SCOTLAND has had its own independent show at the world’s biggest arts festival for 14 years – and this year’s, by Glasgow artist Rachel Maclean, may be among its most political.
In the sepulchral gloom of the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, her film, entitled Spite Your Face, is a surreal, dazzling and at times shocking rumination on the rise of “fake news”, consumerism, demagogues, and misogyny.
Inspired by the rhetoric of Trump and Brexit, as well as the classic Italian tale of Pinocchio, Maclean’s 37 minute film for the Scotland + Venice exhibition features a rape, a Madonna-fairy character and a tale of rags to riches all staged, written and acted by the 29-year-old artist.
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The film, which officially opens at the 57th Venice Biennale of art this weekend, uses the Pinocchio tale to take on weighty contemporary themes as well as depicting violent misogyny.
In the film, shot and made in Glasgow and backed by £350,000 from Creative Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and the British Council, the lengthening nose of the Pinocchio-like character Pic – who rises from poverty to become a demagogue powered by lies – becomes a phallic symbol, used in both a sex act and as a weapon to rape the fairy or Madonna character.
Since 2003, Scotland has staged a separate show from the official UK pavilion, which this year will show work by Phyllida Barlow.
Shown on a large screen in the darkened church in the northern Cannaregio district of the city, it also references the context of the show – Venice with its many baroque and elaborately decorated churches alongside its elaborate and expensive stores and fashion houses. The National had a preview of the film – which also features song, satire, special effects and parody – and afterwards Maclean spoke about the disturbing assault scene.
She said: “I’ve been disturbed and troubled by the recent rise and confidence in misogyny, the rise in anti-feminism, and reactionary attitudes to feminism, and that coupled with a feeling that we are immune, as a culture, to violence against women in images and the exploitation of women – images of women’s bodies used to sell perfume or cars – and it is so ingrained we are not shocked by it any more.
“I wanted the film to feel jarring, to make it uncomfortable and difficult to watch, and didn’t want it so sit at that level of immunity.”
She added: “The rise of patriarchal power has disturbingly raised its head again.”
The film does not directly make reference to either Trump or Brexit, but the artist said: “I started writing the script in December, after the Brexit vote and after Trump got in, and I was processing a lot of the sense of how these lazy lies that were used through the Brexit campaign and the Trump campaign, and that didn’t affect the result.
“I got interested in how difficult it is to penetrate a narrative that has gained political currency, and how easy it is to use lies to substantiate ideas that already have currency.
“The rags-to-riches tale is so much in our culture, you see it in things such as Britain’s Got Talent, where there is this very individual aspiration for success, rather than collective sense – there is a sense that this notionally positive thing can cover over a lot of problems.”
The Venice Biennale has for more than 120 years been regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious cultural exhibitions. Established in 1895, it has an attendance today of more than 500,000 visitors.
Alongside the official “national” shows, held mainly in the Giardini and Arsenale areas of the city, there are many “collateral” events, of which Scotland + Venice is one.
On the festival, Maclean said: “I was thinking how people can read current political developments through the Eurovision Song Contest – and it is not quite like that in Venice because it is not a competition, but there is an aspect of that, which is interesting, because it is a reflection of different nations, their status, and their relationships, and what is important to those nations.
“Our world is still divided into nations, and a lot of nations are becoming increasingly protectionist and nationalistic in terms of their politics, so I do think it is still relevant that the Biennale has nations.
“I did think about how much I wanted to make work about the current situation in Scotland. I felt that if it had been three years ago I might have, but a lot of what I am interested in is in various countries in Europe – and I wanted it to be meaningful to an Italian audience, and to make it relatable.”
Why Scotland is a stage for all the world - by Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop
TODAY is Europe Day, marking what is widely believed to be the birth of the European Union on May 9, 1950, when Robert Schuman, a French foreign minister, made the Schuman Declaration.
It proposed that France and West Germany, alongside Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium, should pool coal and steel production. As Europe was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, Schuman deemed pooling production would – in the words of the declaration – make war between France and Germany “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.
Schuman’s prophecy rang true, preventing anything of the scale of the First and Second World Wars in Europe thereafter. What he perhaps didn’t envisage, was the scale of what was to follow – a membership
of countries enjoying collaboration at all conceivable levels.
As Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Secretary, I never tire of championing Scotland’s outlook as a welcoming and progressive nation. This is particularly demonstrated in the arts. Indeed, several years before the Schuman Declaration, in 1947, the Edinburgh International Festival boldly invited artists from across Europe to perform in the capital. Seventy years on, we’re revered as a festival nation that highlights and celebrates our international cultural links and welcomes performers and audiences from every corner of the globe. This year’s EIF programme will feature more than 2000 artists from 40 nations – many European.
The same year marked the birth of the Edinburgh Fringe, when artists arrived uninvited to perform at the International Festival and subsequently did their own thing. The Edinburgh Fringe has since inspired artists around the world – with at least 200 festivals using the Fringe’s open-access model taking place in every continent but Antarctica. And this year’s Edinburgh International Children’s Festival welcomes productions from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Wales, the Netherlands and Norway.
We are, of course, continuing to take our art to the world. Rachel Maclean, now based in Glasgow, has been selected to represent Scotland at this year’s Venice Biennale, the world’s largest and most prestigious visual arts festival, which starts this Saturday. Maclean has had great success exhibiting her work across a range of mediums and it’s great to see someone of such high calibre representing Scotland.
In a couple of weeks, I will be in Paris to speak at the launch of the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, one of the biggest folk festivals in Europe. Held in Brittany every August, it attracts more than 750,000 music-lovers from around the world. I am proud to say Scotland has been selected as guest country of honour this year.
France and Scotland enjoy deep cultural ties and have a mutual Cultural Statement of Intent, which I signed in 2013. We share a rich Celtic history of storytelling and traditional music and a great love of piping. Around 200 of our finest musicians are performing at this year’s festival – representing emerging young talent and firmly established acts.
There’s also an unprecedented spotlight on Scotland at the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany in July. Our relationship with Germany dates back to 1297, when William Wallace wrote to the mayors of Lubeck and Hamburg declaring Scotland open for business. To this day, we remain major trading partners. We also share a love of traditional music and storytelling that goes back centuries.
This year’s Rudolstadt Festival showcases our pipers, storytellers and traditional musicians, and our beloved Bard will take centre stage with A Man for A’ That – A World Music Tribute To Robert Burns. International artists will perform Burns’s poetry in their native languages, and there will be a collaborative performance by musicians from Ethiopia, Germany, Georgia, India, Israel, Jamaica, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sápmi (Lapland) and Scotland, produced by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Burns scholar, Fred Freeman.
Our national performing companies feature some of the very best talent from Scotland and across Europe. More than a fifth of the musicians in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, 10 per cent of those who make up the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and more than
a third of Scottish Ballet’s dancers are EU nationals.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra took their performances of Mozart, Haydn and Dvorák on a European tour earlier this year, playing in Toulouse, Luxembourg, Rotterdam, Salzburg and Paris, among others.
Tomorrow is the start of the fourth annual IberoDocs Film Festival at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse – a documentary film festival run entirely by volunteers from overseas who live and work in Scotland. Throughout the festival, they will bring their own film culture from Spain, Portugal and Latin America to Scottish audiences.
This is exactly the kind of cultural collaboration that was spawned in Edinburgh in 1947 and continues to this day. Scotland has long appreciated the importance of multiculturalism, openness and dialogue and this is clearly being recognised throughout Europe as our music, storytelling and heritage takes centre stage in 2017. Long may these exciting relationships last.