Trying to flee the experimental film Pursuit, dazed by the multiplicity of its lights, I crashed into my own reflection.
The artist Steve McQueen produced the piece by attaching lights to his jacket and stalking about an Amsterdam park after dark with a video camera. An intriguing concept certainly, but it is the elaborate setup for its exposition at Basel’s Schaulager that truly makes the piece “work”: A dual-sided screen in a near-midnight room; four mirrored walls and the projection of these blots and reticles of light from his jacket, which are distantly reminiscent of cities or stars albeit rendered far more threatening by the accompaniment of rustling in bushes and the heavy thump of footfalls.
Pursuit (2005), which perhaps anticipates the minimalist tension of his feature films, is shown to excellent effect at Basel’s Schaulager. The museum opened an eponymous retrospective of British artist Steve McQueen’s work: More than 20 pieces are on display—film and video installations, photographs, and even feature films, for McQueen is, of course (and almost uniquely), acclaimed both as film director and artist practitioner.
His experimental video work has a vividness and immediacy that has frequently been noted. In the words of one critic, “The work’s assault on the viewer’s senses behaves like an attack”. On the evidence, McQueen is an adept “reader” and manipulator of sensation and spatial perception.
In a survey of this size, one expects to find pieces that are unpersuasive or which ‘do not work’, a summation that possesses a different meaning for each observer. Static, a 2009 seven-minute film of New York’s Statue of Liberty shot from a circling helicopter, exerts on the viewer a quite visceral influence. But is the queasiness induced by the choppy motion of the camera meant to complicate other visual readings such as, for instance, the immanent symbolism in the piece, which exposes the corrosive wear and tear suffered by this ‘icon of freedom’?
More compelling is Drumroll (1998), an aptly deadpan title for a piece that signals the artist’s preoccupation with the conceptual and experiential. Through how many iterations, one wonders, have such ideas passed before they met the artist’s satisfaction? And even if the works do not unsettle the viewer in any sense other than a ‘haptic’ one, their execution nevertheless provokes questions to which there are at best ambiguous answers.
The auditory aspect of many of McQueen’s works is a vital but subtle counterpoint to the artist’s imagery. Often a viewer becomes aware of the aural experience of a piece long after the visual one has intruded on his or her senses. In the case of Drumroll for instance, long moments are needed to “understand” the rolling motion of the fifty-five gallon oil drum in which the author installed three cameras. Initially, the facades of New York buildings, the legs of pedestrians and the lampposts seem merely to rotate in place, as if they were, metaphorically speaking, inside a washing machine. By and by, the slow progress of the barrel becomes discernible, as do the clanging noises it emits, and the frequent shouts of the artist, presumably intended to clear the path.
Even the longer film pieces enthral. In 7th Nov. (2001), the artist has recorded his cousin speaking uninterrupted for 22 minutes about the accidental shooting of his brother. The recording is matched with a projected still image of the speaker photographed lying on the ground, with only the crown of his head and shoulders visible. A lateral scar, extending from behind one ear to the other and running completely across the skull, holds the viewer’s gaze. And the monologue, delivered in a cockney accent is by turns self-pitying, candid and introspective, and altogether fascinating. How does one categorize 7 Nov. within the wider context of McQueen’s oeuvre, or assess, as I was tempted to do, the visual force of the scar vis-à-vis the monologue within the totality of the piece?
In the book accompanying the exhibition, the theorist Jean Fisher alludes to Michel Foucault’s claim in 1984 that “the present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space”(1) linking it to Marc Augé’s characterisation of supermodernity as an era of the place and non-place. McQueen’s work, Fisher contends, is concerned with “the configurations of space and social relations wrought by supermodernity”. Fisher appears to situate McQueen very firmly among a group of art practitioners, such as Ai WeiWei or Anish Kapoor, all of whom happen to concern themselves with critiquing temporality and modern existence.
But there is another slightly different sense in which McQueen’s work is utterly contemporary: its ambiguous incorporation and co-optation of the contemporary world’s fetishization of fame and celebrity. Take Girls, Tricky, a film from 2001 of trip hop artist Tricky recording in the studio. Tricky is mesmeric as he moans and growls repetitively about growing up fatherless. McQueen’s camera follows him closely, almost touching the nape of his neck at one point, and the image is grainy and ill-lit. This viewer was engrossed by the charisma of Tricky giving vent to his pain, and engrossed too in the sensation of being the witness to a performance, a performance with echoes of Debordian spectacle. And yet, even when one is mindful of the observer-expectancy effect, one cannot readily look away, for who is the observer, oneself or the artist?
An even more intricate manifestation of this tendency is evident in Charlotte (2004), which might bring to the viewer’s mind the feature film Being John Malkovich. What effect does the knowledge that the red eye belongs to Charlotte Rampling exert on the viewer? What if it were instead David Beckham’s eye, for instance, or Rihanna’s? The video is of course no less squirm-inducing for that fact. We are all human, after all, and all our eyelashes flutter at the mere prospect of an eyeball being touched. It is quite likely many viewers of the piece have never heard of Ms Rampling. For the rest, for those of us that have seen films like SwimmingPool and VersSud, there is an immediate intrigue to learn what led Charlotte Rampling to consent to having her eye poked. Her participation adds an indefinable something—pop culture yet highbrow—to the piece, in a manner quite reminiscent of John Malkovich’s centrality to Charlie Kaufman’s film. And Rampling’s inclusion demands another path of inquiry: what is the role of money and influence in contemporary art practice? For very few, if any, young film makers are influential enough to enlist Rampling’s participation in their work.
Bear is considered by many critics to be McQueen’s seminal work. In the book accompanying the show, Okwui Enwezor writes of its “quasi-autobiographical use of the artist’s own body”. Enwezor reads in it too, that “both the queer body and the black body become incommensurable ciphers of objectification and identification.” Still, early though Bear (1996) features in McQueen’s canon, there is a suspicious feeling of the obligatory about its motifs and imagery. “The black body in artistic representation and the crisis of black male identity”, as Okwui Enwezor describes them, are themes that have fascinated artists as disparate as James Baldwin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. One may concur with observations about the enigma represented by the black male form and still perceive the subject as one that has been overly interrogated, even to the point of banality.
Turning to feature films, Shame, McQueen’s second is transgressive (superficially so, perhaps) and visually accomplished without ever really trying to get beneath the surfaces of its characters. With the $20m budget for 12 years a Slave, which is currently in post-production, the artist may be signalling a move into a more commercial milieu; Shame cost less than $7m. And he is taking on a subject covered (albeit in very different style) by two recent films—Django Unchained and Lincoln. Comparisons are inevitable.
It feels premature, even misplaced to comment on whether McQueen’s feature films complement his artistic work or stand entirely apart from them. What is of far more interest, concerning McQueen’s dual pursuits, would be an understanding of how acclaim in the one field has influenced his leverage in the other and how working in a popular medium like cinema might shape McQueen’s vision as an art practitioner.
Olufemi Terry has recently written about Afrofuturism, Kony2012, and Cape Verde. His essays and fiction have been published in the American Scholar, Guernica and Chimurenga and he has been writer in Residence at Georgetown and Cove Park. His short story ‘Stickfighting Days’ won the Caine Prize for African writing in 2010.
Steve McQueen, 16 March – 1 September 2013, Schaulager, Basel.
WATCH the conversation between the artist and Hamza Walker.
(1) Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986)