In Venice's Chiesa di Santa Caterina, I am sitting in a pew, looking up to where the altar would normally be, watching the distinct yet unfamiliar movements of a gigantic nose being masturbated. A blue, gloved hand runs up and down its glittering gold length, and its owner, a cartoonish young perfume-purveying influencer named Pic, groans with pleasure. "I intended it to be shocking," says Scottish artist Rachel Maclean, of her contribution to Scotland's presence in Venice during the Biennale, a 35-minute, looping film with no beginning or end, that follows Pic on a morality tale that pits his conscience against his greed.
Over the course of the film, we watch Pic transform from pockmarked underling in a cavernous underworld into a deceitful caped soapbox-shouter (think Milo Yiannopoulos in gold and blue silks) whose only interest is lying to his followers. Spite Your Face, commissioned for the Biennale and the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, is a darkly humorous take on the tale of Pinocchio, the protagonist's phallic nose growing ever longer as he finds himself deeper in the web of lies that he's created. As he becomes ever more bejeweled and famous in the Disney-style landscape of the overworld, his actions become more and more faithless and dishonest, watched over by a guardian angel figure, who finally castrates him, banishing him back into the depths from whence he came, which mirror the surroundings of the church where the film is presented. Maclean, as in most of her works, plays all the characters herself, from bystanders to silver-tongued shopkeepers and from the guardian angel to Pic himself.
It would be hard not to see the political significance of the piece, in a world where outright lies appear to be de rigeur for anyone in the public eye. "I was disturbed by the ways in which lies had been used in the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign, in a lazy sense, to substantiate a political narrative or an idea," Maclean says. "I started writing the script in December last year and it was a scary time…" One narrative that stands out from the film is the idea of a transformation of fortune, a rags-to-riches redemption (or riches-to-rags, depending on which order you watch the film in), that sees a destitute young boy wind up as shill for a perfume brand called "Untruth." This creates a fake corporate illusion, in comparison to the magic "Truth" one given to him by his fairy godmother.
"I've always been interested in perfume because it seems absurd," says Maclean. "Really, it's just a bottle of smelly liquid but it's packaged in this way that not only makes the object into something more valuable, but it also suggests that you spraying it onto yourself transforms you into something more powerful and alluring." This idea of a transformative solution to society's problems critiques these myths that we are told about social mobility: lean in, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, it's the American Dream. "I was interested in the compassionless aspect of it. The narrative suggests, if you work hard enough and if you dream it, you can do it. It's a convenient way to gloss over the lack of social mobility in our society," adds Maclean.
Another uncomfortable moment comes right after the unforgettable nose-onanism, where Pic's guardian angel joins him in the sexual act. Pic becomes enraged at a perceived insult and ends up brutally raping this maternal figure. It's uncomfortable, in fact, almost unbearable to watch, even though it's still, absurdly, carried out by the character's nose, lengthened from all those lies. "I've been disturbed by the rise in visible misogyny," Maclean says, when asked about this scene. "There's a level of immunity to it—where we're just not affected by it. I wanted the rape scene to feel palpably violent and difficult to watch, so that it's able to break through the surface of that a little bit."
It's particularly shocking because the film is funny and fantastical, including a kitschy musical number that gives it a PG-13 feel. "There's something seductive about the imagery and what it does to you," says Maclean. "I like my work to feel, on the one hand, alluring… but, for there to be points where it totally pushes you out again and you're hit with something that's awkward and uncomfortable."
As I exit the church onto one of Venice's many waterways, and open Twitter to scroll through the news headlines, these words settle in my head: "alluring" and "uncomfortable". Art doing a fine job of imitating life. Or was that the other way around?
Rachel Maclean, Spite Your Face, is a Collateral Event of the 57th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, and is on view until November 26, 2017 at the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Fondamenta Santa Caterina, 30121, Cannaregio.