Critics’ Picks

View of “Steve McQueen: Drumroll,” 2014.

View of “Steve McQueen: Drumroll,” 2014.

Los Angeles

Steve McQueen

MOCA Pacific Design Center
8687 Melrose Avenue
June 28–September 21, 2014

Forty years ago, Robert and Mimi Melnick published a peculiar photographic study, Manhole Covers of Los Angeles. Drawn to the decorative patterns of industrially forged steel, the Melnicks’ mixed aesthetic appreciation of folk industrial traditions with archaeological rigor. Twenty-four years later, Steve McQueen embarked on an analogous study of the gutter barriers of Paris, culminating in the photographic series “Barrage,” 1998, which is on view as part of his latest exhibition. Here, McQueen focused on the improvised cloth bundles deployed by street sweepers to redirect the city's effluent. Fashioned from discarded towels, carpets, and other cast-off materials, the barriers bespoke a history of degraded cotton, cigarettes, and rubble. When illuminated by McQueen’s flash, the photos elicit a criminological tint, as if the barriers themselves were wrapped corpses subjected to the most horrific violence.

The second half of the exhibition shows McQueen’s hypnotizing triptych Drumroll, 1998. With two cameras positioned at the sides of an oil drum and another in the middle, Drumroll records an endlessly rotating panorama in mid Manhattan. Conceptually similar to Gabriel Orozco's Yielding Stone, 1992, where the artist rolled a malleable ball of Plasticine through the streets of New York. Just as Orozco’s ball accumulated the dust and grime of the street, McQueen’s oil drum yields to the street’s sights and sounds: horns, steam, and other street-level noise. As the oil drum both impedes and propels movement, McQueen is heard apologizing throughout, “Watch out, miss, watch out . . . excuse me, excuse me.” Notably, with every rotation of the central camera, the projected image consumes the very ground upon which it is placed, whereas the two adjacent projections, facing out to street-level traffic, articulate a panorama with no fixed horizon line. The cumulative effect is vertiginous, both groundless and unstable. It is these two views of the street—a revolving panorama in Drumroll, and debased cloth bundles in “Barrage”— where the labors of the street are cast awry.