> Interview - Rachel Maclean On The Toxic Cult Of Self-love - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview – Rachel Maclean On The Toxic Cult Of Self-love

"Art often works best when it makes you see the everyday from a new perspective and reflect differently on a reality that you might have otherwise come to accept as ‘normal’ or inevitable."

Pink paint peels, fluorescent lights flicker, and mimi dolls line the walls, their eyes peering through plastic, following you like some sick joke. Rachel Maclean’s artwork deals in the business of (il)logical extremes, holding a funhouse mirror up to our reality using deepfakes, green screen, animation and installation to reflect a meme-ish absurdity closer to reality than we’d like to think.

Her latest work, Don’t Buy Mi, similarly puts the point in the pointlessness, the mimi-fied ‘disused’ storefront on Ayr High Street a monument to neoliberalist false promises and the toxic cult of self-love.

Don’t Buy Mi appears to be a companion piece to the eerie Hansel and Gretel style permanent installation, mimi store, at Jupiter Artland. How do the two communicate with each other, for those who haven’t seen it?

For the installation at Jupiter Artland, I was inspired by architectural ‘follies’, those ornate structures often found within the landscapes of historic manor houses or mansions, most notably during the 18th century. These follies were purely decorative, with no practical use, yet often imitated the ruins of functional architecture from history, like a medieval castle, Roman temple or Gothic abbey.mimi store at Jupiter Artland is the fake ruins of a high street shop set within a small forest on the estate. I imagine it functioning as a ‘follie’ in a near future where high street shops have grown so obsolete that they, too, have become objects of curiosity.

While it outwardly resembles a typical shop, complete with shelves of dolls, it has an exaggerated saccharine baroque aesthetic, reminiscent of the candy house in Hansel and Gretel. A short film upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop plays inside, structurally akin to a fairytale, riffing on its very rigid dichotomies of good vs evil, beautiful vs ugly, and so on.

Don’t buy Mi in Ayr uses the language of a high street shop much more explicitly, unlike mimi at Jupiter, this shop is meant to feel like it was once an actual shop. There is a cash desk, stock room, and posters and stickers advertising a sale. I had a lot of fun exploring all the ways I could make the mimi store feel even more ‘shop-like’.

What is it like having created an installation in a disused store, a space not traditionally used for art? How have you found that viewers interact with the space, especially those unaware (at first) that it is an installation?

I have loved creating the installation in such a public-facing, accessible location. There is something so immediate about it. It’s also brand new but designed to look old and worn, as if it’s been there for years.

During the earlier stages of the install, some people walking past assumed it was going to be a new toy shop, and others assumed it was one that must have just closed down. Now that it’s open people tend to be a bit confused at first, which is intentional. It’s meant to be discovered and explored without explicit explanation, or the conventional gallery ‘wall text’. I feel this grants freedom to interpretation that can sometimes be hindered by both the context and desire to explain art in galleries and museums. I like the fact that you encounter it at first as something undefined. It’s not telling you it’s ‘art’, which I think means people come at it with a more honest response.

Sometimes I feel that art sequesters itself away from the public gaze because when ‘non-art-world’ people see it, they often point out things about it that are uncomfortably true. I think there is something inherently absurd in art production, and the reason it can be so easily ridiculed is that it frequently doesn’t see the funny side of how ridiculous it is. I want there to be something self-consciously absurd in Don’t Buy Mi. If you approached it and thought ‘This is totally stupid, why has someone set up a shop that is telling me not to buy anything?’ you wouldn’t be wrong. But within that absurdity is something I think is profound. It’s almost as if the meaning of the artwork is in the absurdity. Its pointlessness is the point.

On the upside-down-ness of the installation, you’ve said you wanted it to stand out, to seem as though it doesn’t belong. Now more and more these public consumerist places are emptying out post-COVID, and it doesn’t seem all that topsy-turvy anymore. What are your thoughts on this?

Ayr has been a market town for over 800 years and has a history of being a place where people gathered to buy and sell things long before high street chain shops. In the last decade, like many other places in the UK, big brand shops that opened in the last half of the 20th century have closed up and left empty, disused buildings in their wake. I think the state of our high streets nationally is indicative of the larger betrayal of neoliberalism, which promised that cuts to public spending and privatisation will lead to greater prosperity and opportunity for everyone. Towns and cities full of empty, disused buildings that have ceased to function as commercial spaces as well as being underfunded as public spaces, are a conspicuous failure of this vision.

My intention with the work is that it both blends in and stands out. When you first see it, you might mistake it for just another close-down shop, but as you look closer, everything doesn’t quite add up, with signs that say ‘nothing must go’, ‘OLD!’ and ‘Don’t buy Mi’, contradicting the expectations of a commercial space.

Closed-down shops and crumbling architecture have become an unfortunately common sight in towns and cities. I think art often works best when it makes you see the everyday from a new perspective and reflect differently on a reality that you might have otherwise come to accept as ‘normal’ or inevitable.

It’s great seeing one such space being used for something constructive, like housing art. However, most artists would struggle to rent spaces such as these for non-commercial purposes. Can work like Don’t Buy Mi only exist in a topsy-turvy world?

No, I don’t think so. I have seen more and more empty shops and other commercial spaces being used for creative purposes. The huge M&S on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow is now used by artists as studio spaces, which is great. I have also seen other shop spaces in Ayr being used to exhibit local artists’ work, like the Nature space. I hope that there are more initiatives that make better use of these locations. I think it has to do with councils and private landlords taking on the idea and offering spaces at rates that artists can afford.

It’s interesting because there is this idea about the shopping experience being morphed with a gallery experience, people (or so we are told) do not just want to shop anymore, they want to be entertained or feel culturally fulfilled at the same time.

I first came across this when I did a project at the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham, they were keen on the idea of me being there and making work as it was seen as being in line with this idea of ‘shoppertainment’ and helps portray this idea that shopping centres are not these cold, cultureless, cynical spaces designed to play on our insecurities and buy more pointless stuff, but as places where we can be inspired and engage with culture. It only became an issue when they worried the work I was making was too weird, dark and cynical. I think this friction in the way that artists use commercial or formally commercial space is what makes it interesting.

Photo Credit: James Glossop

upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop, your 2021 film that’s shown in the installation, explores the fetishisation of youth and girlhood. The film is also critical of the cult of self-improvement and self-care that’s had many in its vice-grip since the pandemic. Do you think practising authentic self-love, especially as a woman/girl, is possible in our rampant capitalist, patriarchal society as it stands?

I think that the idea of ‘self-love’ is a trap. In my film upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop, you see ‘Young Mimi’ being controlled and coerced externally by a character inside the mirror. What she sees as her own reflection, is clearly from the audience’s perspective, an independent agent, forcing her into a cycle of self-doubt and reminding her that no matter how hard she tries, she’s never good enough.

However, she doesn’t attempt to solve her predicament by removing this external agent, instead, she turns inwards and focuses on the idea that if she just ‘loves herself’ enough, all of this will go away. ‘Self-love’ gives you the positive sense that the external world can stay as is, and you can force a belief in yourself that overrides reality. However, it also sets up the idea that if you can’t do this, it’s your fault. So in an odd sort of way, the pursuit of self-love can make you feel more inadequate, as you blame yourself for feeling bad rather than external factors.

I think it’s a smart way to direct everything inward, so that everything becomes me or ‘Mi’ centred, and the larger political and social context is ignored. It sets up an idea that well-functioning people ‘love themselves’. And beyond that, a good society is a society in which everyone loves themselves. So the ultimate goal in life should be to focus on fixing and perfecting yourself.

I’m not sure if lots of people obsessively focused on the goal of loving themselves is necessarily the best thing for society as a whole, especially if this pursuit is essentially futile. However, I think it is good for consumerism.

Consumerism frequently thrives on a heady mix of selfishness and inadequacy. I think the perfect consumer is someone who is totally obsessed with themselves, at the same time as having a deep-seated, incurable self-hatred that motivates them to buy things; the mental state of our society is not so much a product of consumerism, as the very thing that’s driving it.

It might be annoying to ask an artist about what they think of another artist’s work, but I’m dying to know. As someone who parodies consumerism and deals in plastic/fantastic visuals, what did you think of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie**? If you saw it, of course.**

I really liked Barbie. It was much more subversive than I expected, I was surprised how much satire she could get away with in a mainstream film. I think that Blockbuster film so often underestimates audiences. Barbie really expects a lot of people, and was successful as a consequence.

The visuals were of course amazing! Something I’ve tried to do in my work for a long time is use a feminine aesthetic in a way that is challenging and subversive.

I think that people often see ‘pink, saccharine’ worlds as inherently silly. To me, this is an extension of the idea that female experience is inherently silly. I think the Barbie movie also challenges us to think about why we dismiss Barbie, and imagine that a film about her would be puff. There are lots of films about men, which are more or less ‘Action Man’ movies but are taken entirely seriously. (I recently produced a deepfake spy film DUCK starring Sean Connery, so have been thinking a lot about this!).

I found the mother-daughter relationship in the film surprisingly moving. I have two daughters, one is four and the other two months. The sense that patriarchal society has rigged mother-daughter relationships to fail makes me very sad.

One thing I was disappointed by was the fact that they didn’t make Barbie’s jewellery a scaled-up version of the moulded plastic kind you get on real Barbies. That would have been so good!

The show closes on Christmas Eve, and as a commentary on unchecked consumerism, I can’t help but think that there’s some significance to that. Happy accident?

It is a bit of a happy accident, yes! From a practical perspective, it works well as more people are out on the high streets shopping at this time of year, and the darker evenings also work well for the atmosphere of the artwork. But conceptually, I think it being open in the run-up to Christmas might make people think more about these ideas within the work. There is something more impactful about seeing a toy shop will dusty, old, unbought dolls stacked up in the window at Christmas time for sure.

JUPITER + has also opened a second unoccupied retail unit in Ayr and turned it into a green screen film studio/creative learning space. I hear the local youth council have been making films inspired by your work. How’s that been?

The learning space they have created next to the artwork is incredible. Their goal is to introduce school students to different kinds of artistic practice, green screen being one of them. Discovering the creative possibilities of green screen was a really pivotal moment for me when I was at art school. The sense that you can realise ideas that are in your minds-eye relatively easily and cheaply was incredible to me.

I was a very quiet teenager with this feeling of being a bit trapped, in quite an abstract sense. So, externally going through the motions or conventions of life, but meanwhile having this feeling that there was a vast hinterland of existence and experience that doesn’t touch the surface, or can’t be expressed in day-to-day conversation. For me, seeing and making art was a way to tap into that larger sense of existence. Art can give you a tool to understand yourself and the world in a way that is very powerful, which can stick with you, whether you want to pursue it as a career or not.

So, I hope that the young people who are part of Jupiter + can have this experience too. I’m really looking forward to seeing the films when they are finished!

Don’t Buy Mi is at 53 High Street, Ayr, till 24th December

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