Whether he’s wrestling another man naked or prodding at Charlotte Rampling’s eyes, McQueen’s art – on show in Switzerland in his biggest ever show – is always in your face
All in the eye … Steve McQueen’s closeup of an actor’s eye manages to be both intimate and violent. Photograph: Tom Bisig Tom Bisig/PR
Thursday 21 March 2013 17.50 GMT Last modified on Wednesday 21 May 2014 18.20 BST
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The rooms are full of people, on-screen and off, behind the camera and in front of it. Here is the artist himself, naked, looming in the dark, wrestling with another man. Now we see him as a blob on a hotel bed. Then a house falls around him and he stands blinking in the dust. Rolling a metal drum round the streets of Manhattan, you can catch a glimpse of him in shop windows as he passes. Now invisible, he thrashes through the undergrowth in an Amsterdam park at night.
“Sometimes I want to do things that I shouldn’t, and I do them,” Steve McQueen recently told me. Our conversation appears in the catalogue to his mid-career survey show at the Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland, which opened last weekend, a much-enlarged version of an exhibition that began last autumn at the Art Institute of Chicago, and which will not be travelling to Britain. Seeing so much of the British artist’s work together – more than 20 film installations, as well as other works – is both daunting and immensely rewarding.
In conversation, McQueen has the unnerving capacity to cut through the bullshit, recontextualising his work as he goes, and seeing it in new ways. He is a very reactive artist. Rather than having long-term strategies or a fixed sense of how to work or what to do next, his art is borne of reactions; specific situations tell him what to do and how to work. Turner prize winner, war artist and director of the prize-winning films Hunger and Shame, McQueen is currently in the final stages of a big-budget Hollywood movie, Twelve Years a Slave, starring Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Quvenzhané Wallis. Looking at his work is a complex business.
Steve McQueen, Deadpan
Deadpan: McQueen’s 1997 video depicts a house falling down around him. Photograph: Marian Goodman Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery Steve McQueen
The Schaulager exhibition fills two floors of a building designed by Basel architects Herzog & De Meuron with what the organisers describe as a “city of cinemas”. But this is no multiplex; it is a space of confrontations.
The noise of a helicopter fills the first room. Its juddering din stops you in your tracks, an almost physical assault that crowds out thought. The helicopter is an eye, rising and turning about the Statue of Liberty. You can see tiny people staring out from the arches in the crown on the statue’s head. The noise dies away, and I have the sudden illusion that the focus is clearer, the statue more present in the silence.
McQueen never lets you forget that you are a body in space, too. Static, projected on a double-sided screen, has a room of its own. But as the camera circumnavigates the statue, we see other things turning on the other side of some glass doors in the next gallery.
For McQueen, film is about more than the visible. Is this the reason he filmed Charlotte Rampling’s eye, in close-up, his finger prodding around it with a delicacy that’s almost shockingly intrusive? There are moments throughout that hinge on violence and intimacy, brutality and tenderness, bare animal facts. Often, there is a sense of disclosure – and you never forget that you are seeing through the camera’s dispassionate eye. Sometimes I feel like a voyeur. At one point in the early film Five Easy Pieces, McQueen urinates and spits at the lens. He knows we are there.
The city of cinemas is really a labyrinth. I’m led by excitement, expectation and trepidation. You don’t know who or what you’ll find in there: men cruising and kissing in Venice’s Giardini in the dark. South African miners far underground, digging for gold in deplorable conditions. People armed with nothing more than a spade, who have given up everything to pan for the mineral coltan in Congo, which feeds the mobile phone and laptop industry in the west. A dead horse, immobile in the waving grass. McQueen’s cousin Marcus, talking about how he accidentally shot and killed his own brother, the camera’s view fixed on the back of Marcus’s static head, as if he himself were laying on the slab.
Moving from colour to black and white, noise to silence, the present to the past and back again, McQueen’s exhibition is filled with disjunctions, echoes and difficulties. Difficulties can also be pleasures. The disjunctions in his work, the surprises and disorientations – references to structuralist film-making, queer cinema and black radical film; nods to Jean Luc Godard, Gillo Pontecorvo, Yasujiro Ozu and Jean Vigo among others; a fascination with the aftermath of empire and colonialism, sexuality and questions of race – have all given us a body of work as rich and complex as any artist’s or film-maker’s. The works that might be regarded as mainstream movies continue his work by other means.
Steve McQueen, Bear, 1993, video still
Bear: McQueen’s 1993 work features the artist wrestling another man. Photograph: Marian Goodman Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery Steve McQueen/Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris and Thomas Dane Gallery, London/PR
The intense physicality of his films is striking – whether he’s filming himself wrestling another black man in Bear or, in recent work End Credits (2012), filling a screen with the scrolled-through documentation of the FBI’s decades-long surveillance and harassment of the actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. All we see are dirty photocopies of old documents, with their hastily scribbled side-notes and blacked-out redactions, constantly scrolling down the screen a little too fast for us to keep up. The effect is like drowning. The FBI’s relentless judgmental narrative of Robeson’s every move, made worse by the calm voiceover that reads extracts in a measured voice, is a chilling record of the exercise of power, and Robeson’s equally concerted effort to fight against it. The dynamic is palpable, almost physically present.
This feel for the textures and materiality of the world runs right through McQueen’s work. I think of the floor-mopping scene in the H-Block prison corridor in Hunger, our intense proximity to a couple having sex against a plate-glass window in Shame, and the way his super-8 camera delves into a hole left by an unexploded bomb as it buried itself in a building in Basra in Unexploded. There is a sense of the larger story, the before and after of each moment, even in his most physical films. And however concrete his subject, there is always a feeling of ambiguity – that what he describes is open to multiple readings.
McQueen’s sense of atmosphere is even embedded in the texture of film itself. The graininess of the footage shot in the underground world in Western Deep heightens the sense of crepuscular light. The fug of skunk and Tricky’s asthmatic rasp as he records the song Girls in Girls (Tricky), a film shot in a claustrophobic recording studio and projected in an even more claustrophobic cube at Schaulager, all give the sense that you are as much inside McQueen’s films as watching them. He messes with our sense of autonomy and distance. He seduces and shoves us away, and compromises our position as spectators. Leaving a West End cinema in 2011 after watching Hunger, I had to wade through the buckets of uneaten popcorn that littered the cinema. You wouldn’t take someone to see Shame on a first date.
McQueen’s career now spans 20 years. There is a gathering feeling that everything he has to say is everywhere, all at once, throughout his work, and that his subject is the irreducible fact of being in the world, and our eventual leaving of it the only way out of its complexity. The complications themselves are the only story there is, and the telling of it is never done.