When I first glimpsed the poster for Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face I thought it said Spit In Your Face. With that stuck in my head – along with the striking image of a blue and gold plaster saint or madonna figure apparently in the throes of ecstasy and crying blood – I was expecting something along the lines of a revenge porn video nasty like I Spit On Your Grave or maybe some classic Dario Argento. An Italian connection being appropriate what with the aforementioned saint/madonna; The Adventures of Pinocchio billed as a major influence and Spite Your Face being Scotland’s entry in last year’s Venice Biennale. Pre-visit research also told me that Brexit, Trump, capitalism and patriarchy would be referenced. So far, still not so sure what to expect. An unholy mess or a spiritual revelation?
The installation of Spite Your Face in the Talbot Rice Gallery is cleverly done. The refined neoclassical surrounds of Gallery 2 as perfectly incongruous a setting as the deconsecrated Chiesa di Santa Caterina in Venice where SYF was premiered. The entrance to the gallery is cloaked with a heavy gold curtain which you have to push aside to enter. Once inside there are three plush benches upholstered in the same gold fabric. The screen is tall and narrow and with the size of the room gives the impression of an intimate IMAX experience or perhaps the animated centrepiece of a church triptych. We later see it’s the perfect device for contrasting the heavenly perspective with the earthly. The film is on a 37 minute long loop with (according to the info) no discernible start or finish – however I did discern a start to the story (presenting a pre-temptation Pic) which neatly coincided with me first taking my seat on one of the plush benches.
So, what’s the story? Simply put – it’s the Pinocchio fable with elements of a video nasty and subtle political references. The hero/anti-hero is called Pic and, like the original boy with the nose that grows, he’s a silly little sod who gets led astray. In this version however he’s tempted off the straight and narrow with credit cards, sex and drugs. He becomes a celebrity and gets his own celebrity fragrance with the twin names ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’ which can miraculously heal wounds and cover up the stink of failure.
The tale may be simple but the execution and presentation are far from that. The imagery is painstakingly crafted whether it’s evoking high Renaissance devotional or Baroque opulence or garish computer game pixels. The colour palette is overwhelmingly and dazzlingly blue and gold and at times almost makes your eyes ache. It’s a clever choice – the blue a painterly reference to the precious pigment lapis lazuli. The gold – a timeless symbol of wealth with some scenes having the hazy look of being shot in Trump’s golden elevator. The characters when they’re rich and successful have perfect golden skin but when they’re down on their luck they turn a jaundiced Simpsons or emoji like yellow.
I did use the word subtle before but be warned (and there is a warning) some scenes are decidedly unsubtle. For example when the saint/madonna/fairy fellates Pic’s nose (yes, I’m sure the name is a deliberate joke) and in turn gets mouth raped. Later she gets her revenge in a confessional box and the scene is loaded with jet black humour. The humour in the film ranges from the cruel (see above) to the playful (acknowledging the inevitable porno aspect of the Pinocchio story) to effective visual joke (a credit card gets swiped into Pic’s arm leaving self-harm/drug-track type gashes or possibly stigmata). At its core though it has incredible wit and insight with themes and roles resisting the predictable. A boy-centred fable is chosen instead of a girl-centred one. The Virgin Mary mashes up with Mary Magdalene and The Fairy with Turquoise Hair (aka Blue Fairy) to become an avenging angel. The boy Pic bleeds like a virgin during his first time. And subtle… ? I think so. There’s political allegory aplenty but it’s up to you if you want to draw any comparisons with recent global events. What gives Spite Your Face a timeless quality however is that under the humour and the horror there’s a heartfelt message which says greed isn’t good; and if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Most crucially though – is there a heaven above or is it just a big commercial con? And if we don’t buy into that (religion or capitalism) are we destined to languish in the spiritual and economic gutter?
There will always be those who will argue against the video as art form. Rachel Maclean lobs a bomb into that argument and blows it wide open. She’s a gifted painter and her talent infuses every frame of Spite Your Face. Hilarious, disturbing, thought provoking and visually stunning. A must-see – if you can take it!