Rachel Maclean:
Wot u :-) about?

Sickly sweet. Enticing.  The usual cues picked up on by a first time visitor to an exhibition featuring the work of Rachel Maclean. When I visit her latest solo offering Wot u : – ) about? at HOME, I silently observe a small group of visitors being drawn in by the bright colours that have transformed the gallery space, only moments later to look quizzically at one another when they hear the voice of an unknown man delivering an increasingly foulmouthed monologue about buying a cup of coffee.

At this point the group cautiously moved into the darkened left side of the space to investigate who, or what, the noise was coming from. Ignoring the increasingly frantic voices being played out I instead headed right. The right side of the gallery marks somewhat of a departure for the artist, displaying a series of three-dimensional sculptural works for the first time. Appearing at first glance as though they have been plucked from a children’s TV show or story book, upon closer inspection they belie their initial cutesy charm, and in keeping with Maclean’s aesthetic and theoretical explorations to date layers of their own constructed fictions begin to fall away, leaving an unnerving and in places menacing reality. After previously focussing on the blurring boundaries of childhood and emotional exploitation for profit such as in her work ‘Feed Me’ (2015) currently on show in British Art show 8, here her work widens the narrative and takes aim at our glutinous desire for and consumption of data, digital technologies and social media platforms.

The sculptural works featuring veiled, tubular forms with stone tablet torsos carved with social media user agreements, or giant, engorged forms with open wounds caused by the rat-like humanoid creatures around them all share one common link. They are seemingly reaching their collective demise either due to the tablet device in their hands, or are oblivious of their fate because of it. This unveiled metaphor continues into ‘We Want Data’ (2016), a series of sublimation prints depicting increasingly hellish scenes seemingly fuelled by an all-encompassing desire for digital connectedness featuring characters from the as of yet unseen video installation in the left side of the gallery.

Employing the same computer generated sharpness and unmistakable emoji-infused aesthetic as in her video works; here they are at odds with the sculptural pieces. When moving between them the viewer becomes aware the pristine appearance lent by digital technology has not been transferred. The sculptures lack the immaterial specificity lent by the digital process, in the real world very much showing their tangible imperfections and constituent parts, appearing as combinations of foam and plastic rather than ineffable substances. With the immersive environmental illusion of Maclean’s aesthetic broken and the rhythm of the display somewhat interrupted, very much back in the real world I continued on to confront the voices that had been seeping out into the rest of the gallery.

Dominating the left side of the space is a new video installation ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’ (2016), which is undoubtedly the strongest work in the exhibition. Created specifically for this display the work is a 30-minute tale that introduces viewers to the characters and recurring motifs depicted in the rest of the exhibition. Split over three screens the multi-channel installation presents a demi-god of the contemporary condition and plays out what in this narrative (and arguably our world) would be considered a disaster. The protagonist is a woman modelled on social media and reality TV ‘celebrities’ that occupy a relatively new and wholly vacuous social sphere. Made famous for little or no merit and sustaining their profile through amassing followers on social media platforms with wider popular media reinforcing the cult of celebrity for profit, they encourage people to follow their every move as a social activity to derive some form of second-hand happiness and enjoyment from it.

The tale unfolds showing the protagonist as the public face of a large-scale data provider going about her daily routine of staging her actions and capturing them to share with her followers, the majority of which currently occupy a shambling horde outside the data company’s headquarters, scavenging for more data to enable them to feel connected to the wider, digital world at the cost of the apocalyptic physical world they inhabit.As the groans for more data from the masses grows to a crescendo the video starts to ebb into the nefarious side of Maclean’s practice, completing the warped moral reinforcement of the fairytale structure it has been following. Unbeknown to the protagonist, a group of hackers (here taking the form of the humanoid rat creatures appearing elsewhere in the exhibition) strike against her, attempting to steal her data supply to gorge themselves with. What follows is a strangely compelling and somewhat unhinged series of events touching upon digital lives being at odds with their physical counterparts, increasingly fervent trolling culture, and an increasingly distant relationship with the physical world set against a backdrop of free market neoliberalism where emotions can be freely commoditised and exploitatively sold.

Coming to an increasingly sinister climax, I look at the faces of the viewers sat around me…equal measures of repulsion, dark humour and inquisitiveness seems to wash over the audience as the work loops back to its beginning. It will be interesting to see how Maclean’s practice develops in the coming months, with her upcoming representation of Scotland at the Venice Biennale next year proving one of the peaks of her career to date. Will she continue her venture into the three-dimensional and attempt to further refine and add new material complexities to her work to avoid being typecast as a filmmaker producing  variations on a somewhat niche theme? Or will she continue her theoretical corruption of pop culture, developing it as she goes to further lay bare the glaring failings of our wider contemporary condition?

Wot u : – ) about? strikes an awkward balance in places, but there are definite signs of a maturing and developing practice protruding through the cloying mass of colourful tones. As I get up to leave following my second viewing of ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’ the group of visitors I diverged from initially are starting their third viewing, locked in conversation with one another. It is undeniable what the highlight of the exhibition is, and hopefully the questions it poses will be reflected back upon ourselves by its viewers and provide the catalyst needed to provoke a reassessment of our own actions in such turbulent digital and physical times.

James Schofield is an artist and curator based between Leeds and Liverpool.

Image courtesy of HOME.

Rachel Maclean: Wot u : – ) about?, HOME, Manchester.

29 October 2016 – 8 January 2017.