Steve McQueen Exhibition (2020)

Director Steve McQueen’s stunning new exhibition of photographs and video installations at the Tate Modern makes you open your eyes and really, really look.

Under the Skin

by Alexa Dalby

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Steve McQueen is the only artist/director to have received both the Turner Prize and an Oscar. It’s fascinating to contemplate how the vision of his early videos went on to develop into his award-winning feature films, Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows.

This stunning new exhibition of his photographs and videos since 1996 devised by him at the Tate Modern in London consists of a cavernous exhibition space and a maze of pitch-black corridors and screening rooms showing his work with moving images. It reflects the unique way he thinks about the moving image and how he approaches it in the making. It’s about how we think about the world and its representation and how we relate in it to each other. The act of looking is central to his concept.

This exhibition is not chronological, you can move through the darkened spaces in any way you choose and your own presence is part of experiencing the images. Walking from exhibit to exhibit in the darkness is a McQueen’s way of encouraging you to cruise the environment: encounters – or indeed anything – may happen.

The stories of black lives that otherwise would not get told are always present in McQueen’s work – his cousin Marcus (7th Nov); Ashes, a young Grenadian; two elderly West Indian men in London carrying palm trees (Exodus); and McQueen himself and his own nipples (Illuminer).

Some highlights:

Static. A helicopter revolves round the Statue of Liberty, exposing an up-close perspective not usually seen – the bird droppings and rust under her armpit. And on the periphery are the urban wastelands of New Jersey alternating with the gloss of Manhattan. You look again and again as McQueen spins you from the contemporary to the abstract.

Charlotte. This video in extreme close-up of actress Charlotte Rampling’s eye shot through a red gel. Her hooded, middle-aged eye and its sadness exemplifies a certain type of cinema of her era. McQueen’s finger literally prods us to look again.

7th Nov. A single slide of McQueen’s cousin Marcus’s scarred head fills the screen while he tells his own difficult story of accidentally shooting his brother.

Ashes. Told on two screens back to back, McQueen made these videos in Grenada in 2002. On one side Ashes is a carefree young fisherman in a boat at sea with his future before him. On the other side, three months later, gravediggers prepare for his funeral after his murder by drug dealers. Here are the two moving sides of Ashes’ life and death, we get an insight, we hear and see, the life of someone who would not usually get their story told.

End credits. Iconic African-Amerian singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson after a successful career as a performer, was blacklisted in the 1950s and put under surveillance by the FBI for many years for his communist sympathies and promotion of racial equality. Heavily redacted FBI documents and reports in minute detail on him by informers scroll up the screen, while separately similar documents are painstakingly are read out by an American-accented actor. The installation tests the limits of how people can be observed and documented, until the information itself becomes an abstraction.

Western Days. This is a 25-minute video of the descent into the deepest gold mine in the world. As we hurtle downwards, we see the visceral tunnels and the labour conditions of the black miners in South Africa who work in them, lives we would never normally see. There’s an implicit irony between the value of the element they are mining and the poverty of their own lives.

Weight. A white-painted, metal, prison bed-frame surrounded by a gold mesh curtain unexpectedly combines contrasting materials. Weight (2016) is a sculpture that was first exhibited by Artangel at the recently closed Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned and wrote his heart-wrenching letter to the lover responsible for his downfall De Profundis (1897). McQueen creates a shimmering apparition, exploring the relationship between protection and confinement, the physical and the spiritual, and the redemptive power of the imagination.

There are 14 installations plus one on the riverside frontage of the gallery (Caribs’ Leap). You could usefully spend all day at this Tate Modern exhibition: open your eyes and your mind will follow.

This major exhibition coincides with McQueen’s latest artwork Year 3, on show at Tate Britain until 3 May 2020, an epic portrait of London’s Year 3 pupils created through a partnership between Tate, Artangel and A New Direction. Steve McQueen at Tate Modern is curated by Clara Kim, The Daskalopoulos Senior Curator, with Fiontán Moran, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern and is organised in collaboration with Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue featuring an in-depth interview with the artist by Hamza Walker and essays by Paul Gilroy, Clara Kim, Solveig Nelson and Clarrie Wallis.

The Steve McQueen Exhibition is at the Tate Modern from 13 February until 11 May 2020.

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