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Steve McQueen at Tate Modern: Marrying film and the sensory real

'The fact of the matter is I’m interested in the truth’

An easy way for the hours to slip away during lockdown is with our screens. Switching between Youtube and Netflix, trying to pass the time. Without the library or a cafe, it is difficult to stay focused, and the mind wanders. Before it was closed, Tate Modern presented a retrospective on Steve McQueen, with 14 compelling works to think about and compare viewing experiences: gallery versus sofa.

Born in London, 1969, McQueen studied fine art at Chelsea College of Art and Goldsmiths College. He is now a celebrated director for four feature films including the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) and most recently, the heist thriller Widows (2018). Long shots and ellipses, visually rich careful camera movements, as well as effective narratives highlight a deftness in McQueen’s films. Hunger (2008), the gripping story of Irish Republican prisoner Bobby Sands played by Michael Fassbender, contains a 17-minute unbroken shot between Sands and a priest attempting to dissuade him from leading a hunger strike. The scene is a bold piece of cinema, that requires a filmmaker who identifies as an artist.

Installation view of Steve McQueen, Ashes (2002-2015) at Tate Modern, 2020 (Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery, Photo by Luke Walker)

McQueen’s artistic practice often focuses on the black male body as pained or fragile. Tracing his own heritage, Carib’s Leap (2002) is filmed on the Caribbean island of Grenada and refers to French colonial history. On the same trip, McQueen filmed Ashes (2002-15), a powerful video installation of a young man blissfully sitting on the bow of a boat - two months later he was killed. In 7th Nov (2001) McQueen’s cousin tells the story of how he accidentally shot and killed his brother. Illuminer (2001) has the artist watching television in bed, with the image reflecting light onto the viewer. In Cold Breath (1999), the artist touches his nipple, exploring flesh as material. On the other hand, Exodus (1992/7) exudes a kind of spontaneity and is removed from the violence and suffering of McQueen’s other films. The film follows two black men walking the London streets carrying plants; throughout the film, their identities aren’t revealed. Colonial histories and race concerns suspend temporalities in these films, and do not attempt overt statements about the human race and condition, but with an extreme awareness of pacing, the above films on show at Tate, open up thought about social and political urgency.

The curation allows for visitors to piece together a portrait of the artist by making their way through the non-chronological exhibition. The accessibility of the film medium makes the work easy enough to discern and enjoy, to find new and interesting things. The limits and possibilities of the camera and screen, explored by the artist, are refreshing in contrast to saturated on screen light-entertainment via the aforementioned streaming channels. Accessibility and inclusivity are rooted in the film medium, and extend into McQueen’s other work, such as the Year 3 Project at Tate Britain, which photographs the Year 3 classes of every primary school in London.

The first room is activated by two large screens hanging at angles in space, enabling visitors to walk around and see the projections from close or afar. The hanging screens support a navigation of the exhibition starting with the Statue of Liberty, the first encounter. The oxidised surface of the statue is bathed in charming light in Static (2009), filmed upon its reopening after the 9/11 attacks. Shot from a helicopter with the accompanying whir of the choppers, the camera winds around the statue for seven minutes in a continuous shot. The initial image of patriotic American action films quickly disappears when the repetitive movement becomes sickening. It is an abrupt film at the exhibition entrance and requires a careful look before the spinning camera motions the visitor to the next piece. Static (2009) also adjusts our eyes to the colour, light, movement and sound that will follow, the dizzying effects of an exhibition of films that is surprisingly physical.

Installation view of Steve McQueen, Charlotte (2004) at Tate Modern, 2020 (Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery, Photo by Luke Walker)

The other screen shows Once Upon a Time (2002), a presentation of images collated by NASA in 1977 representing life on earth for a probe that was hurtled into deep space as part of the Voyager missions. Over the images, glossolalia or ‘speaking in tongues’ mimics rhythms of language. The film is like a science museum display, showing humans and the earth in harmony. Conflict, poverty and disease are not included. These images portraying nature and culture as brilliant overshadow this discrimination of the selection.

Similarly provocative and engaging, Western Deep (2002) is described by T.J. Demos in his lecture for McQueen’s 2013 exhibition in Basel as ‘striking for what it does not show.’ A 25-minute documentation of the sensory environment in the world’s deepest gold mine, Tautona Mine near Johannesburg. Through McQueen’s Super 8 camera, the audience follows the workers down in the lift, through the darkness and clattering machines. The subjects are silent but physically strained by their activity. McQueen’s camera immerses and watches the flickering colour of lights and flashes, intermittent bouts of silence followed by the heat, staccato drills and the quick glances of the workers.

Behind the strictly aesthetic style are the Neoliberal reforms that did not support black South Africans despite the pledges of Mandela. Demos describes the ‘doubling rates of poverty and unemployment for black South Africans and an overall increase of wealth for white South Africans.’ McQueen makes no mention of this backdrop or even the location of the mine. He only documents the mundane life and objectification of the workers through the darkness of the environment and the blackness of the men. The regimentation is like machinic repetition. At certain points, the rhythm is broken with skillful editing, and a combination of spatial and pace awareness contribute to a visceral viewing experience. The silences make the audience aware of the self sitting in a soundproofed cinema room as part of a group that queued for a timed entry, that will re-emerge into the exhibition with a stronger awareness of light and sound.

Other works highlight the curiosity of McQueen’s artificial eye, but some ideas are less substantial. As you pass into the next space, you walk around an antique camera projecting Charlotte (2004) against the wall. Washed in a red filter, the film capturers McQueen’s finger hovering over actor Charlotte Rampling’s eye before it tentatively touches. There is one sculpture, a gold-plated mosquito net draped over a metal bed frame. Made for Artangel to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, the sculpture is an unnecessary addition, which is easily glazed over.

A redeeming work, Girls, Tricky (2001) is mesmerising. Trip Hop musician Tricky (an early collaborator with Massive Attack) gives a captivating and contained performance. Avoiding McQueen and his watchful camera in the recording booth, Tricky smokes and then releases chaotic energy, with the electricity transmitted through McQueen’s lense. “He needs to get out of control to gain kind of control,” says McQueen in a recent DAZED interview about the Tate show. Tricky goes from soft to harsh and loud, putting the audience in a stupor induced by his spliff and the intensity of his movements and voice like the drilling in Western Deep. Trying to stay steady with the handheld camera, McQueen captures a charged and intimate moment.

Installation view of Steve McQueen, End Credits (2012) at Tate Modern, 2020 (Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery, Photo by Luke Walker)

The intimate stories and meditations are bookended by End Credits (2012-ongoing). The exhibition turns a corner into a cavernous space, with a screen with documents scrolling down slowly, and an out-of-sync reading of the FBI surveillance files of an African American civil rights activist, Paul Robeson from 1941-1978. The most explicit political piece, End Credits satisfyingly balances the more ambivalent work.

The exhibition is an open introduction to the artist, which allows visitors to think about McQueen’s truth through films that are raw and thoughtfully composed. There is an indelible quality to the work that the artist describes as the ‘extraordinary in the everyday’. Stuck at home, it is important to approach the everyday in different and refreshing ways. While the Tate should make the films available online, unfortunately, the feeling of a slow-burning buzz the exhibition manages to create cannot be recreated virtually. At least, unlike most other artists, we can still observe McQueen’s talent remotely with his feature films.


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