Tucked away in the Sunley Room of the National Gallery is the visual cacophony of works that make up Rachel Maclean’s new exhibition ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. Providing a fitting location to works rich in their own exploration of national identities, the National Gallery is currently displaying a selection of photographic prints as well as Maclean’s 2012 film, The Lion and the Unicorn.
This darkly comic and gruesomely compelling display scrutinises the relationship between England and Scotland, much inspired by the frosty social and political dynamics between the two nations in the lead up to the 2014 referendum. Interestingly on display at the same time in the Gallery is Edward Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, returning to the National for the first time since 1851. Together this iconic painting, the Grandeur of the National Gallery and recent political events, contribute to the sharp timeliness and wit of Maclean’s gloriously grotesque body of work.
Upon entering the Sunley room there is a curious uncanniness within the space. The regality and tropes of the National Gallery remain, slyly contorting this fiercely contemporary work. Echoing through the room is the montage of found sounds, national songs and monarchical tones emerging from the video. This masterful appropriation of sounds from historical and political discourse lends itself as a back bone to the space, perpetuating a ghostly atmosphere that feels apt in such a historical setting. The eerie undertones of this exhibition perhaps don’t come from the work itself, but instead staining the environment they are in.
‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ is a bravely executed film consisting of magnificent costume and an intelligent use of nationalistic tropes and identities as materials. The monarch who narrates the film is soaked in the emblem of the Union Jack and is quaintly and stoic in her demeanour. In stark contrast to this, the English are manifested into one stuffy and uptight character – the lion. In contrast, the Scottish embody the Unicorn- rowdy and bursting with national pride. This crafty binarising of the two sides of the argument in such a gaudy and elaborate way, offers an opportunity to examine what is being excluded from these debates. Furthermore, the use of footage from well recognised figures such as Jeremy Paxman means the viewer is also left questioning the media’s antagonism in this entire bravado. Maclean is demonstrating a sharp and stubborn satire of British identities, un-complicating them and laying them bare.
There are countless intimate details in Maclean’s work that contribute to its capacity to consume the viewer into its subject. Maclean’s ability to create whole worlds in her films that spill out into the everyday world is compelling and strikes an intricate balance of the comedic and the conceptual. At play with her clear distain towards sloppy stereotypical nationalism is evidence of a willingness to thoroughly research and embody, physically and intellectually, the themes she is criticising. Each visual or audible reference in the film is drenched in the ideas Maclean seeks to explore and rich in the context of Maclean’s narrative, with them being carefully curated into a neatly chaotic and visually engrossing body of work. This is certainly the case in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’.
Rachel Maclean’s exhibition will be running at the National Gallery until February 3rd.
Words, Katie Davies – @katiekrampus