Extravagant Funeral of Truth
Exhibition Review | 2019
Has your worldview ever been re-oriented after visiting an exhibition? This is how I feel after encountering Rachel Maclean’s current solo exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection.
There are two films and a virtual reality work in this show. Once I have entered the gallery, I find myself in a grande holly church-like space with the film Spite Your Face (2017) displayed vertically. The aesthetic of the work extends to my surroundings, as viewers are positioned in the middle of gold satin curtains and plush blue carpets. The route of the exhibition is a one-way labyrinth. To view Maclean’s second virtual reality work I am Terribly Sorry (2018), one must first pass through the first featured work Spite Your Face (2017). The viewing experience is layered with intensified expectations and imprisoned fear that allows no turning back. The third film Make Me Up (2018) is at the rear of a long dark tunnel that is lit by neon pink, which again mixes up the spooky undertones with a build up anticipation. The back gallery is filled with blue and pink satin draperies, including the wrapping on the ceiling with a gigantic pink bow. Alluring and excessive, the work doesn't stop short at making one feel just uncomfortable.
Looking at the saccharine pastel palette brochure that I picked up earlier by the entrance, I expected an adult Disneyland. As it turns out, it is more of a dystopia with an explosion of colors. The overall arrangement forcefully testing the limits of attraction and repulsion. After navigating the exhibition, its space and works are coherently manipulating viewers’ perceptions. The extended immersive spatial atmosphere is instrumental in making curatorial decisions for this solo show.
1. Spite Your Face.
The first stop, Spite Your Face references the expression “cutting off the nose to spite the face”, which describes a self-destructive act. In which it also reveals the plot is centered around a self-hurt Pinocchio-like Disney character who goes from being a lowlife figure to the top of the world by constantly lying to himself and others. The more lies he tells, the bigger the nose he gets. His nose increasingly grows larger that eventually falls off from his face. He returns to the underground and then rises again with the same dishonest behavior. Maclean’s adoption of the modern-day fairytale creates an absurd satirical criticism of the current event, as her practices is rooted in reality and responsive to the US election - when Donald Trump got elected as the president of the United States. Although this work is in-your-face in being direct and simple, the viewers still find themselves immersed completely in the film. It is not only about the narration but the experience of the show that keeps one in the gold satin covered bench till the very last minute.
Maclean is very aware of the advantage of the exhibition space and knowingly puts extra effort to make it beyond a cinema. She purposefully ties in various references and impactful details to connect what is onscreen to the extended exhibition space. For instance, instead of filming in a traditional 16:9 ratio, she boldly employs the vertical screen that explores the up and down space for the created images. Not only does it challenge the horizontal viewing habits, but it also provokes the idea of heaven and hell: the character faces the dilemma of telling untruths in heaven or speaking truths in hell. Featuring the work in a church-like space rather than in a gallery space makes perfect sense for the narrative, it functions as a powerful tool to present the world upside down.
Maclean portrays heaven that bursts with materialism: fancy gowns, diamond rings, glittering teeth, all extremely over the top details. She claims to create a heightened version of the consumerism world which is implied as pure fiction. Besides the vertical screen, Maclean also decorates the surroundings with gold and blue curtains. The chosen colors match with all the set decorations and costumes in the film. She extends the created world into the gallery space, such that the fictional environment of the film and the uninterrupted flow of watching is simultaneously woven together within a constructed setup. The exhibition alludes the viewer to accept the same space and time as the film asserting a horrifically confused present.
As the Pinocchio-like character in the film encounters situations where a normal sense of true and false is dismissed, the viewer’s sense of what are lies and what are truths in the narrative also becomes confusing. Slowly, this fiction starts to become a part of reality, making a distinction between the two almost impossible. I could not help but wonder what is real? When I see the lights from the screening shed on the glossy draperies, which they look like from the illustrated world, their solemn presence transforms the room into an extravagant funeral of truth. Using references to determine truth and untruth is not applicable. The story ends with a seeming loop as one more cycle begins. Finally, Maclean’s critiques post-truth consumerism, in which we find an interconnected trap that no one can ever really escape. The fairytale that I used to take for granted is now serving as a prophecy for what is happening in the doomed reality.
2. I'm Terribly Sorry.
After crossing the church-like gallery, I am in the center of a room with plenty of VR headsets hanging from the ceiling. There are also other visitors experiencing this work, each standing slightly apart, maybe at an arm’s distance. The entire room is coated in bright-colored British flags, which sets a happier mood and vibrate visual tones in comparison to the previous space. The uniformed assistant helps me to put on all the gear while whispering a reassurance in my ear, “you will be fine, it is not too scary”. At the same time, the girl beside me screams. Immediately, I regret putting on the VR headset, whereas I am exposed in the middle of a grotesque London-like place. The gigantic creepy Queen of England doll giggles and waves in the rain, tons of Big Ben buildings turning into teapots and pouring water on to the street.
based on Brexit, I’m Terribly Sorry explores the flatness of Maclean’s national identity, in which the visual representations of Britishness are reduced to a tourist commodity. The work places its viewer in the middle of a horror film, where the characters are running towards me for help - and all I can do is to take a picture of them with the remote control in my hand. I’m Terribly Sorry evokes a critique of the digital culture, the information age, and voyeurism, where our views are manipulated and our actions are limited. Taking a snapshot is equivalent to pulling the trigger as the characters get closer to me. Indeed, I feel terribly sorry after shooting them.
This work displayed in a similar strategy, wherein immersion is essential to create a sense of reality that blurs the reality and fiction. The setup situates the viewer amidst familiar objects as if they are a part of the virtual reality. What makes VR different than a cinematic experience is that one allows the viewer to forget about themselves and the other raises the awareness of the self and self-performativity. After taking off the headphones, the metaphor still ensues.
What is truth and what is untruth now? Taking from Lacan’s theory on the post-truth contemporary era, any visual representation is a trap, it never is the truth itself. Maclean answers the question with labyrinth routes, looped videos, gold and blue draperies, and the VR experience as if she designs the work and space in tandem to confront the current social norms and structures of truth. Maclean creates an over the top present for the visitors to experience the layering of visual elements, to build up the crescendo of immersive and trapped effects. She purposefully blurs the fine line between what is on screen and the surrounding; the extravagance serves as an ironical and satirical commentary of the absurd present time, as they are both essential to root an inescapable impact that challenges the existing world.