The visual imagination of Steve McQueen


Hello and welcome to this april twenty twenty podcast from on diplomatic. My name is george. Mela and my guest on this program is john bird who is an artist. Writer curator emeritus professor of art in critical theory at middlesex university and the apron edition of the paper john rights by the artist and filmmaker steve mcqueen who had a major retrospective at tate modern in london until the gallery was suddenly closed because of covid nineteen mcqueen who turned fifty last year had an immensely successful career by any measure since winning the turner prize in one. Thousand nine thousand nine for his early explorations of the moving image. He's gone on to direct four feature films the most recent widows and twenty eighteen and and twenty fourteen twelve years a slave for which he received the oscar for best picture becoming the first black recipient of that award but mcqueen has by no means abandoned the gallery for the movie theater as you'll hear and has his recent exhibition showed before we got onto that. I asked john to fill in some background about mcqueen's korea before the nine thousand nine hundred nine prize. He was an all student. He was a chelsea first of all chelsea school of art and then he went onto goldsmiths college university of london in the beginning of the nineteen nineties student at goldsmiths from ninety to ninety. Four as you know the goldsmiths is the school that is most closely say. Cat who became known as the y. b. as young british artists it produced quite of quite a few including damien. Hirst so he comes out of a background of officials practice. He became interested in photography and film and video work at school and that became his medium expression. I think for quite a lot about at that period of the early nineties late eighties and early early nineties. It wasn't just the film and video offered to some extent to come different way. Don't for a new way of working. It was a break with the more traditional pass activities of painting sculpting so. He did that. He had a brief period in new york. Where east of the university. But then he. He's interesting that he's work was picked up actually really quite early on. I mean i think not only when he was college but very soon afterwards in in the early nineties he was in a way noted as one of the most original most interesting students coming out of that that goes miss background and he started making black and white videos one particularly which is cool bad which is nineteen ninety-three where he filmed himself naked wrestling with another nude male. And in a way that very early work indicated i think themes that were occurring throughout his practice because it is the the black male body and mail buddy which is the focus and has been the focus of his practice throughout over the years and is also course that interest in in the body and the body in extreme states. You know the exhaust general violence or eroticism is in a way of kind of signature style. You so another work deadpan. Which i think is probably one of his best known works. because he's also quite amusing. He took a bus. Keaton stunt where keating stands and look house collapses around him and his left standing a hamstring. Forty in the position where the open window is mcqueen repeats that so you also think through his practice get a constant reference to send them all those one of the film's In the in the exhibition a coup charlotte where he. It's a ten minute film of the actress. Charlotte rampling with steve. Mcqueen is stroking her face with his fingers and they're kind of coming very close to the eye that tracing the i lead the eyelashes and at one point actually who might seem to make contact with the eyeball and of course if you know about film then that's gonna make a connection to welles film Sheyanne onto do a slitting of the eyeball so there is that dialogue that goes on. I think which of course is the case with any artist. This all comes out of all influence will always find its way through into practice. But we steve I say there is a constant reference to both mainstream but also independent cinema and new in them all in preparation for talking to you today. John i was looking at some some interview material that steve mcqueen had done through the years and i saw him talking about back in the early days of syncing furstration about being unable to make feature films. I was quite surprised at that that even even quite early on in his career. I had always seen the use of film in the art gallery. It's been quite a sort of separate demane from the making of feature films. And perhaps i was my perception but to hear him. Enunciate that rather surprised me. Well i think in a way significant that he did say that. And i think significant that he's one of the very few to filmmakers who has made that step through into mainstream cinema. I'll use of film and video is quite different to filmmakers where different aspects oh the kind of materiality of film i mean has it to. Dean is another artist. I guess who comes to mind Who i think in some respects is similar to stephen her interest in the materiality of film yes and the process but is somebody who i don't think will she hasn't really tried to step into mainstream cinema and i'm not sure she'd be that interested in doing it. I think. steve. I was probably offensive. You have a much bigger audience. It's a very different audience. Yes and i mean that suggests that he yeah that there was a strong desire on his part to reach an audience and beyond that to communicate a message that is pushing things too far to see him as having a sort of sense of of something he wants to get across to mainstream. I don't think is an artist with an agenda right And i think his film the narrative very much comes out of the process of working with the material to some extent. I mean obviously not entirely. Because if you do go into mainstream cinema then narrative is pretty importance. You know you need to engage in. Hold your vote for for you know a particular period of time but even those films i mean with with hunger the very very long sequence of bobby sands in the jail talking to the priest and ninety is all happening in a way and that seems to me that very much an artist take on the kind of almost like a soliloquy or two personnel was like conceptual art work. In fact. i think you get it a bit. In twelve years a slave as well the kind of interaction between the characters particularly in the kind of violence that goes on. There's almost a sense of what happens to bodies come together in a confrontation sure. Of course they are carefully scripted. And i don't think he's somebody light. I know ken loach somebody like that. Who who just you know. More or less allows actors to improvise. I think he's pretty tolerant torio in his role but it still you know if we create this what will happen. And that's very much the kind of sense that you get you know with the with the autism films yes experimental in that sense even when he is apparently working in the mainstream. There's something remember that scene in in hunger way. It's a fixed camera for. I think a good thirty minutes and there's something mesmerizing and rather fearless on the part of the filmmaker. Isn't that yeah no absolutely so. I think you know the if you know about all his films in the kind of you know over the last twenty thirty years And you see mcqueen major movie one of the four movies Then i think you do get a sense of this is visual artist. Who's making a film at the same time being because he is an artist. Who is able to deal with the mechanics of mainstream cinema. Are you'll you all carry it along by by a very powerful narrative of course yes and so not not a toll contemptuous of narrative. This may just be my prejudice. But i often get the impression that video installations and art galleries don't really have a great deal of interest or time for narrative. I think it depends on the mak- i very much depends on the make but i think you can get a great deal of film and video. His film video work over the last sort of thirty years. Or so. you know which doesn't It doesn't convey that Gency that movement. That doesn't even seem to be that much interested in the measles and things like that it's more or less. It's almost like conceptual out in front of the camera. But yes he's his difference in that. That was the case. I think even with his you know with these early films. I mean he. I started introduced found in the late nineties where he was rolling these tin drums around st new york And you get the sound of the rolling drum coming through but and he had this you know he has an exhibition Leon the i see a of Kind of mini retrospective. Which was very early really. I mean you know still still relatively young in terms of a major major career given what he's achieved in spirit and looking at a piece like western deep which is in show that that's been at the tate modern into until it was closed because of the coronavirus design. There is a very important part is a descent into the deepest gold mine in the world. And i guess it's imaginable to have it as a silent film but when you hear the signed the rumble is in the squeaks and the the machinery it's a very very powerful part of the whole impression that makes isn't it it. May it does do that and it is. I mean i think. I taught in the piece about his very confess phenomena logical filmmaker that he's very interested in the tactility of seeing and you get that particularly western deep because when it's blown up from you know super eight to the large screen then you'll very also aware the pixel ation and you have to strain really both in terms of sound in terms of vision to kind of make out what's happening. These murky figures kind of emerging out out of the darkness. And the way in which the the soundtrack subtly goes silent as they stagger around and they stop again. So you you you know you do identify. Think very powerfully with the claustrophobia. The experience of going down you know over two miles in this cage to work the coal face to extract the oil. You know. I almost sort of felt your hands. Switching the hinge of seeing too. Because you're sort of on the edge of your seat looking looking at the the the image and it's yes i mean. It is a body experience as well as you know a a sort of the visual experience and again you've got bodies of mainly black men in a precarious place play an environment. Which is which is threatening which is hostile to them. Yes it's a place of restraint you know they They are entrapped in that. And the course behind. It is the whole complex. History of colonialism sexually goes to wise people do certain jobs and new though i mean in a way that's why i think he doesn't have an agenda. I mean i think an artist who was more interested in you know the kind of in the old various political message would have gone into that mall whereas i think with mcqueen to some extent you have to work it. You have to work to get the movie to get the to get the narrative but you also in a way to work through the different layers rule there because they're in in the narrative there in the missiles and van in the different component parts of the image at anyone sort of moment on the screen. But you have to kind of uncover it. You have to pick it apart. So saying he doesn't have an avert agenda is it is nonetheless possible to say that there are recurrent things which fired his imagination as a as a filmmaker i And i think we've touched on them. I think certainly you know that the that history history of the slave trade. What paul gilroy refers to as the black atlantic of the incarceration oppression and violence downto- to the body. I think those are very much there and of course that's twelve years. A slave is is the most obvious example of that. But i think also the ideas you know both the extreme of of bodily sensation. You know everything from. I said the early the two figures wrestling where you feel the tension the weight of the body sweat coming off the bodies the way in which one is trying to you know sort of throw the other one that sort of sense of interlock figures you get it with the touch of show rambling on the You get it with the The physicality of western deep. I mean you even get it in the you know the sort of something. Well of course in the one of of marcus who shoots his brother where you'll faced with this skull. This recumbent figure where the camera is placed shooting directly onto the the skull which is the head which is filling the screen with the skull. Going across it. you're constantly thinking. How did that happen what. What was the pain that was involved in doing that. How did he come out of it. Life how do i relate this to. The story is being told about the accidental. You know act that ends ends alive. So i think yes i mean. There are definite themes or a definite tropes definite images almost repeat but i think the body in pain the body of the body and pleasure of central to to his practice. Do you think that that steve mcqueen himself makes no distinction between his more mainstream cinema. And the films that you see in galleries. Does he see it as all of a piece. Or how does how do you know. He would characterize these different modes that he works. And because it's clear from what you're saying the recurrent themes and approaches in in. Both i think from you know from looking at the work. I don't think it's a complete disconnect in any means. I don't think it's a matter of saying okay. You know use project of making a hollywood movie. And that's what i'm gonna be alright and then now you know got an exhibition coming up. I'm gonna make three films. I think is like that tool. An i think so i would imagine An one could probably if you really studied the where you could see how the experience of mainstream cinema benfica's back into the making of this film. It's a two way process. I mean any kind of practices. The same person doing it. I think that also they're very different kinds of activities. You know an artist films. Even you know kind of quite big budget films. I someone thinks if somebody like bill viola. You know doing some some of his films. It's mostly a person with a camera and the subject you know you may use. The kind of others may help the sound technician. He's going to basically. That's what it is once. You're into mainstream cinema. You know a team. It's a big big team and you are part of that and you take you know mu- very much a kind of overseeing director or role rather than the intimate makers role that. I think you get us an artist. Making film made an oscar winning film even before you and the oscar. There's a lot of money riding on. Isn't it there said there are people who feel very much that they need to have a view on what you're putting out. Yeah yeah very much. So and i think equally full for women for you know like Tests the black filmmakers. Easter always been a tough cool. So you're up against those things as well. I mean i think. Certainly the fact that he'd won the turn. He had that reputation as you know as an artist who could do you know major projects that would have helped but even so he still a huge jump to go from that to you. Know a big budget. Production john before we finish. I want to talk by it. An exhibition which was running at the same time as the tate. Modern one which was on a tight. Britain is called year three. And there's a little bit different from the film projects we've been talking. Can you say something about that. And how you sort of see it fitting into mcqueen's is different. He spent a year with assistance going around london schools both in and great great to london school primary schools to take photographs of children in year. Three which is basically children who around about eight years old He said he chose that age. Because that's the point at which an anyone who's had children will no. This is the point at which children are starting to in a way separate from the intimacy of the family and stop to encounter the baroda world. It's like their horizons. The beginning to change the intention really was to investigate the diversity of one of the world's great capital cities through his children. And that is the thing i mean. They're all things. I think one could say about the last. I mean he's at the tape britain rather than tate modern It occupied the galleries. Which all the major galleries on the ground floor. In in britain it's photographs displayed in great form throughout the whole of of of the being galleries. in that respect they're all things about it but i think also make reference to aspects of contemporary conceptual photography. I mean you think of the role of the greed in contemporary art. You think of People like bernard hill. Becker who did those endless series of shots of jones industrial sites. Things like that so it has those kinds of connections there but it is about these children and their everything from quite smooth groups to large groups. Mostly they have a teacher or a couple of teachers and assistance in the group summer in school uniform summer just in you know the the everyday clothes that facing their face to camera so they engage with you. It's stacked high because know seventy six thousand reduce. There is an awful lot of pictures. But it's adult kim and the diversity over london. I think it is a powerful powerful statement. And i think it's a hopeful statement. You know what is the utopic side. -education education is for everyone and when it comes down to you know group of kids eight years old and a cloth. The potential is there and they all the same. It is a remarkable work. I say i don't think it's great art. In the way in which i think some of his other works so i think there will always stand say you know the cliche the test of time but i think as an imaging of londoners a truly cosmopolitan city from his youngest attack inhabitants. It is a wonderful look. Do you see the the infants of mcqueen everywhere. Not so obviously I think off to this exhibition more so because bear in mind. I say his last exhibition with the in the nineties the so we're major exhibition with quite a long time on for that. The are a lot of Students who of course have continued to going to investigate the moving image either through film or video now increasingly of course through the digital media. I mean have some students. Whom is you know. The digital media is the area to go if you want to work with the moving image in a way. That's a tough for future historians to plot the queen's influence but there's no doubt that he has had an influence and serve me as a wide public and and he's been able to reach through his step over into mainstream cinema a very very large audience so i would hope that people who have seen is main films might well don't know but anyway might have been encouraged to wonder what else is done and similarly those who you know just know him as an office filmmaker. Would i be better check out. These moves to there is a huge amount to explore some very rich body of practice. I was talking to john bad about his article. In the april twenty twenty edition of le monde diplomatique and titled looking without blinking. John's article is also available in the website at monte plus dot com. 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