PRINT November 1997


I LIKED STEVE MCQUEEN’S FIRST New York show, and then I found that he has an exhibition history rather fatter than either the thin number of years he has been working or the slender body of art he has made. Since graduating from Goldsmiths’ College, London, in 1993, McQueen has exhibited in public institutions in his hometown (twice), Amsterdam, Chicago, Eindhoven, Frankfurt, Johannesburg (the city’s biennial), Paris (also twice), and—last but not least—Kassel (Documenta). On the 28th of this month his work goes on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where, truth in advertising, this writer works in a noncuratorial position). There is a reaction in such cases of wanting to prove the young emperor’s clotheslessness, but this is as unfair as, arguably, is the pressure of being taken extremely seriously on the basis of a small oeuvre. Similarly, while one wonders what in the market, the media, and the public exhibition system would explain which straight-out-of-art-school types will get to take shortcuts to international visibility, the topic here is the artist’s work.

In this respect McQueen stands somewhat apart from his London context, at least as it appears from New York. The English art world is famously glamorous of late, and the present generation is distinct enough to have won an argot nickname: the initials YBA, for “Young British Artist.” “Very YBA,” say my London friends, meaning partly a style and milieu of social life but also an ethos of work, which, speaking generally, might have a splashy, in-your-face visual presence; or might so embrace popular culture as to be virtually another form of it; or might assert the autobiographical details of its own making. McQueen’s films are austere by contrast. Silent and black and white, they describe no clear story or life situation, as Georgina Starr’s works may; their erotic politics are usually more insinuating than confrontational, unlike those of Sarah Lucas; although McQueen may appear in his films, they are not obviously “about” him, as Starr and Tracey Emin produce art apparently “about” themselves; nor does he rephrase or parody such media as advertising, in the manner, at times, of Damien Hirst. McQueen does, I think, care about popular culture, in the form of movies, but he processes that interest so that its traces become difficult to detect.

According to critic Jon Thompson, for example, Bear, 1993, addresses a “bald cinematic cliché,” the “well-worn fight sequence of the popular cinema.” Narrative and visual contexts, however, are absent: this nude wrestling match has neither origin nor outcome, and happens in seeming darkness. What remains is the play of the men’s feelings—there is smiling and laughter, but also challenge, caution, tension, alarm, and a certain erotic buzz as the sparring goes through its phases. Equally important is the camera’s tight dance with the men’s bodies, so that we see light on sweat and the texture of skin observed at such proximity that it looks like the surface of the moon. McQueen told me that he tends to be sparked by technical problems, and Bear is in part a demonstration of how to involve both camera and viewer in the action. But it also, he added, has emotional motives, exploring, if at a certain distance, both a friend’s suicide and the artist’s relationship with his father. The film’s protagonists, one of them McQueen, are both black, but issues of race, he has said, are not a priority in his work.

If Bear reflects on and concentrates movie history, recent art is equally present in these films. McQueen admires Bruce Nauman, whom his use of the gallery may recall: he tailors the darkened space so the image fits and fills the wall, shedding the containment of the cinema screen to achieve an involving physicality. Heightening the effect are sometimes vertiginous camera setups. Five Easy Pieces, 1995, accents this strategy: it literally follows a woman across a tightrope. Occasionally interspersed are shots of a group of male hula-hoopers; where they are seen from above, in sunlight, the lone tightrope walker is seen from below, in darkness, as if female and male, although erotically charged, were kept apart—respectively aerial and earthbound, solitary and social, in separate time zones. And both are filmed from angles that abstract their bodies. McQueen’s work generally suggests a certain removal—a shift from the worldly attunement of other YBAs toward an absorption in visual dynamics and in technique.

Yet content is there, if suppressed. The genesis of Five Easy Pieces, McQueen says, was the idea that a tightrope walker is “the perfect image of a combination of vulnerability and strength.” Just Above My Head, 1996, finds the same fusion in a man just walking. The man—McQueen again—is shot (in a single ten-minute take) so as to crop out his body, but his head appears small at the image’s bottom, rising and falling with his step as if bouncing against the gallery floor, and sometimes almost dropping beneath it. Dwarfed by the wide white sky, McQueen seems tenuously placed, yet he advances with purposeful confidence. Despite the artist’s denials, it is tempting to see this simultaneous fragility and persistence as a metaphor for black life in England, and elsewhere too.

I suspect, though, another dimension also. All these images—of wrestling, tightrope walking, hula-hooping, almost but not quite falling from sight—seem to be about keeping one’s feet, with elegance and struggle; about maintaining a tricky and mysterious balance. Exodus, 1992–97—atypically, a sixty-five-second color video—offers clues through its title: it records a found event, two black men carrying potted palms, the greenery waving precariously above their heads, whom McQueen followed down a London street. Then they get on a bus and leave. It is a modern image of the Christian state of grace.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum