September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Two and a half weeks ago, I did something apparently crazy: I stepped onto a flight to Switzerland. (You might recall I spent several miserable days there earlier this year and came back with a deep-seated hatred of the place.) Yes, a country to which I’d vowed never to return voluntarily… except for one reason.
The Steve McQueen retrospective at the Basel Schaulager. Which I wasn’t going to miss at any cost.
That might sound strange when you consider that before I landed in Basel, my knowledge of McQueen’s work was actually quite slight. I knew him primarily as a filmmaker and have a tremendous admiration for Hunger and Shame (and eagerly await Twelve Years a Slave), but I hadn’t seen any of his video pieces until a month ago when I saw Bear at Tate Britain and spent ten simultaneously entranced and disconcerted minutes watching two men dance/fight in slow motion, the borderline between eros and violence thinning almost to the point of invisibility. Perhaps because I’d recently finished Sodome et Gomorrhe, it made me think unavoidably of the first encounter of Charlus and Jupien, but maybe that’s just me.
So when I alighted from the tram in front of the Schaulager, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Five-and-a-half hours later (which is the longest I think I’ve ever spent in an exhibition – partly for practical reasons, as video demands that you give it time, but just as much because I simply didn’t want to leave), I emerged from the maze of screens and darkened chambers… completely blown away. I don’t say that lightly. It was the best exhibition I’ve seen in recent memory.
What immediately impressed me about McQueen’s work is its breadth and its seriousness, the demands it places on the viewer’s attention and intelligence. The exhibition consisted of 25 works spanning two decades, but there was none of the sense of samey-ness that so often plagues retrospectives of contemporary artists. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, McQueen hasn’t found one easy, saleable shtick and riffed on it ad nauseam; the range of subject matter he’s chosen to tackle is vast, and his approaches equally varied. That being said, there are a number of running threads, or persistent concerns, that I think can be said to trace connections among the various facets of his oeuvre.
There’s a profound seriousness to McQueen’s work that never tips over into the pat or the preachy. He frequently chooses politically charged subject matter – think of Western Deep (2002) or Gravesend (2007), both of which address the implications of mining for precious metals in Africa – but takes an ostensibly neutral, documentary approach which is actually far more powerful than one which overtly takes sides. Being plunged into the claustrophobic darkness and heat of the world’s deepest gold mine goes a lot farther in conveying the miners’ (quite literally) hellish working conditions than any amount of words ever could.
That brings up one of the most important aspects of McQueen’s work: he doesn’t allow you to be a passive observer. From the moment you set eyes on the screen, you’re pulled in bodily, and in McQueen’s world you are definitely not safe. The first piece in the show, Static (2009), makes the point as well as any: the camera is attached to a helicopter circling the Statue of Liberty, and as soon as you enter the room you find yourself suspended from that helicopter with New York spinning past. Sometimes the camera get close enough to the statue to reveal a view that Bartholdi never intended: the face, corrosion and green patina imbuing its stoic expression with melancholy; splitting seams in sections of arm and drapery suggesting the coming apart at the seams of the ideals the statue represents. And just as soon as you think you’ve got a handle on it, the camera swings away again and you’re grasping for purchase on empty air.
That sense of immediate physical danger and instability is present from the very first: in Five Easy Pieces (1995) you find yourself looking up at a tightrope walker crossing the rope (only her feet and the rope visible); Deadpan (1997) sees McQueen himself re-enacting one of Buster Keaton’s stunts (the façade of a house falling off and appearing to be about to crush him before he is saved by a strategically placed empty window) over and over again, minus soundtrack and all comedic flourishes. Thanks to the camera angle, you first feel yourself fearing for his safety and then, the longer you watch, your own.
Perhaps the most striking instance of this refusal of safe distance and passivity is Drumroll (1998), which, on the surface at least, might seem like just another formal experiment: a three-channel projection produced by attaching three cameras to an empty oil drum and rolling it along busy Midtown streets. The near-constant kaleidoscopic rotation of the images (they only judder to a halt a handful of times, presumably at a red light) and the deafening clatter of the oil drum rolling over pavement, accompanied by the roar of traffic and occasionally punctuated by the artist’s bass voice calling ‘’Scuse me! Sorry!’ to passersby is enough to make anyone with an inclination to vertigo or motion sickness feel well and truly sick (in the British, not the American, sense of the word), and I feel no shame in admitting that after three or four minutes I had slid to the floor against a wall, my head spinning and my sense of balance in serious peril. Something, however, made me stick out the full 22 minutes of the piece, and I’m glad I did: another few minutes in, my perception had adjusted enough that I could actually process what I was seeing and I realised that McQueen had very vividly and viscerally captured how it feels to be in New York: the sensory overload, the constant motion, the never-ending buffeting by forces beyond your control, the sense that, despite being surrounded by a crowd, you are alone, alone, alone. (I noticed that not one pair of pedestrian’s legs ever paused or stood still to watch the curious sight McQueen must have presented as he rolled his camera-drum along the pavement.) Is it too much of a stretch for me to wonder whether Drumroll contains some of the seeds of Shame?
Sometimes, though, the result of this approach is exhilarating rather than unsettling: there’s no better example than Girls, Tricky (2001), a kind of anti-music video that eschews all the slick tricks and flourishes we associate with the genre. McQueen places us in the recording booth, inches away from Tricky, and you can almost feel the sweat flinging off him and smell the marijuana fug as he rasps and howls his way through ‘Girls’ in a near shamanic trance.
It wasn’t all video, either: a surprising number of photographs (not one of the better-known facets of McQueen’s oeuvre) were interspersed throughout. The largest group, Barrage (1998), was, I felt, the least successful piece in the show: a series of 56 close-ups of barrages (the string-tied bundles of rags and old carpet you often see lying on Paris pavements that channel wastewater from markets and shops into the drains), meant to highlight the formal qualities of rather unprepossessing objects. An interesting idea in theory, but in practice I just couldn’t get excited about it. In stark contrast, the diptych More (2001) took the same idea and raised it to the level of poetry – two shots of puddles on wet asphalt filled with the reflections of clouds became, the longer I looked at them, two star-studded skies with nebulae blooming across them. ‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars’, indeed.
But my favourite piece in the exhibition was the quietest and most meditative: Giardini (2009), which McQueen made when he represented Britain in the 2009 Venice Biennale. Of course, I was seeing it divorced from its original context – a film set in the Giardini Pubblici, being shown in that very location – and if I recall correctly, when it was shown at the Biennale it came in for criticism for being dull and self-reflexive. I couldn’t have disagreed more. I found Giardini beautiful and enigmatic: a slow and dreamlike take on the Giardini in winter, when the park and pavilions are deserted and almost derelict, a pack of stray greyhounds nosing about among piles of rubbish in the rain almost the only sign of life. There’s no obvious narrative, only scraps of one that don’t really add up – or might, on repeated viewing. If I had had time (or any space left in my brain), I would gladly have gone back and viewed it again.
By the time I emerged from the Schaulager, blinking and slightly unsteady on my feet, I felt as I’d experienced something extraordinary. Something which, in some sense, will have to live in my memory more than it can here, or in a book – the nature of McQueen’s work being such that stills will never do it justice – but which I know I will never forget.