5/12/2003 - 15/2/2004
In 1994 Steve McQueen presented Bear (1993) at the Royal College of Art in London; it won him the Turner Prize that year. Since then he has done a series of film installations whose main feature is their colossal presence, as they are projected from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling. The works explore the relation between the medium and the spectator and take the visual experience beyond mere seeing to become one involving the whole body. The overwhelming physical presence and the immediacy of the image transform the encounter between spectator and film into a sensory event.
Steve McQueen’s visual references, more open than dogmatic, range from the classic film directors (Dziga Vertov, Jean Vigo, Buster Keaton, Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson) to Billy Wilder and Bob Rafelson, and from experimental cinema (Andy Warhol) to the video performances of the sixties and seventies (Nauman, Acconci, Graham), by way of the photographs of Rodchenko and Man Ray. His way of filming, direct and with no set duration, refers to the subject, his own lifetime and his vulnerability. Here McQueen acknowledges the influence of the improvisation of jazz musicians (Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk), the physical and sound performance of Glenn Gould on the piano, or the camera movements and links of the films of John Cassavetes. McQueen’s work method also refers us to an early period of the cinema -shown at circuses, fairs and universal exhibitions- in which, as happens in expanded cinema, the projections go beyond the boundaries of the traditional screen to bring in the spectators’ bodies.
Steve McQueen presented Caribs’ Leap / Western Deep (2002) at Documenta 11 (2002). It is an installation commissioned by Artangel (London) and Documenta (Kassel) with the support of Heinz and Simone Ackermans, and produced by Artangel, Documenta and Illuminations Films in association with the Museu de Arte Contemporãnea de Serralves (Porto) and Fundació Antoni Tàpies (Barcelona), with the support of The Arts Council of England, The Henry Moore Foundation and Marian Goodman Gallery. A historic event serves as the starting point for Caribs’ Leap: the mass suicide of the Carib natives of the island of Grenada in 1651 in resistance to the invasion of their territory by the French forces. McQueen represents bodies of different ages falling indefinitely against a luminous background, together with scenes of the island and its inhabitants. In Western Deep McQueen takes us to the bottom of one of the deepest gold mines in the world, in South Africa. He constructs oppressive, claustrophobic images from flashing lights and sharp noises, interminable series of rock walls and fragments of bodies bathed in sweat. The work poses two extreme forms of violence to which the human being can be subjected: colonial domination and slave labour.
Bear (1993) is McQueen’s first film and shows a wrestling match between two men who alternate ambiguous relations and gestures of aggression and erotic attraction. As happens with most of his film installations, the physical interaction of the spectator with the projected image arouses a feeling of spatial dislocation which is heightened in this case by the fact that the film has no sound and it is the spectators’ breathing that completes the showing. Moreover, the alternation of the two wrestlers’ bodies, whole or in fragments, with scenes of the space of the action produce an effect of realism that was to be a constant in McQueen’s work, whether to expose it or to subvert it.
Just Above my Head (1996) takes its title from the work of the same name by the American writer James Baldwin. The film shows the artist’s head walking beneath an immense white sky, coming in and out of frame according to how his pace varies in relation to the movement of the camera. At the end of the film the complete figure appears surrounded by trees. McQueen’s reference to Baldwin’s literary and critical work shows an interest in certain forms of literature in which the black African presence emerges as a threat.
Exodus (1992-1997) is a film which takes the title of a record by Bob Marley as its starting point. It shows two elegantly dressed, cosmopolitan men carrying two palm trees through a crowd in a London street. The quote from Marley’s narrative of dislocation and return to the promised land seen in the context of the immigration of West Indians immigrants becomes humorous and ironic.
McQueen is subversive in his way of conveying political content: his language has a particular poetics, not exempt from narrative, although he uses atypical codes of expression - diverted from conventional artistic and documentary forms - which the spectator has to know how to decipher.
The exhibition comes with the publication Steve McQueen. Caribs’ Leap / Western Deep, published by Artangel, Documenta, Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves and Fundació Antoni Tàpies. The publication, lavishly illustrated, includes a text by Jean Fisher.