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Rachel Maclean: Quick Child, Run!

12 January 14 words: Wayne Burrows
"Maclean disguises herself in a bewildering variety of costumes, prosthetics, wigs and make-up"
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Rachel Maclean is a young Scottish artist working in video and printmaking, but whatever expectations that description leads you to imagine lie in store can be safely shelved at the entrance to Trade Gallery, where three of her recent films, GermsLolCats and Over the Rainbow, ranging in length from around five to forty minutes, are currently on show.

Maclean’s strategy is to put together narratives, featuring dialogue and music culled from adverts, news clips and TV shows, then build up visuals to go with them, using ‘green screen’ special-effects to play all the characters herself against backgrounds that conjure entirely imaginary worlds. In Lolcats, a kind of warped twenty minute fairytale about a feline girl fleeing a wicked ruler's robotic armies, we see cats building their own gigantic copy of Brueghel's Tower of Babel and a vision of cat heaven. In Over The Rainbow, the worlds of Judy Garland, Louis XIV, the Brothers Grimm and tabloid TV are thrown together like particles in the Large Hadron Collider. Realism this is emphatically not.

The look of the films is brightly coloured, to the point of near-saturation, and Maclean disguises herself in a bewildering variety of costumes, prosthetics, wigs and make-up, all in the service of stories where she can appear as anything from a Care Bear princess to a grotesque Katy Perry giving an interview to her admirers. She becomes a Versailles courtier with the voice of Simon Cowell, a six-year old auditioning in front of him, a purring humanoid kitten and a whole gang of black-toothed bacteria leering out of a lavatory bowl. The visual invention is startling, and the dream-like storylines, in which bits of MTV raunch and Sex & the City dialogue swirl like vegetables in a soup bowl, are equal parts absorbing, perplexing and revealing.

On one level, it seems Maclean is aiming at a sort of low-budget but spectacular phantasmagoria of visual effects equivalent to much of what Hollywood and professional children’s TV pumps out, albeit with a whole roller-coaster's worth of perverse and unsettling twists. She certainly take us into much darker and stranger places than we’d normally expect of, say, a My Little Pony cartoon, an eighties pop video, a ‘good bacteria’ yoghurt or ‘facial replenishment’ moisturiser advert, all of which will be recognised at once by most viewers as they pop up in these films.

Maclean’s entertaining play with familiar media imagery also holds a deeper political purpose, though this pushes far beyond obvious points about the unreality of the media itself. In both LolCats and Over the Rainbow, Maclean casts X-Factor judges and present-day celebrities as minor players in nightmarish fairy-tales. These are set in mythical lands rife with corruption, murder, deception, broken promises, bewildering labyrinths and abuses of power. They are like mirrors held up to our own age, as well as links back to the folklore of a time before democracy, when the powerful – the Kings, Popes and Landlords – did as they pleased, unquestioned. Is Maclean’s Over the Rainbow suggesting that celebrities and those who anoint them are early signs of a return to an age of aristocratic courtiers and competition among the lower orders for patronage and favour?

Nothing is ever made quite so explicit or spelled out in the films themselves, but Maclean certainly prompts the thought, and it’s hard not to think she might have a point. Perhaps her broadest and most obvious satire is reserved for the short, sharp shock of Germs, which strings together a whole bunch of all-too familiar advertising scripts to build a kind of horror-show of deranged paranoia. Watching Germs is like watching a normal early evening ad-break on ITV or Channel 4 under the influence of potent LSD.

But satire is everywhere in these films, from the memorable grotesques and appealing cartoons of her stock characters to the referencing of Scottish identity and the exposure of dark-sides and absurdities in much standard media production. In truth, there aren’t many artists to compare Maclean with, but perhaps she shares something of the sensibility, if little of the aesthetic, of Mika Rottenberg, whose films built around the absurdities of work and standard ideas of feminine beauty were seen at Nottingham Contemporary in 2012, paired with James Gillray's scurrilous and still powerfully scathing eighteenth century cartoons. Anyone who appreciated either or both of those – or failing that,  just wants to experience a hallucinogenic visual sugar rush served with a large slice of shadow– should get down to Thoresby Street and catch Quick Child, Run! as soon as possible.

Quick Child, Run! runs at Trade Gallery, 1 Thoresby Street, NG1 1AJ, until Sunday 9 February.

A night of films selected by Rachel Maclean takes place at 7pm on Tuesday 4 February. The event is free but booking is required.

Trade Gallery website
Rachel Maclean website

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