Video artist Rachel Maclean discusses her Edinburgh Art Festival 2013 show I HEART SCOTLAND
Maclean talks zip-sliding thistles, wind farm crucifixions and Scotland’s national identity crisis
This article is from 2013.
Rachel Maclean is playing her cards close to her chest. Her festival show at Edinburgh Printmakers, a series of screenprints alongside The Lion and the Unicorn, a video which explores Scottish national identity, gives nothing away about her politics [you can watch a snippet below]. Instead, she wants I HEART SCOTLAND to create a debate around national identity and the vote on Scottish independence. ‘All the work deals with Scottish identity in relation to the referendum, or at least using that as a context. It’s not a directly political thing in terms of “Yes” or “No”. It’s more about a discussion of national identity within that context.’
Glasgow-based Maclean works largely in video, creating kitsch, theatrical works that cross between real and imagined histories and futures. With Scots going to the polls next September to decide the future of the UK, Maclean has drawn on both the genuine and mythological stories on which popular ideas of Scottish identity are based, creating a playful narrative that addresses a very weighty contemporary debate. ‘I’m interested in how national identity – or what we think of as our national identity – is a really weird amalgam of historical facts, and the fictional products that have come out of that. A lot of my work plays about with that and pushes it into playful directions.’
As well as writing and directing her videos, Maclean is the only actor or model in her work – in The Lion and the Unicorn, for example, she plays a queen, a lion and a unicorn in a surreal tale in which the characters drink North Sea oil from Jacobite crystal and divide up pieces of a Union Jack cake. The characters are a mixture of costumes and stereotypes – the queen a vision of mythological Scottish history with the voice of the current monarch. ‘They’re loosely based on Brigadoon-style costumes or something that’s quite hard to put your finger on, a sort of Lord of the Rings, Braveheart-y, mythical character,’ she laughs. ‘I draw on the historical mythologies of Scotland rather than the actual history. So much of what we identify with in terms of historical events, like the battles of Bannockburn or Culloden, somehow get reinterpreted into contemporary politics or identity. People see them as meaningful in a contemporary sense when really they’re very much caught up in the religious and political situation at the time, which is very separate from where we are now.’
Maclean has a dark sense of humour and sharply observed sense of the absurd that makes her work accessible and relevant. ‘There is something pretty absurd about [nationalism], and humour is a good way to explore that. Humour’s a good way to explore darker themes as well – I like that dark, comedic approach to things. You can say more with humour than by being very sincere – it welcomes people into it a bit more.’
Location became a hugely important part of the video, says Maclean, who used Traquair House in the Borders, a location that has strong associations with Jacobitism and Mary, Queen of Scots – ‘she spent a night there, apparently’. That the work is being shown in Edinburgh during the Fringe is also important: ‘Edinburgh’s a good place for it – just that excess of Royal Mile kitsch, the influx of people at that time of year, and people from outside Scotland. It’s interesting from that point of view – you get a lot of visitors who’ve had a direct encounter with Scottish kitsch culture.’
Maclean made The Lion and the Unicorn a year ago, at the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, when patriotic feelings were running high. Despite herself, she says events like these add to her own sense of national pride. ‘So much of national identity is based on a fairly dubious collection of historical myths, and there’s part of that I’m very cynical about. But then you frequently get that feeling that you’re proud to be Scottish or British because someone from your country has done something successful. I feel that way quite often, as much as I think that I shouldn’t.’
Also making an appearance is Clyde, the cartoon thistle mascot character for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. The Baptism of Clyde – based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Baptism of Christ – features alongside a wind farm crucifixion and a Tam o’Shanter money drop. ‘I actually quite like the Clyde character, but there’s something ridiculous and comic how as a nation we accept these. It’s tourist culture Scotland and there’s something quite absurd about it. When they launched the Commonwealth Games they had Clyde zip-sliding into the room – it was really weird!’
Maclean may bring humour to the issue of Scottish independence, but in doing so is likely to open up the debate to a wider audience. ‘If you’re English, Welsh or Northern Irish, you don’t have a democratic vote on it, but it would change the situation very drastically. What would Britain be, really, if Scotland wasn’t part of it?’ Any final clue to her own views? ‘When I shot the video people were asking what my view was – “yes” or “no”. I kind of like people not to know.’
I HEART SCOTLAND, Edinburgh Printmakers, 557 2479, 1 Aug–7 Sep, free.