Saturday 7th March, 2020
I had been planning on seeing this exhibition later in the year, but seeing as I was somewhat unexpectedly in London and the hotel was right round the corner from Tate Modern it seemed churlish to not take the opportunity to go while I was so close by.
Steve McQueen has long intrigued me. I’ve not had the opportunity to see his work before, so the chance to see so much in one place and in one go seemed like a real treat. I had not been to the section of the Tate that the exhibition was held in before, either, and I really liked the Tanks, vast concrete spaces that held oil in the days when the building was Bankside power station but that are now used as gallery spaces for performance. They were empty when I went in, even of other visitors, who mainly popped their heads through the door and wandered off. I slowly wound my way round the insides of both, listening intently to the sounds of scuffled shoes as they echoed around inside the chamber and breathing in the dank smells of strange rooms. I can imagine they are very interesting spaces to fill with dance and music, maybe I’ll see something in there on day. I also really liked the winding, concrete stairs, huge windows and sense of grand scale and space in the rest of this half of the building. Finally, a part of Tate Modern I enjoyed!
The exhibition itself isn’t huge, but there is a lot of content within, and it is laid out in a way that you can dip in and out of many of the films as you wish. The open, yet dark layout partnered the art in contained well; I have nothing but praise for the curation of this. Plenty of seating options, well maintained queues and sound baffling inside the cubes that contained each piece beautifully so that you were suitably enveloped within. As I was there not long after opening time it was also blissfully not that busy, so I got to take my time and savour what was there.
As you enter you are assaulted, jointly, by Static and Once Upon a Time, and the swirl of the soundscapes of both are quite jarring. However, once adjusted to the sounds of glossolalia and whirring helicopter blades you can either train one eye on each piece or wander between them. They are both monumental in size and scope, huge screens projecting on both sides (a very clever trick), beaming out light into the cavernous dark room. I found Static to be both comforting and disconcerting and despite it being light on content (not of subject matter) it was impossible to not keep eyes affixed onto it as the camera circles round and round and round the Statue of Liberty. What you take from this would very much depend on who you are I guess, and it struck me as asking a lot of questions but providing no answers. How you see things, how you view, who you are as a viewer was the point. Of the whole exhibition, but this opening salvo really showed it to me.
Western Deep could have been an all senses assault, if the rest of the small audience had been less noisy. Beginning in complete darkness and with bursts of ear splitting sound, it is not the easiest short film to watch. Noisy, relentless, and hard, a perfect vignette. I was left disoriented and wondering about the fate of the men who worked so very, very deep underground.
Cold Breath and Charlotte were reliefs after that, and the way they were displayed, projectors on continuous loops in front of you, so that you could move directly in front of the lens, almost becoming part of the art, made clever use of tight space. I stood behind and then to each side of the cameras, taking in different viewpoints. Both pieces are surreal and reminded me of the Yoko Ono installations I’d seen earlier in the year (which I forgot to write about), but also with echos of Bunuel and Dali.
7th Nov. well, that was heavy and my mind has been spinning with all sort of questions ever since I walked out of this room. The stillness of the image contrasted with the dynamism of the audio, the scar across the top of Marcus’ head, laid out like he was on a slab at the morgue, but he is the surviving one of the tale, how he came about the gun, McQueen’s relationship with his cousins, what happened to Mum, all left unexplored, frustrated me greatly. Yet it distilled focus so tightly on the words of the soundtrack that I can still hear his voice in my head now. Unemotional, detached, factual and also very powerful. Instead of the usual, standard documentary about such a tragedy, where racist tropes and biases would tell this tale so very differently, we were allowed to hear Marcus’ voice say Marcus’ words and develop an empathy with him, a deep sense of connection to someone very different to ourselves. It was about as human and humane a response to something so utterly tragic that I’ve ever seen.
I sort of boomeranged about after watching 7th Nov as I had found it so unsettling, so despite finding the subject matter of End Credits and Carib’s Leap fascinating, I was unable to engage with either particularly well. I found Ashes gently moving, and the way it was presented mused over mortality, senseless death, the fleetingness of life and the way we mourn. Ashes will forever be immortalised as young, carefree and handsome in this film, even as we watch his grave being prepared and decorated.
I am glad I left Girls, Tricky, until last as it left me smiling. As a Bristolian who loves her music, how could I not love this intimate and revealing portrait of Tricky at work?
All told I had been in this exhibition for over two hours and it would have been very easy to have gone away and come back for at least as long again. It felt as if I’d been there less than half an hour, the art was so engaging. My advice to you if you are going would be to allow an awful lot of time to linger, to go back, to wander and to think. You are going to need it.
It struck me, that with the exceptions only of the one still photograph in the exhibition, and the eye of Charlotte’s Eye (which is shot in red and huge close up, rendering it almost beyond colour in a way) that every single human image is of a black male. Steve McQueen has turned the lens on himself, literally in some cases, but metaphorically in others. Think about how often the black male is offered up in art. Not often, and certainly not often with this level of sensitivity and grace. There was and is huge power in that.
Steve McQueen’s work is eloquent and powerful. It has made me think a great deal since Saturday morning. I may even go and see this exhibition again. I will be listening to his Desert Island Discs episode again, that is for sure and I will seek out his feature films too. I was intrigued by Steve McQueen’s art before I went to this exhibition. I left more so. I liked very much the ways in which he challenged me, as a viewer, to see and hear things that were not always easy, but were incredibly engaging. I liked the ambiguity of many of the pieces, the surrealality, the sense of the absurd even. There was an otherworldly quality to a lot of it. Sometimes the clearest view of something comes from a very long way away, out of focus, drawn like memories, non-linear and jumbled. This is what Steve McQueen’s art did for me and I love any art that can make me think and make me feel. This exhibition achieved both.
“I’m interested in a truth” he has said “I cannot put a filter on life. It’s about not blinking”.