Edward Henderson, February 2020
Steve McQueen’s work is varied and uncategorisable. He makes art films and sculptures. He makes sprawling socio-polictical work: in Queen and Country he created sheets of stamps featuring the faces of British soldiers killed in the Iraq war. He makes feature films (Hunger, Shame, the Academy Award winning 12 Years a Slave and Widows) and prestige television (the forthcoming BBC drama Small Axe). He’s made a music video for Kanye West. His work is local — London and its people is a recurrent site for his work (a piece commemorating the Grenfell Tower disaster, Grenfell, is expected later this year) — and global: work in the Tate Modern show features locations in North America, Africa and the Caribbean. Formally, McQueen’s work is starkly simple, occasionally provoking the reaction: is that all? In Static a helicopter circles the Statue of Liberty, in Once Upon a Time we are shown the documents sent on the Voyager space probes. But these forms allow McQueen to step out of the way of the materials he uses — dense, unstable ingredients that touch on race, sex, violence, politics, bodies, colonialism, film and art history, and death.
Like a lot of McQueen’s work, the concept of Year 3 is simple, a one-liner: take a photo of every year 3 class in London. The Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain are filled with the voluminous results of this idea. The piece is a snapshot of London: private schools, state schools, and small classes of children with learning disabilities and those expelled from mainstream education. If you’re a Londoner, your old school might be represented, or your child’s school or your child and presented on the wall of the most famous art gallery in the country in the instantly recognisable, vernacular format of the class photo. We’ve all been 7 or 8, we’ve all been to school, we’ve all had classroom photos taken and displayed at home — it’s hard to imagine a more open and expansive artistic gesture. But what does this work want from us? What is McQueen trying to communicate? McQueen doesn’t scaffold our interpretation of the work in any way, abandoning the viewer to ponder these questions. Photos of single classes were printed on advertising billboards across London. Presented without explanatory text of any kind they were charming but mysterious. The billboards, taking the place of advertisements, demanded to be read as calls to action but McQueen refrains from supplying the directions. Despite the work’s gesture of openness, the piece is hermetic and closed, creating an interpretative gap. McQueen shows us to ourselves and then leaves the building. Year 3 is legible but not comprehensible, clear but opaque.
Similarly in Charlotte, it’s superficially clear what’s going on. In extreme close-up and bathed in red light, McQueen is touching Charlotte Rampling around (and at one point in) her eye. The material of the work is straightforward and the themes seem explicable: man/woman, old/young, black/white. But it’s weirder than that. For starters, why Charlotte Rampling? Her presence as a famous movie star further confuses the murky exchange of power in the piece. Rampling takes a passive role, the unflinching immobility of her instantly recognisable hooded eye suggesting supreme self-control and intentionality. She’s letting him do this. Rampling could be a mother, stoically putting up with a young child exploring her face with their fingers. This combined with the intimacy and delicacy of the eye itself suggests Rampling and McQueen are engaged in an erotically charged game, the finger and eye proxies for other kinds of penetration. This kind of displaced eroticism recurs in McQueen’s work. Five Easy Pieces, from 1995, features at one point a young man in sports shorts hula hooping. McQueen’s camera films him from below so his crotch pumps back and forth. The gesture is erotic but innocent: the man is simply enjoying his hula-hoop! The erotic is present in the work but unacknowledged by it. In Girls, Tricky the viewer is in the dark of a vocal booth in a recording studio as Tricky records the vocal track of his song Girls. McQueen is holding the camera and the perspective gives the viewer an almost physical presence in the piece; it’s as if Tricky is moving around us in the tight space. Tricky is concentrated, working himself into a skunk-induced, trance-like state, lips touching the microphone, sweat pouring off his face. In Girls, Tricky this intimate, transcendental, near orgasmic creative process stands in for sex itself and it’s us, the viewer, he’s having it with.
In Ashes we see Ashes, a young man in shorts playing on the prow of a boat in the Caribbean. He is radiantly beautiful, performing for the camera against the super saturated, super 8-captured blues of the sky and sea and the orange of the boat. Projected onto the back of the screen showing this footage, another film is shown simultaneously. In higher definition but in a muted palate of greys, a labourer constructs Ashes’ concrete tomb. A voiceover describes the tawdry circumstances of Ashes’ violent and pointless death, murdered for picking up an abandoned stash of drugs. I saw an earlier version of this piece in 2014 that consisted only of footage of Ashes and the voiceover. It was mesmerically simple and brutally upsetting: McQueen’s camera trained on Ashes throughout, so explosively alive, but accompanied by the sober description of his death. It’s a piece that reveals McQueen’s process: the effort and labour that support his work’s conceptual simplicity. The footage of Ashes was captured when McQueen was in Grenada making 2002’s Carib’s Leap. When he heard of Ashes’ death he went through his library of footage and travelled back to the country to conduct the interview that provides the voiceover. Similarly, his piece of surreal voyeurism Exodus, where his camera follows two trilby-hatted Caribbean men carrying huge pot plants down Brick Lane, was captured five years before he turned it into a work. McQueen repeatedly treats his own archive as a bank of material to be found and repurposed. How much footage must he collect and keep, waiting for the right time?
McQueen’s early film pieces, for which he won the Turner Prize in 1999, were formalist experiments exploring film history and materiality. In Deadpan he riffs on Buster Keaton’s slapstick (the front of a house falls on an impassive McQueen) and he explores the materiality of film itself in Drumroll (McQueen rolls a dustbin with a camera in it through the streets of New York). His later pieces Western Deep and 7th Nov. have similar formal and conceptual concerns but seek to give the viewer insight into the subjectivities of black men undergoing extreme physical and emotional experiences. In Western Deep McQueen plunges the viewer to the bottom of the deepest gold mine in the world, TauTona in South Africa. He uses a super 8 camera to capture the disorienting darkness, steam, dust, water and heat of those working conditions. The visual field is frequently pushed towards abstraction and total darkness whilst the audio alternates between extremely loud industrial noise and silence. McQueen captures the exercises and physical monitoring that the miners undertake before going under. These men, almost all black, are required to step up and down on a long concrete block in blue shorts, after which their temperature is tested by other men in white coats. These men’s bodies are not their own. At the beginning of the film, we travel into the pit in an unlit industrial lift. There are no edits and it happens in real time. It’s not a straightforward point of view shot — the materiality of the grain of the super 8 film is a constant reminder of the presence of the artist and artistry itself — but for a moment the viewer sees what the miners see every day as they go to work. McQueen wants to show the viewer what it is like to do this kind of work, to understand the environments and physical pressure reckoned with on a daily basis. He wants to show the experiences of these miners from their perspective, from the inside, while never letting you forget your position in relation to their experiences. In 7th Nov. the viewer sees a still image of the top of a man’s head as he lays prone, cadaver-like. The man is black with a shaved head and a long, deep scar snaking across the top of his skull. The image is one of muted, enigmatic violence; the scar is never referred to in the piece. The man is Marcus, McQueen’s cousin, and we hear him in the accompanying audio describe accidentally shooting and killing his brother. Marcus vividly walks us through the events of the day, events of lurid, nightmarish horror. The static image makes the viewer attend to the story whilst simultaneously creating space to imagine himself or herself in Marcus’s position. The still image is a manifestation of the McQueen’s willful conceptual minimalism, a stark representation of the hand of the artist in the work. 7th Nov is McQueen at his most personal and emotional and his most formal and detached. Somehow this combination intensifies the harrowing impact of the piece: though it is clear Marcus is telling us the events of the 7th November from his perspective, we experience the events as he does, gaining access to his interiority at a moment of hideous pain and shock. Marcus suggests in the audio that he keeps telling this story and though he frequently disturbs those he tells it to, he needs to tell it. McQueen makes us bear witness.
McQueen is demanding and profoundly serious artist and through the clarity and forcefulness of his work, communicate to mass audiences. His work is personal without being confessional; political without being didactic; coolly formal and profoundly moving. 2020 is already a good year for him: alongside Year 3 and his Tate retrospective he was knighted, an honour which he accepted, dodging the political ramifications of the award, with the typically gnomic comment: “the country I come from gave me this high award — and that’s great.” He’s at the height of his powers and the possibilities of his craft, possibly more than any other artist alive, are boundless.