Dated Data

[Rachel Maclean – It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016), at Tate Britain]

There is an essential ahistorical moment in an artwork, something that defies the systematic purposing of ideas to politics alone. This critical moment allows artworks to escape a complete definition, and stems from their unique placement within a culture. Watching the whole of It’s What’s Inside That Counts I couldn’t see that ahistorical moment. In fact it seemed the opposite was being displayed, a piece that was not only deeply historicised, but was also ten years out of date. The content of the film, and its overall thematic, feel like it is being aimed at a public who are only just getting the confidence to use words such as ‘spam’ and ‘download’, despite being familiar with them for almost fifteen years. The effect is that of sitting through a joke you’ve already heard a dozen times, and, although the average Tate visitor might feel this is a new one on them, the film’s failure to represent any critical moment beyond an outdated comment on social media and avatar anxiety gives it little artistic value. I sound harsh because Maclean’s work to date has been so good. The Lion and The Unicorn (2012) pre-dated and channeled the Scottish referendum and Brexit, and at the same time its lip-synced tea parties didn’t make any literal connection to any specific moments in time. This enabled it to continue an incomplete dialogue and remain watchable within evolving contexts. But It’s What’s Inside That Counts is delivered to us complete and its content is never countered from within. It feels like a Mighty Boosh sketch, we get something to be amused by then discarded in its entirety. If this was a comedy show this wouldn’t seem so bad, any accusation of datedness, or unoriginal imitation of previous eras of comedy would be seen as overcritical. But this is a work of art dominating a room in a national gallery. It offers itself as both a commentary on a familiar landscape of contemporary social concerns and as art. But by serving itself up stale and without a subverting internal language it appears as neither commentary or art. By using a language and format that is accessible to an audience whose tech-smugness peaks at transferring money to their children’s student account, the piece fails to get beyond that level of understanding itself, and remains an inert product of time.