There are certain rare people who seem to have two brains. This is the case of the English filmmaker and artist who lives in Amsterdam, Steve McQueen (born in 1969).
In 1999 the video artist was awarded the Turner Prize, Britain’s highest accolade for contemporary art.
Caméra d’or and Oscar
He then learned to work within the rules of the film industry to the extent that he was given a Caméra d’Or in Cannes for his film “Hunger” in 2008 and an Oscar for Best Picture in Hollywood for “12 Years a Slave”.
He is also due to release a series with the BBC in September called “Small Axe” about the West Indian community in London in the 1960s and ’80s.
The Tate Modern is staging an exhibition dedicated to him with 14 works displayed around a vast labyrinthine space until 11 May 2020.
Achim Borchardt-Hume, head of exhibitions at the Tate Modern, explains how today McQueen is primarily known for his work in cinema, and the wider public should be able to see him exhibited as an artist again.
Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern, gives an interesting explanation for his dual vocation. She compares Steve McQueen to a man of letters who is able to simultaneously produce dramatic works, fiction, but also poetry, in reference to his artistic films.
Steve McQueen is an uncompromising artist who has created a highly conceptual array of films which are a far cry from his narrative work in cinema. In fact the ensemble is very nuanced.
Those who visited his retrospective at the Schaulager museum in Basel in 2013 may find the offerings here incomplete.
Allusion and allegory
But by spending time in these spaces, armed with the little guide distributed at the entrance – the exhibition labels are particularly succinct – we come to understand how McQueen works with small touches, using allusion or allegory, while avoiding going straight to the point, to tell his story while applying innovative approaches.
The co-curator of the exhibition Fiontan Moran explains his choices.
The statue of Liberty
The exhibition opens with a giant screen showing the top of the Statue of Liberty from all angles in close-up, over 7 minutes. The film was made shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
The image moves restlessly, but Liberty and her flame stay still. The title of the work is “Static”. Is this a message of optimism? McQueen likes to work with visual ambiguity.
A nipple caressed
Like when he films a close-up of a nipple being caressed and then pinched by two fingers. Without any context we don’t know whether this is a scene of torture or pleasure… The artist was actually filming himself.
“Ashes”, which is shown across two giant back-to-back screens and has already been exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2015 (see the report), features on one side a magnificent young man riding the waves on his little raft, and on the other side someone creating a tomb in a cemetery. We learn that the young man was killed shortly after being filmed in Grenada because he discovered a drug cargo, or how humans fall victim to fate…
This is also what seems to be evoked in “7th Nov”, in which he shows the still image of a skull with stitches across it like a corpse, with the voice over of the artist’s cousin who was responsible for the accidental death of his brother. Tragedy doesn’t discriminate.
At the Tate Britain, the man who hasn’t forgotten his humble origins has also made a gigantic photography project composed of 3128 images of classes of little Londoners between 7 and 8 years old. “This is the age when they start to have an awareness of the world around them. They come here to see themselves and in doing so they discover the museum,” explains the curator Clarrie Wallis. 70% of the London schools involved responded positively to the project. A snapshot of a world in the making against the backdrop of Brexit.
Until 6 September. https://www.tate.org.uk/
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