In Plain Sight

The unwavering gaze of Steve McQueen’s Grenfell

Steve McQueen, Grenfell, 2019, video, color, sound, 24 minutes 2 seconds. Photo: © Richard Ivey.

GRENFELL WAS FILMED in December 2017, about six months after the catastrophic fire of June 14, when seventy-two people were killed as the tower, a social housing block in North Kensington, London, was engulfed in flames. Steve McQueen’s film begins in darkness. The screen is black for an unusually long time, then suddenly filled with an aerial view from a helicopter. It’s a beautiful winter’s afternoon, the sun low in the western sky. The helicopter is flying over green fields and woodland. A city is on the horizon. The flight is smooth; the camera is fixed to the underside of the helicopter, and there is no judder. There is birdsong and then traffic, the sounds of the countryside and the city. When Wembley Stadium appears, Londoners watching the film begin to grasp the coordinates. We are travelling south over northwest London, but not to Westminster or the City. The helicopter turns slightly to the west and in the very center of the screen, a small black pillar appears near the gray council blocks of the Silchester Estate. It remains center-screen, growing in the frame as the helicopter flies toward it, and it begins to feel like the tower is drawing us in, like a powerful magnet. Just before it is a busy motorway. We are at Grenfell now; the sound cuts.

Curving to the right, the helicopter begins to spiral the tower anticlockwise. It has traveled toward where the low winter sun is shining, and as it circles the tower, we see this light hitting the building’s southwest side. The light returns on each rotation, so we never quite lose our bearings. During the first rotation, the building occupies about a third of the frame. The helicopter draws closer as it circles again, and now we cannot see anything else but the surface and interior of the tower: charred cladding; plastic sheeting holding the exterior together; empty gutted apartments; scaffold structures erected inside to forestall collapse; rooms filled with huge red rubbish sacks. At one point, the helicopter slows down, and each detail in the frame seems to linger.

McQueen’s cameraman sits beside him in the helicopter, McQueen giving instructions. On the third rotation, the camera tips down, providing us a sense of the height above the ground, but preventing us from seeing inside the building. It’s slightly vertiginous in effect, but then the camera tips up and points straight ahead. We are now looking from really close. There’s no detail of the exterior that we cannot discern. We are seeing right through to the inside but there’s nothing personal there—no furniture, no wallpaper. The helicopter continues to spiral but it’s backing away, spiraling outwards now, and Grenfell is at the far right of the screen. We get a sense of the context once again—the low-rise council estates and the other tower blocks toward Ladbroke Grove. We think we have left Grenfell. Perhaps the flight path will straighten again and move out beyond London. But no, the circling tightens again and the distance from the tower reduces. We’re almost as close as before. More char, more ruin. Nowhere else to look. The flight continues as the helicopter circles Grenfell no fewer than twelve times, pulling away and then back, as if it cannot leave. The helicopter stops, hovering, and the camera is still too, its view fixed. Sound returns, the low growl of the afternoon city, and we might expect a final withdrawal, but not here. The film cuts to black.

Anyone making an artwork at a site of mass death is aware of the charge of aestheticizing pain. Here there is no sentiment, no kitsch, no consolation, no redemption. The winter sun is shining bright but it’s just light, and the camera doesn’t turn toward it at the end to suggest any symbol of life and nature continuing, a trope that we often find in films about human-made disasters. McQueen avoids almost all metaphor, although when speaking about the film, he does refer to the tower as a “burned-out skull.” This sense of the building as a body, not just as a graveyard for bodies, continues until the end. In terms of the language of filmmaking, it is startling how much McQueen has jettisoned: zooms, pans, cuts, flares, voiceovers, subtitles, end credits. Once he determined to make his film as a single long take, McQueen, in his typically restrained and minimal way, restricted himself to a handful of formal elements. He made choices about sound and silence, the direction of movement and the camera angle, tilting or pointing ahead, the helicopter’s speed, the overall duration, where to cut. Grenfell is highly formal and there is no apology for so carefully using these forms to craft a work of art. McQueen’s intuition as an artist is that his formal decisions unleash affects and provoke questions that are appropriate to the task of responding to the demands made by Grenfell.

When you watch Grenfell, you don’t really isolate each of McQueen’s formal procedures because he doesn’t draw attention to them, in the way, for instance, that Sam Mendes did with the simulated single take of 1917 (2019): McQueen’s film just elapses. Nonetheless, we can think about the effects of McQueen’s choices. Using added sound at the beginning establishes a sense of the rural and then urban everyday which is then terminated by the cut to silence and the extraordinary sight of the tower. If the chirping birds are palpably fictional, their subtraction throws attention on the evident reality of the scene before us. The loss of sound also heightens an awareness of other senses. We cannot touch the tower, but we imagine we can because the screen is filled with its textures. I don’t think this sense of imagined touch would work as it does if it had looked like McQueen were zooming into the building from afar. McQueen knows from earlier works like Charlotte (2004) that to achieve a sense of proximity, you need to shoot from physically close by.

Steve McQueen, Charlotte, 2004, 16 mm, color, silent, 5 minutes 42 second loop. © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery.

McQueen had to plan out the general flight path but was able to improvise, controlling the spiral around the building, pointing the camera down or straight ahead, and hovering the helicopter to hold the camera still. “Circling around” typically implies evasion, but not here. Spiraling inward or and outward, McQueen raises ethical questions: Is it appropriate to come so close, to look from such a short distance? Is this viewpoint disrespectful? Do we risk becoming voyeurs as we look into the skull of the building? When the camera looks down, and when the helicopter later pulls back, we think that perhaps there is a recognition of these risks, a restraint. But after both moments, McQueen draws the camera close again and points straight ahead. The second time, with the unexpected return to the building, he produces what he calls a “double hurt.” The moment of stillness a while later is particularly painful. The film keeps making us ask: Is this too much? Only to respond with the insistent demand that we confront this site and do not look away.

McQueen knew from the start that Grenfell had to be shown in a gallery. He also knew that the projection had to be big enough that the building was larger than the viewers’ bodies. His choices about the film’s display mean that we watch it as a group, and there is a communal sense of encounter. We are together for twenty-four minutes. It’s long enough to feel like we have taken a chunk of time to spend with the work, but there’s never a sense of endurance or long duration, as has been a trope in art film since its inception (think of Andy Warhol’s Empire, which is also a study, a very different kind, of a tall building). But twenty-four minutes is long enough to be aware of taking time to think about Grenfell, and to be aware of what it means to do this with other people.

Grenfell is not a film that overtly poses or gives any answers to the questions that have raged in the United Kingdom since 2017. This is not an investigative documentary about how a building came to be resurfaced with combustible cladding. There is nothing about the fire service and their instruction to residents to stay in their flats rather than evacuate immediately. We are not provided with information about the working class and migrant families that made up most of the tower’s residents, people whose often-voiced concerns about the building were easier to ignore because of their status in British society. Nothing about the treatment of families afterwards. We do not see anyone immediately connected to the disaster—just some forensic and construction workers inside who we assume are collecting evidence and securing the building from collapse. However, it would be wrong to say that McQueen refuses to weigh in on debates about causes and culpability. In the silence of the film, we are given the opportunity to look closely at the cladding, again and again, noticing new details with each rotation. We do not need to be architectural experts to work out, from the film, that the cladding carried the flames upwards; it’s plain to see. Grenfell is silent, but there is accusation here too.

As well as using sound and silence, McQueen works with verticality and horizontality to powerful effect. He has done this before: In 12 Years a Slave (2013), when Solomon Northup, his head in a noose, desperately tries to stand upright to avoid asphyxiation, while a horizontal passage of people continues beyond. McQueen doesn’t condemn those getting on with daily life: They are coping with the brutality of the plantation. In Grenfell, as we reach the tower, traffic crosses at right angles to the helicopter’s trajectory and to the vertical rise of the burnt building. People are driving by; life isn’t stopping. On the seventh rotation, we see a tube pulling into the platform of Latimer Road; it will continue onward. Drivers on the Westway and passengers on the Metropolitan line are not accused. It’s just that we, watching the film, are refused the option of passing by.

Some months after McQueen filmed Grenfell, the tower was covered in tarpaulins and a sign with a large green heart that read “GRENFELL: FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS.” One reason was to protect the residents nearby, who could not bear to see the burned-out shell every day. A BBC film reported that local primary-school teachers had to pull down the blinds in their classrooms because children in the class who had lost friends in the fire could not carry on with their lessons while the building was in view. But others say that the covers went up too quickly, and that they hid a building that shames London in so many ways. As for the future, the building will be demolished; a memorial of sorts will appear, and compromises will likely be made. It would be unsurprising if redemptive designs triumph and difficult questions are put to one side. McQueen did not want to avoid shame. He makes us confront it, in the way we confront the face of each soldier killed in Iraq in the work Queen and Country. He did not want to make compromises: The building is the best monument to what happened, and his film presents it destroyed but insistently and materially present. He’s said that at the end, the angle onto the building makes it look like a face. The building is looking back at you. It asks to be seen, and when we choose to watch Grenfell, we give it our reply.

Mark Godfrey is an independent curator based in London and codirector of New Curators, a new curatorial training program.

Grenfell will be on view at London’s Serpentine Galleries from April 7 to May 10.