What do the over-the-top costumes and make-believe environments of Rachel Maclean's films, digital prints and installations have to do with real, contemporary life?
Scottish artist Rachel Maclean (b.1987) is best known for her extravagant films in which she creates synthetic and unsettling other worlds. Blending imagery and language from popular culture with politics, art history and fairy tale fantasy, she draws us into dark tales that cast a satirical eye on contemporary Western society, exploring themes such as gender, consumerism and nationalism.
This resource focuses on three works by Rachel Maclean: her film Make Me Up (2018), her 2021 installation at Jupiter Artland upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop, and her digital print series Native Animals (2019).
This resource provides:
an introduction to the work of Rachel Maclean
suggestions for analysing and discussing some of the themes she addresses
information and links for exploring the digital techniques she uses
creative activity ideas inspired by Rachel Maclean's work
This Art and Design resource includes information, discussion points and activities that can be used together as a lesson plan or as individual components to integrate into your own scheme of work. It is devised for Key Stage 4 and 5/CfE Levels 4 and senior phase students, though could also be adapted for KS 3/CfE Level 3 students. It may also be helpful for self-directed learners.
Art and design - Evaluate and analyse creative works - Actively engage in the creative process of art - Know about great artists and understand the historical and cultural development of their art forms - Produce creative work, explore ideas
KS 4 - Develop ideas through investigations, demonstrating critical understanding of sources - Refine work by exploring ideas, selecting and experimenting with appropriate media, materials, techniques and processes - Record ideas, observations and insights relevant to intentions as work progresses - Present a personal and meaningful response that realises intentions and demonstrates understanding of visual language
Level 4 - I have continued to experiment with a range of media and technologies, handling them with control and assurance to create images and objects. I can apply my understanding of the properties of media and of techniques to specific tasks (EXA 4-02a) - I can use the visual elements and concepts with sensitivity to express qualities and relationships and convey information, thoughts and feelings. I can use my skills and creativity to generate original ideas in my expressive and design work (EXA 4-03a) - Having chosen personal themes and developed my own ideas from a range of stimuli, I can express and communicate my ideas, thoughts and feelings through 2D and 3D work (EXA 4-05a) - I can analyse art and design techniques, processes and concepts, make informed judgements and express considered opinions on my own and others' work (EXA 4-07a)
Art and design - Students use their knowledge about the work of other artists to enrich and inform their work through analysis and evaluation - Students use a variety of processes - Students evaluate their work through discussion - Students explore, experiment with and apply the visual, tactile and sensory language of art
Exploring the expressive arts is essential to developing artistic skills and knowledge and it enables learners to become curious and creative individuals.
Progression step 5:
I can explore and experiment with my own creative ideas and those of others, demonstrating technical control, innovation, independent thinking and originality, showing confidence to take risks and developing resilience in order to overcome creative challenges.
I can investigate and analyse how creative work is used to represent and celebrate personal, social and cultural identities.
I can independently research the purpose and meaning of a wide range of creative work and consider how they can impact on different audiences.
Responding and reflecting, both as artist and audience, is a fundamental part of learning in the expressive arts.
Progression step 5:
I can critically and thoughtfully respond to and analyse the opinion and creative influences of others in order to independently shape and develop my own creative work.
I can purposefully apply knowledge and understanding of context when evaluating my own creative work and creative work by other people and from other places and times.
I can critically evaluate the way artists use discipline-specific skills and techniques to create and communicate ideas.
Creating combines skills and knowledge, drawing on the senses, inspiration and imagination.
Progression step 5:
I can synthesise and apply experience, knowledge and understanding with sophistication and intent when communicating my ideas.
I can use professionally established, discipline-specific techniques confidently and convincingly in my creative work and work towards industry standard.
I can design creative outcomes to professional and industry-standard with sophistication, clear purpose and intent.
I can use effective strategies to take risks with my own creative work and can display resilience to overcome creative challenges.
I can evaluate and judge the appropriateness of my creative work in relation to ethical and legal considerations and its effect on participants and audiences.
'Make Me Up' 2018
Make Me Up adopts the format of a reality TV game show. It explores gender and identity through various lenses: art history (how women have been presented and excluded); contemporary culture and social media (how people are seen and present themselves); and power structures (who has power).
Watch and discuss
This HENI Talks video Cutting up the Canon includes clips from Make Me Up and an interview with Rachel Maclean where she talks about some of the themes in her work.
Watch the video as a class and then discuss it with your students, using these prompts if helpful:
what are your first impressions of Rachel Maclean's art? (Do you like it? Do you dislike it? Is it art?)
do you recognise her version of contemporary culture?
do you think her work is relevant to contemporary everyday life?
what are some of the themes that she explores in her film Make Me Up?
Explore some of the key themes that Rachel Maclean addresses in her work.
You could discuss these as a whole class or organise your students into smaller groups and task each group with exploring and discussing one of the themes.
Identity and social media
The term 'identity' refers to the qualities and beliefs that make us who we are – these include how we look, what we believe, the gender we identify as, and our sexuality.
Many of us have social media accounts that we use to reflect our identity. We post selfies and other photos showing others what we look like, our likes and dislikes, how we live our lives and who our friends are.
In this way, we present a picture of ourselves that we want others to see.
Discuss with your students how they use social media and what they feel are its positives and negatives. Use these prompt questions if helpful:
how do you use social media?
do you think it's a useful way to be able to show who you are, your interests and activities – your identity?
do you feel that you present a truthful image of yourself and your life?
does social media impact how you see and present yourself?
what do you think are the benefits of social media? What are its downsides?
In the HENI Talks video, Rachel Mclean suggests that there are both positive and negative aspects of social media.
Being able to represent yourself to the rest of the world in a way that you want to be seen with no one else acting as an intermediary is empowering. (She points out that many social media stars are young women.)
But in Make Me Up, Maclean also suggests that our obsession with looks can often make people feel pressured into looking a certain way and even change the way they look to conform to a homogenised idea of beauty. The women in the film are transformed so that they all look the same and wear the same clothes and make-up.
In the HENI Talks interview, Maclean comments that 'there's something exciting about the selfie but also something sad about seeing the extent to which women internalise misogyny… you don’t need someone to represent you for you to represent something that is essentially designed for the male gaze.'
Teacher notes: discussion about social media might potentially surface subjects and feelings that some students find distressing. This article may be useful in planning the lesson and understanding some of the negative aspects of social media in order to support students as necessary.
'There's an obvious connection between voice and power where if you have a voice then you have power and if you are voiceless you’re powerless.' – Rachel Maclean
Rachel Maclean acts as the main character (and sometimes all the characters) in her films – dressed up and disguised with prosthetic make-up.
The voices she uses come from various found sources ranging from the TV programme Britain's Got Talent to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. This audio is collaged together and forms the narrative which is mimed by Maclean (or her actors) as if they are speaking it.
As a class discuss the role that the voice plays in Make Me Up:
what sort of voice is doing the majority of the talking in the clips you saw from the film?
how does Rachel Maclean use the idea of 'voice' as a symbol in the film?
what point do you think she is making about who has a voice?
Maclean often speaks with the voice of powerful people. In Make Me Up, she uses the voice of Kenneth Clark from the 1970s TV programme Civilization. Kenneth Clark was an art historian, curator and television presenter and was a powerful figure in British culture. His legacy is also powerful, with Civilization often seen as a definitive view of the history of Western art.
By using Kenneth Clark's voice out of context Rachel Maclean shifts the meaning of his words, questioning them and the powerful world that Clark inhabits.
The group of women in Make Me Up cannot speak and without a voice, they have no power. As part of their liberation at the end of the film, the women symbolically get their voices back.
Art history and the male gaze
Rachel Maclean studied painting at art school. Painting and art history play an important role in many of her artworks.
Discuss with your students how they see the depiction of women in paintings and sculptures from art history. You could talk about:
the famous paintings from art history included in Make Me Up
how Rachel Maclean has used these images in the film
what message Maclean wanted to put across by including the paintings
how women are often included or depicted in sculpture and painting
Rachel Maclean suggests that in the Western view of art as narrated by art historians such as Kenneth Clark, artists are men and the images they make are of women.
Make Me Up includes an image of Venus taken from Sandro Botticelli's painting The Birth of Venus (c.1484–1486) and also Diego Velázquez's The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus) (1647–1651). Both paintings depict women as the object of an implied male gaze.
In Make Me Up, a digital version of Botticelli's Venus figure is shown being painted with a brush in the same way that the women in the game-show-like environment are made-over to look 'perfect'.
Velazquez's Venus is used in the film to re-enact suffragette Mary Richardson's slashing of the painting in the National Gallery of Art in London in 1914.
The act, as included in Maclean's film, becomes cathartic. Symbolically, after the painting is slashed in the film, the women start to gain power and regain their voice.
(detail), 2021, site-specific sculpture by Rachel Maclean (b.1987)
Cuteness and consumerism
'contemporary life is obsessed with cuteness and cuteness has invaded the adult world' – Rachel Maclean
Pink, fairy-tale imagery and emojis… Rachel Maclean embraces cute imagery, colours and style in her work.
Discuss the concept of 'cuteness' with your class.
What is 'cuteness'?
Do you agree with Rachel Maclean that we are obsessed with cuteness?
Have you ever bought clothes, accessories or games because they have cute imagery or motifs?
How does Rachel Maclean use cute imagery, colours and style in her work?
What is the effect of this? How do you respond as a viewer?
In the HENI Talks interview, Rachel Maclean suggests that our obsession with cuteness partly relates to childhood nostalgia, but the childhood world that much of the cute imagery evokes is a fake one invented by TV and commerce.
Maclean uses cute imagery to seduce and draw the viewer into her work but the over-the-top sugary sweetness becomes sinister and threatening. (In Make Me Up the ominous spy camera is styled like a cute cartoon eye.)
... and consumerism
upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop (2021), located in the woodland of Jupiter Artland looks like an abandoned high-street shop. A pathway of heart-shaped emojis leads us to the shop.
Inside is a stock of Disney-style dolls and a short animation about a princess character called Mimi who wears a pink dress and has blonde pigtails.
Discuss the artwork as a class, using these discussion prompts if helpful:
describe the artwork – what can you see?
how do you think the woodland setting affects how the work appears?
what would you feel and think if you came across the building while walking in the woods?
does a candy-coloured building in the woods remind you of anything?
what do you think upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop is about?
When Rachel Maclean was commissioned to make an artwork for Jupiter Artland she used the site-specific nature of the woodland environment to reference the role that woods and forests have within fairy tales as places of danger.
The candy-coloured shop should be enticing – there are cute things to buy and a cute princess lives there. But the shop looks abandoned and run-down and Princess Mimi, the character in the animation, turns out to be twisted and mean.
The run-down and graffitied shop and its goods become a symbol of the shabbiness and empty promise of consumerism.
Find out more about the ideas and inspiration behind upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop in this interview with Rachel Maclean at Jupiter Artland.
Native Animals: Green and Pleasant Land 2019
Rachel Maclean (b.1987)
Ask your students to describe what they can see in each print and what they think the artworks are about.
Does using animals instead of humans change how we see the scenes?
Do the artworks look like other paintings you might have seen in an art gallery or museum?
Do you think Rachel Maclean references painting and art history in these artworks?
How do you think the artworks were made?
Maclean made the series as a commentary on nationalism and the anger and divisions in society that were stirred up after Brexit. We expect to see furry animals inhabiting idyllic rural settings, but these scenes are violent and brutal.
By using furry animals Maclean again draws on her fascination with the darkness of fairy tales. (She also cruelly overturns our obsession with cuteness and furry animals!)
Using animal protagonists ensures that the scenes don't look like depictions of real events but instead appear as satirical reflections on society.
Painting and art history
The prints suggest history painting in their depiction of events. Some of the prints also directly reference painting.
In Green and Pleasant Land, two foxes dressed in upper-class refinery stand on a bunting-decorated lawn. The subject and composition of the painting look similar to nineteenth-century portraits of the aristocracy painted by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough.
One of the foxes is an artist and is painting the landowner's estate. But the painting fails to show the burnt trees, scorched earth and dead bodies of the mice – the apparent aftermath of a violent battle or incident.
Maclean seems to suggest that the violence and bloodshed that exists in the history of Britain, the class divisions, and the suffering many poor people have endured is painted out in the nostalgic version of the 'green and pleasant land' that is often presented as the picture of Britain.
Myth and national identity
In her film The Lion and the Unicorn (2012) and VR artwork I'm Terribly Sorry (2018) Rachel Maclean uses satire, and techniques borrowed from performance art, to deconstruct some of the myths behind national identity and expose absurdities in contemporary politics.
Watch Rachel Maclean discuss her ideas behind the works and the techniques she used to make them in this HENI Talks video:
Rachel Maclean began experimenting with green screen technology at art college. The technique is used in film and television and allows filmmakers to film people and backgrounds separately and put them together afterwards. For Rachel Maclean, the technique is similar to painting as it allows for the manipulation of imagery.
About green screen
The green screen technique involves filming people, animals or objects against a green screen. Editing software is then used to remove the green background and isolate the figures so that they can be placed against a new background. (The colour green is very different from human skin tones or animal fur tones which makes it easier to isolate figures in the editing process.)
The green screen technique allows:
characters to be placed within separately filmed real or constructed environments.
for superpower special effects! (e.g. superheroes can be shown flying or characters can be shrunk or made bigger).
multiple characters to be filmed separately and then placed together as if they are sharing the same screen – something that Rachel Maclean makes use of in her films where she often appears multiple times on the same screen while playing different characters.
Task students with making a short film (maximum 3–5 mins.) using green screen techniques. They could work in small groups to plan, shoot and edit their film.
Set a theme for the films. For example, this could be a satirical look at an element of contemporary society, inspired by Rachel Mclean; a holiday advert for a newly discovered planet; a pop video; or a short fantasy drama. (The films don't have to be masterpieces – this activity is about exploring what is possible with the green screen technique!)
Students will need:
green cloth or paper
a video camera (or mobile phone with a video camera)
a microphone if they are recording sound
lighting (not essential but will make for a higher quality result)
video editing software (free software is available, e.g. iMovie, Lightworks or VSDC)
Students will need to plan their films.
It might help to use a storyboard to work out and visualise the sequence of their film.
They should think about sound. If there is a narrative they will need a short script. They could alternatively use music or found audio.
They should think about the backgrounds they are going to replace the green screen with. They will need to film these backgrounds or research them if using found footage.
They will also need to recruit 'actors' (which may be themselves), and decide what they will wear. Or create their characters if they are using animations or models.
Filming and editing
A green screen set-up can be constructed in the classroom reasonably simply and cheaply using green cloth or paper fixed to a wall or hung over a clothes rail. Students can then share this for filming.
Use these how-to articles for instructions and tips on setting up, filming and editing using a green screen technique.
Rachel Maclean's digital prints show make-believe characters in make-believe settings.
As with green screen technology, digital editing tools allow artists to manipulate and collage imagery.
Task students with creating a digital print that comments on an aspect of contemporary society, puts across a message about an issue that is important to them, or celebrates someone that they admire.
They could use digital editing tools to:
collage together found digital images and text
upload images of hand-drawn or painted characters and collage them onto found or digitally created backgrounds
create their make-believe characters and backgrounds using digital tools
Explore these digital prints and layered collaged artworks for inspiration.
Homeless vs the Yuppies 2017
Kurt Uchman (b.1992)
To the Dear Love of Comrades: in Memory of Flora Murray 2012
Fiona Dean (b.1962)
Elspeth Lamb (b.1951)
Chicago, Board of Trade II 1999
Andreas Gursky (b.1955)
We Want 2012
Ashley Cook (b.1964)
I Was There IV 2019
Barbara Walker (b.1964)
If you have access to a large format printer, print the digital files onto paper and display them. Encourage students to think about the size they want their print to be and how it should be displayed.
Rachel Maclean uses elaborate costumes and prosthetic make-up to change her appearance and play a range of characters in her films.
Task students with creating a make-believe version of themselves.
They could either do this using digital editing tools to alter a self-portrait photograph.
Or they could use costume and make-up to change their appearance and present the result as a photograph, a short film (this could be a talking head type format), or a performance.
They should have a clear idea of who they are becoming and the reason they have chosen their make-believe character. (For example, they could be satirising an aspect of culture, commenting on politics or history or creating a fantasy character or hero remembered from childhood.)
For research, students could explore other artists who use costumes and make-up to transform themselves or others. Here are some ideas...
Cindy Sherman uses photography and costumes, makeup, and props to present herself as historical figures, women in imagined films, or people that she sees around her. Her artworks often address how women are seen and presented in the media.
Matthew Barney, like Maclean, uses elaborate costumes, make-up and ornate set designs to tell fantastic narratives, often appearing himself as various different characters in his films. He explores a range of subjects and how they interconnect, from biology to mythology, as well as addresses themes of conflict and failure.
In The Squash, her 2018 Duveens commission at Tate Britain, artist Anthea Hamilton presented an installation of tiled platforms and troughs. This was inhabited by performers who slowly moved around the space, dressed in elaborate costumes (inspired by vegetables!).