With fake news and sociopathic world leaders in mind, many artists have likely considered reviving Pinocchio as a critical trope. Just as many will have discarded the idea, finding it too obvious to merit interest. Not Rachel Maclean, whose Scottish Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale is a filmic adaptation of Pinocchio, in which live action is lavished with digital rendering. Maclean’s great strength is her recognition that unsubtle conceits can carry rich artistic and political potential. Pinocchio’s familiarity, for instance, can snag a viewer’s interest, buying the artist time to unfold an adequately complex reflection of our current political, social, and economic crises.
Titled Spite Your Face (2017), Maclean’s film unfolds on a towering projection screen, hung vertically in the chancel of a deconsecrated 13th-century church, where the altarpiece once stood. An allegory about the dangers of vanity and hubris, the artist’s strategy in this 30-minute adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881-83), is to use overwhelming visual delight as a Trojan Horse for cultural critique. She thus belongs to a cult of darkly glittering satirists whose high-priests are Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman.
As Spite Your Face opens, we meet an androgynous street urchin named Pic, whose rotting teeth are framed by inflamed gums, and whose snow-white face is pocked with red sores. Pic’s outfit recalls the attire of Dickensian wretches: pantaloons, suspenders, and undersized cap, accented by a big, cartoony bow-tie. When Pic breaks into flights of aspirational song, this ensemble glows blue and gold, as his environment bursts into a sun-suffused heaven. Otherwise, the color scheme is all torn and tattered browns, which match uncharacteristically gloomy Tuscan surroundings.
Before long, Pic wins fame and fortune by playing a digital slot-machine, which has been built into a baroque altar. His prize is an endorsement deal, for a “perfume” called Un-truth, which bestows social esteem upon its wearer. This role transmutes Pic’s rotting face into shimmering gold, his teeth sparkling like a platinum-fronted rapper’s, and a bottomless credit card satisfies every passing fancy.
Of course, this upgrade comes at a price. Each time Pic makes a purchase, lacerations appear on his arm. Although a second perfume called Truth is procured to heal this consumer stigmata, when Pic’s popularity runs dry, so does the credit card. He subsequently begins to lie about his expenditures, causing his proboscis to swell. In a curious Freudian twist, the distending nose also becomes a functional phallus, enabling Pic — in the film’s most stomach-turning scene — to orally rape his female master when her inquisitions become abusive. She in turn castrates him, leaving a gaping wound that is covered with a prosthesis. Poverty, pride, shame, misogyny, and violence are here knotted, echoing the tangle of conflicts that plague our society, and that become more intransigent as they overlap, producing situations wherein a victim of one type of violence — class oppression – in turn becomes an executor of another — sexual violence. Arguably, Spite Your Face is the piece in this year’s Biennale, most willing to wrench such brutal social predicaments into plain view.
Still, the work is hamstrung by a plethora of weaknesses. It seems doubtful that an effective critique capitalism can be made by hyperbolizing its aesthetic as Maclean has attempted to do. Koons and Sherman have both failed at this task, making work that is as fascinating as art as it is powerless to deconstruct the blue chip art world’s social dislocation. The film’s hi-def rendering and sensational imagery seduce audiences in a way that is safe, if not conservative. But the most troubling question is: why is it that Spite Your Face’s most vulnerable character — rather than someone who actually wields power — is the one who undertakes the film’s most horrific act?
Presumably, Maclean’s wants to show how greed corrupts so deeply that even helpless souls are turned savage. But this lofty critical motive never quite bites. The above shortcomings aren’t to blame for this failure, so much as deeper, structural problems. In particular, the picture’s flaunting of high-end production values only widens the gap in empathy between the well-fed and well-heeled upper echelons of contemporary art, and those who might ostensibly benefit from critiques of capitalism — the poor and disenfranchised.
Maclean’s mimicry of lavish Hollywood aesthetics is clearly meant to operate as a détournement, appropriating the aesthetic of popular culture in order to reveal its malignant effects — the hypnotizing of consumers with unattainable and harmful images of glamor. Hollywood directors delivering similar critiques sometimes get a pass on such contradictions because their form is inherently accessible — available on any laptop or in any theater. But given how the resources necessary to produce and experience Maclean’s work exclude the economically oppressed, this critical strategy languishes: Spite Your Face is contemporary art, which means that if you don’t see it in Venice, or another major art center, you’re out of luck. More to the point, the film undercuts the one quality of contemporary art that allows it to behave as a critical medium, despite its own exclusivity — its maintenance of an aesthetic sensibility which promises that good, moving, challenging art can be made from any material, no matter its value.
Despite Maclean’s virtuoso (and admittedly thrifty) feat of playing every character in the film, this production enjoyed sufficient financial backing to commission an extensive amount of green screen technology and recruit a prosthetic artist with experience on the Harry Potter films. Her ravishing film thus signals that art is headed towards, rather than away from, the bloated production values of popular culture. In a time plagued by rage-inducing disparities of wealth, and in an art world where exorbitantly expensive MFA programs filter out working class artists or smother their critique of the system in eternal debt, this is a problem. In Maclean’s dazzling film, well-meaning criticality transmutes into a spectacle of uncertain intentions.
Spite Your Face (2017) by Rachel Maclean continues at the Scottish Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale through November 26.