Experiencing Rachel Maclean’s ‘Spite Your Face’ provided a welcome antidote/purge after the excesses of the opening days of the Biennale. The large portrait format screen in place of the altar of the deconsecrated church creates an ambience of a religious service and the audience are made to sit in pews. Maclean’s previous work has taken Old Testament stories retelling them as contemporary fables that poked fun at cults and fads. ‘Spite Your Face’ presents the story of Pinocchio – one of those children’s tales that having only known from the cleaned up Disney version is far darker than I assumed.
The main character ‘Pic’ first appears as a grey skinned outcast urchin in tattered clothes who comes to the attention of the Blue Fairy. Picking up a severed golden nose Pic trades this in for a bottle of a magical perfume ‘Truth’ that allows him transform into a golden boy and gain admittance to a city of gold. Maclean’s visuals that range from the dark gothic medieval scene in which we first find Pic, to the gold covered city and mansions into which he gains admittance reflects the surroundings of Venice. All the characters are grotesque and comparisons to Heironymous Bosch have to be drawn as he also has an exhibition in town for the Biennale.
As with her previous work Maclean herself plays all of the roles, including Pic. the Blue Fairy and the various hangers on and admirers that attach to Pic as his celebrity grows. Using prosthesis and green screen production, this involves an extraordinary series of transformations for the artist, on a par with the various characters Matthew Barney adopted in his ‘Cremaster ‘series. Fitted out with new designer golden clothes brought on credit Pic becomes the face of the combination perfume/elixir ‘Un-truth’ and a media sensation. Of course his corruption and lies cause his nose to grow with the added complication of accelerating his progress into adolescence. Caught in the act of playing with his nose by the Blue Fairy his corruption is completed when Pic’s lengthened feature gets stuck in the screen of a Church confessional while Maclean the Blue Fairy gives him/herself a ‘happy ending’.
This hilarious but deeply uncomfortably moment pushes ‘Spite Your Face’ away from the glossy mechanics of the computer generated backdrops and Barney style prosthetics into darker territory. The grotesque operatics of setting the presentation in a deconsecrated church reminds me of the taboo busting excess of Viennese Actionism. Any revulsion we might feel towards Pic and his acting out his fantasies is tempered by the knowledge that as an audience we are complicit in the scene. This situation also reminds me of being a participant in one of Paul McCarthy’s ‘Pinocchio’ works, where after dressing up in the costume and long nosed mask I wandered around in the gallery with the other anonymous and masked audience members. A deeply disturbing experience, it has put me off participatory art installations ever since.
More than the morality tale of the seduction of the innocent Pic, it is the power of acts of transformation that is the lasting impression of ‘Spite Your Face’. We might interpret Maclean’s assumption of disguises and multiplication of roles as another example of the proliferation of art works obsessed with virtual avatars and simulated reality than features around the rest of the Biennale. However, the site specific nature of the presentation directs the viewer’s experience into something more corporeal – the screen is placed in the location of the altar that in Catholic Mass is the site of the transubstantiation when the Eucharist becomes the body of a Christ to believers. This transformation takes place at the climax of the ritual and in the Disney version of Pinocchio the base wooden puppet becomes flesh just in time for the end credits. In Maclean’s version it is the moment of Pic’s bodily transformation and assumption into the heavenly plane of consumption that starts of the cycle of his corruption. The unique combination of the scared setting of the Scottish Pavilion and Maclean’s bawdy Rabelesian morality show against the glittering backdrop of the Biennale makes ‘Spite Your Face’ a must see.