zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







about zing


8 poets making it new
generation z
lutwidge finch
the back of beyond
steve mcqueen: ica : london, england


Steve McQueen, deadpan, film still

Steve McQueen, white elephant, installation view




Steve McQueen’s photographs of the cloths and rugs used by Paris street-cleaners to redirect excess water (barrage) invite morbid anthropomorphism. Our inability to erase macabre stains from visual memory make these innocuous objects appear like body-bags oozing dark liquid onto backstreets. In the adjacent upstairs gallery of the ICA, five disorientating minutes into the formalist coup of drumroll, we realize that its three, circular films show a barrel’s-eye-view of a stroll down a Manhattan street. McQueen here reinvents cinematic viewpoint and story-telling by installing three ”rolling” cameras in a rolling steel drum, one peering from each end, the other from the drum’s waistline. The resulting “trinocular” vision looks ahead, behind, above, below, to left and right, freeing us from rectangular frames and one-way narratives while turning pavements into walls and ceilings over which pedestrian footsteps appear to dance. Meanwhile a cycle of close-up tarmac shots repeatedly gives way to uppercut views of artist-against-sky followed by the next road-bound nose-dive. All this is accompanied by noisy traffic, rumbling steel and McQueen’s apologies to bemused Manhattanites. But just as sodden carpets easily turn corpses through contemporary vision so this drumroll announces renewed vigilance among all those who need eyes side, top and back to beware of attack and abuse.
A much shorter film entitled Exodus shows two West Indian men stalked by McQueen’s lens through a London market. There’s no fear of losing the pair as they carry towering coconut palms which proudly advertise their culture to the point of caricature and barely squeeze onto the bus they eventually board. The film ends when one man waves to camera from the bus window thereby warmly implicating both artist and viewer in this urban fable.
A broken-glass-topped brick wall installed along the ICA’s “concourse” seems to resurrect the memory of the “Thin Black Line” exhibition of ‘85 when the institute clumsily acknowledged burgeoning black and Asian arts by cramming the work of 11 artists into this very corridor while allocating the major downstairs space to a single white artist. However, that major space now plays host to shocking-pink walls surrounding a chrome roundabout (white elephant) whose multiple, reflective, revolving facets evoke moving-image-contraptions which pre-date cinema itself. The piece reminds us that, though now a billion dollar industry and a magnet for heady theory, the movies began life as a series of playful experiments and it’s this child-like fascination with the medium’s fundamentals which continues to fuel McQueen’s work.
The combination of the wall color and the title of the piece seem to refer to the venue for the “white-washed” Stephen Laurence murder enquiry—a huge pink-painted complex in London’s Elephant and Castle.
Next door, the b+w ‘deadpan’ is screened in respectful silence. It’s the artist’s remake of the classic Buster Keaton gag in which a house-front falls fatally towards the hero only for him to be blessed by an un-glazed window-frame passing clear over him. It’s both a kindly act of God rewarding the innocence of the clown and a demonstration of the artist’s illusionistic prowess. McQueen stares resolutely ahead, repeating the stunt numerous times and filming it from all angles. Formalism again claims interpretation as the camera-like box of the house floods with light welcomed in by the falling wall. But McQueen’s brand of formalism arises, not from unwillingness to proclaim upon specific issues but from a heartfelt immersion in his chosen medium causing everything he touches to speak of the mechanics and history of cinema itself. As a result, discursive and didactic readings arise subtly, almost despite the intentions of the artist, thereby exampling—in this time of much overtly issue-led work—a robust fusion of form and content other artists might be inspired to follow.

Paul O’Kane

London, England