Mimi's world: Artist Rachel Maclean on her new upside-down fairytale shop in an Edinburgh woodland
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But all is not what it seems in an overgrown corner of the grounds of an award-winning sculpture park on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
A new fantasy world created for Jupiter Artland by one of Scotland's leading visual artists, Rachel Maclean will be officially launched just days after lockdown restrictions were eased across Scotland.
Scarred with graffiti and seemingly moulding, it is intended to reflect the steady demise of high street shopping in recent years, the dangers of “consumerist desire”, the anxieties and concerns of teenagers in Scotland, and a world “turned upside down” by the pandemic.
Partly inspired by the classic Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel and the popularity of Disney Stores, her creation is a 21st-century fairytale with a dark and disturbing twist.
The Edinburgh-born artist has created a deliberately decayed “upside-down world” dedicated to Mimi – a new cartoon princess whose dolls grace its topsy-turvy shelves and whose image flickers into life on a large screen.
Inside the shop, which has a chandelier emerging from the floor and its displays hanging from the ceiling, it quickly becomes clear the candy-coloured character is far from happy with her looks.
Maclean has spent three years working with Jupiter Artland and teenagers across Scotland to create the world of Mimi, which is partly a response to the impact of “Disney princess films” on generations of young people and the pressure to present a perfect image on social media.
The artist’s first major outdoor commission and an accompanying film – her first animated work – will be a permanent feature in Jupiter Artland’s grounds after they are officially launched on May 8.
However, with more than 500 dolls already manufactured, Mimi Stores are hoped to be created in empty units across Scotland as part of a three-year campaign by Jupiter Artland to offer dedicated support to young people, including workshops on body image, mental health and internet safety over the next few weeks.
Maclean’s initial discussions with a group of young people uncovered widespread dismay over “decay and decline” in town centres.
She said: “I was brought up in the 1990s in a kind of boom era for capitalism and an economic bubble where it just felt like there were constantly things being built and opened up, and a sense of newness.
“It felt interesting to think about the perspective of a young person today and a feeling of almost living in the remnants or remains of something you've never quite experienced. That was the starting point.
"I’m really interested in the decline of the high street and the fall of a certain manifestation of consumer capitalism.
“But there's also an imaginative appeal to the idea of coming across an empty or disused building. There’s something in that that I wanted to conjure up.”
Maclean often references politicians, pop culture and fairytales in her films, which have previously explored identity, class, nationalism and gender.
She said: “With quite a lot of my work, I want to set up a world which feels like it’s supposed to be glossy, shiny and new, but then there’s something beneath that which is maybe decaying, sinister or dark.
"We started off with the problem of how to make a public sculpture that was also a film. The idea popped into my head of a shop in a forest that felt a bit like a Hansel and Gretel-style experience, with the building itself as a sculpture and the film showing inside. The character of Mimi came out of that.
“She’s almost like a fairytale doll who’s been brought to life. To a certain extent, the film is a saccharine fairytale from a female point of view, where you see inside the mindset and thoughts and worries of a doll stuck in a very anxious present.”
The creation of the Mimi Store, which is hidden from the main paths through Jupiter Artland’s 100-acre grounds, is a deliberate nod to the phenomenon of Disney Stores.
She said: "Disney sanitised a lot of fairytales from the darkness and sadness that were in the original story.
"I guess my work brings back some of that darkness and sadness, and comments on the kind of sanitised fairy tales that are hyper-positive and a semi-utopian shiny world where maybe the idea of childhood itself is a bubble – where you protect children and also protect adult imagination.
“I’ve always like fairy tales, particularly dark fairy tales. They seem to stick and persist in culture, and morph and take on different forms and meanings.
"There’s something in the stories people cling to and connect with. In my work, I like there to be something familiar enough for people to grasp onto. You can then start to say or do strange things.”
Although Mimi and her world were in development long before Covid, Maclean’s work is likely to have added resonance after the easing of Covid restrictions.
She said: "In many ways, all the main themes were there in advance of the pandemic, but Covid has accelerated or catalysed things that were happening anyway, but maybe weren’t so visible.
“I really liked the idea of a world turned upside down. The shop isn’t entirely upside down.
"I’ve played with that sense of disorientation and things being turned on their heads. It's worked out to be quite timely, with shops literally reopening at the same time.
“The thing I like about this work is that you really do need to see it physically. It’s a good time for that, where there is an appetite for people to go and do something in reality and not online.
"I hope this feeling of both opening up, but of opening up to a world that is not quite what it was before, will be very resonant.”