get if you mix The Simpsons, Black Mirror and Alice in Wonderland? Something like Rachel Maclean’s new art film, It’s What’s Inside That Counts. Showcasing a soft-glow alternative world of the future, the Glaswegian artist explores the dark side of our online lives. The film plays as the key centrepiece of her new exhibition titled “Wot u :-) about?” and is currently on show at the Tate Britain as part of Art Now, a series that focuses on new work by emerging artists.
Born in 1987, Maclean is a young multimedia artist who is bringing a refreshing and aggressively critical look at modern society. Using film and photography, she creates absurd worlds animated by eccentric characters through fairy tale narratives. Maclean writes, directs, and plays all the characters herself using green screen technology and heavy photoshop editing. The dizzying array of characters she plays is a testament to her multitude of skills as an artist and she has been branded a new-gen Cindy Sherman. Previous art films have included ‘The Lion and The Unicorn’ (2012) which explored the constructed cultural identity of Scotland and later ‘Over the Rainbow’ (2013), a comedic parody of the Wizard of Oz featuring Dorothy as a weapon-wielding villain. These can now be understood as a warm up to her current piece, which explores similar themes but is by far her most harrowing one yet.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts begins as a satirical commentary of social media followed through the protagonist of a yellow-skinned, noseless, selfie-shooting celebrity female character. It’s as if Maclean took Kim Kardashian and turned her into a living emoji. But this celebrity character plays as the physical embodiment of Data and the poster girl of BU, a broadband company whose advert the film is narrated around. Data plays out this advert in a shrill, girly, middle-America accent — “Are you tired? Drained? Disconnected?”. Like all good adverts, she promises a better life — a better you. Brandishing an ethernet cable, she continues “pushing yourself to the limit to realise, you have no limit. Because when you’re fast on the inside, you can do anything”. The commercial tone and positivity is almost nauseating, but there is a crowd of pizza-faced zombies in eye masks and dirty pajamas eager for her, worshipping at the altar of Data chanting “We want Data! We want Data!”.
The religious setup is just one of the many themes that Maclean explores in the piece, but she may have overreached this time. There are too many themes. It’s as if she pooled every traditional story of morality and threw them all into one 30-minute film for a ferocious critique of modern society. Albeit lacking focus, the film is saved by her unique visual style which is utterly captivating. It’s what I would imagine Wes Anderson would see if he took LSD and played a bunch of 90’s video games.
The film continues with a group of rebel rodents who hack the almighty Data and turn this alternative world into a desert without connection. We are presented by a monk who promises to help us find our inner strength, like a future Mark Zuckerberg preaching mindfulness when Facebook eventually shuts down. But Data is broken — she features later, plugged up to the mains, swollen, her beauty and poise stolen by the hackers whilst the Monk turns from saviour to villain in a swift and disturbing move that begins to showcase scenes of forced masturbation, domestic violence and rape towards the female protagonist. The Tate has issued the exhibit ‘not suitable for children’, but this film really should come with a trigger warning too.
It ends with a close up of her (Data), and despite all the abuse, she repeats the haunting and uncomfortable mantra of the mindfulness monk with a forced smile on her face — “when your world falls apart, pick yourself up and do it again”. There is clearly no happy ending here.
In this Web 2.0 post-apocalyptic dystopia, what should have been a clever critique on social media is an intensely dark and deeply disturbing look at a number of social and cultural issues, packaged up in bubblegum-pop aesthetics. Like all fairy tales, Maclean’s film tried to tell a far fetched story that demonstrates a key moral lesson. But this is where Maclean fell short — she didn’t need to try so hard, her unique aesthetic expression could’ve carried the message on its own, and in half the time.