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Artist Gemma Parker talks to Rachel Maclean about what goes into making one of her films and what drives her personal fascination with masquerade…
I love a lipstick and makeovers make my pulse race. In fact, all aspects of dressing up and artifice inspire and excite me. From the morning routine of ‘making up’ to the rich pick and mix of historical reference and popular culture that flavour my ideas, I am fascinated by it all. So it was with enthusiasm that I chatted to artist Rachel Maclean about her work, which is bursting with characters, costumes and candy coloured deceits.
Using computer generated landscapes Rachel concocts fantastical scenarios in which she plays out disquieting storylines that hook the viewer in with recognisable references and the promise of something sweet. However, watching one of her films can leave an unsettling taste in the mouth as she tackles issues of identity, politics and the modern world.
GP: Rachel, I wanted to ask about your love for dressing up. Do you think it’s a platform for expression or a way of hiding your true self?
RM: I think it depends what mentality you come from and if you believe there is some kind of authentic self or pure thing that you can achieve artistically. Whereas I guess I’m less about authenticity and more about playing with potential identities and seeing identity as something that doesn’t have to be fixed, it can be more fluid. What’s so fun about dressing up is that you can treat your appearance in a way that’s much more playful and it doesn’t have to be contained and serious.
GP: How much does your gender affect the decisions you make within your work?
RM: Some of my work is directly feminist, and comes from the point of view of a woman, and often where the female character is at the centre of the narrative. Although there are other examples of my work which aren’t so directly feminist but still always have me playing different genders and a quite confused sense of no character ever being what you would expect. There are always layers of pretence beneath everything. I think that’s something you’re brought up with as a woman, your identity and the way you look is a kind of mask or it’s something that you put on, in terms of the way you apply make-up or the way that you present yourself. Some part of my work plays with that and pushes it to grotesque and slightly unsettling extremes.
GP: In your new film Feed Me you play a cast of bizarre characters. My favourite has to be the lady who looks like a cross between Barbara Cartland and Margaret Thatcher. She’s extremely well dressed and I loved all her mannerisms. How do your characters make it from your head onto the screen?
RM: Sometimes I have an expectation of what a character will be and it turns into something quite different once I get the costume on. I was expecting her to be more old Hollywood, like Rita Hayworth, sort of sexy, but I put the costume on and thought, this is much more Margaret Thatcher! I find that quite often with characters that you can plan it so far but it’s not until you’ve got it on that you actually understand what the character is because there’s all these subtleties to make-up and how that changes your face and the kind of faces you can make with it.
GP: Where do the ideas for costumes come from?
RM: They come together through an amalgam of different ideas; usually I want them to be at some level a kind of stereotype but almost like different stereotypes that have been amalgamated to make something that is more complex. So, in Feed Me, for example there’s this beast character who’s part Care Bear, a sort of cutesy Disney thing, and then another aspect of it is a dark and horror genre with sharp teeth. I quite like that feeling of characters being a bit between two worlds.
GP: I’m really intrigued by the props used in Feed Me. Were the cute mobile phones and laptops created especially for the film?
RM: They’re all toys and they all work in the way that you can switch them on and type in numbers. I wanted it to feel like the characters were in this world which was part adult business and part childhood, so slightly like a more Barbie version of the Google office, this allusion to childhood and relation to fun within this massive corporation. I wanted there to be an element of pretence. There’s already an element of pretence in the costume and level of performance but this added an extra layer of pretence. I quite like that it’s clearly not real technology.
GP: Another layer of pretence comes from the background images that set the scenes. Do you use location shots or found images?
RM: It’s a mixture. I often take photos of the places I am if I think certain landscapes will fit and often the images that I take don’t look that exciting in themselves but they can be cut out and mashed together with other images. I use Shutterstock a lot as well, which are found images that you pay for. I generally like my films to feel like non-specific places so that if I take a photograph of a building in a certain city it will feel dislocated when it comes into the film so you don’t say, ‘oh look that’s Manchester’, you feel like you’re on the set of a fantastical landscape.
GP: You pick up a lot on manipulation and fakery that reflect on real life. What is your personal view of the world right now?
RM: I think I’m quite a cynical person and I think there’s quite a lot to be cynical about at the moment, particularly in what we are sold in relation to Silicon Valley and platforms like Facebook. These things are sold to us usually in terms of them being good for you or changing the world for the better with the kind, benevolent surface that these technologies and products have to them. But beneath that there are a lot of things that are much darker in terms of how your information has been taken and used and sold. I’m interested in taking imagery and reference points that seem on the surface benign and then working them into something darker. I always like to play between a cynicism and darkness and something that for viewers is more compulsive and enjoyable to watch. Hopefully with my work there’s a feeling of being sucked into my world and being slightly spat out again.
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