PRINT May 2007


Steve McQueen

FOR THE PAST thirty-five years, the Art Commissions Committee of London’s Imperial War Museum has invited artists to make work responding to the activities of British and Commonwealth troops, whether they be engaged in combat or in peacekeeping missions. This privately run successor to the country’s official war artists’ program (which was created in 1916, partly for propaganda purposes, and dismantled in 1972) has thrown up the occasional attention-grabbing artwork—notably, Langlands & Bell’s interactive digital animation, The House of Osama Bin Laden, 2003, a detailed re-creation of the terrorist’s last known address. Most of the results, however, have been in the relatively uncontroversial vein of Linda Kitson’s pallid conté sketches, from 1982, of soldiers training for engagement in the Falklands, and Peter Howson’s muscular but conventional 1994 paintings of exhausted Muslim refugees and Red Cross convoys in Bosnia. Certainly, none of it has caused anything like the kind of ruckus sparked in recent months by the latest invitee, Steve McQueen, the thirty-seven-year-old Turner Prize–winning artist who was asked to make work connected to the war in Iraq.

When McQueen’s invitation was first announced in the summer of 2003, the Art Commissions Committee stated that the artist had “an open brief.” Surely, they assumed he would make a film, since, with a few sculptural and photographic exceptions, McQueen has been known for laconic but gut-pummeling shorts since the early 1990s. And indeed, he was planning to make a film, until he went to Basra for six days—and found himself closely shepherded by Ministry of Defence officials. As he later told the Financial Times, “It was like a magical mystery tour. They led me by the hand. I couldn’t investigate anything.” McQueen returned home with nothing in his camera, having been witness only to a few school-rebuilding projects; his plan to revisit Iraq in 2005 was canceled in light of increased hostage-taking in the country. And so the artist, understandably, was beginning to think that he would never complete his commission, when a solution presented itself—a eureka moment of sorts, occasioned by his licking a stamp for his tax-return envelope. The idea: a run of Royal Mail stamps featuring photographs of all the British soldiers who had died in the Iraq war.

Herein lie the beginnings of controversy. When McQueen contacted the Ministry of Defence for the addresses of the families of the 115 soldiers who had died thus far in the conflict, the agency refused to help. “The second-in-command there is also on the board of the Imperial War Museum,” the artist recalls, “and he suggested I do a landscape instead.” The museum was similarly disinclined to support his cause, and the Royal Mail rejec­ted his proposal. Stonewalled by the establishment, McQueen went forward without official help, encouraged by Alex Poots, the director of the Manchester International Festival—who said that he would gladly display the project at this cross-media event devoted entirely to newly commissioned work. Poots helped McQueen hire a researcher to assist in locating and contacting the families of fallen soldiers—the vast majority of whom sent photographs (ninety-eight agreed to participate and only four refused outright; the others did not respond)—and the artist made his own samizdat run of stamps.

Collectively titled Queen and Country, 2007–, these stamps are currently on view in the circular Great Hall of Manchester’s Central Library, under the auspices of the Manchester International Festival, displayed in an archival cabinet of English oak. The library seems an appropriate symbol of access to information, of which McQueen provides much: Each of his cabinet’s 120 vertical, glassed drawers slides open to reveal a different twelve-by-fourteen grid of stamps bearing a dead soldier’s portrait—or a blank, black, waiting space. The whole, from one end of the cabinet to the other, comprises a chronological procession of untimely endings, from Colour Sergeant John Cecil, age thirty-five, on March 21, 2003, to Corporal Matthew Cornish, age twenty-nine, on August 1, 2006. Each stamp, in a move of questionable legality but forceful juxtaposition, bears the familiar silhouette of Elizabeth II in one upper corner, as seen on all Royal Mail stamps. Forwarded by the bereaved, the photographs used are their favorite images of the deceased. The dead smile, rise from swimming pools, appear smeared with camouflage paint, or stand at attention.

What they do not do, right now, is travel the country in visage. But that, McQueen believes, will change. On March 1, Paul Flynn, a member of Parliament, called for a debate in the House of Commons on whether the Royal Mail should produce the stamps—arguing in favor of it on the basis that the deceased soldiers’ families embraced this project and wanted its “reminder to us all of the true cost of war.” By late March, twenty-seven MPs had backed his proposal, making it difficult for the government to ignore without appearing pleased to send soldiers to war without honoring their sacrifice. “It’s obvious they’ve been put in a situation,” says McQueen. “Because how can you say no? Why would you say no?” British and international newspapers on both the left and the right have since taken up the cause, suggesting that Queen and Country is a genie that cannot easily be pushed back into its bottle.

“I didn’t want to create an artwork in a museum, sitting there, catching dust, which some people know about and other people don’t,” says McQueen now, clearly recognizing the unique urgency of his subject. “If you’re going to a local post office, putting the stamps on letters, sending them in the mail or receiving them—it’s kind of beautiful that you could be involved in the work, part of that circulation. The two things that are very important in this public context are currency and mobility, and you get both on a single stamp.” Even in its reduced form, however—as stamps displayed in a wooden cabinet standing silent in a hushed library—Queen and Country is potent. Andy Warhol, a clear influence on McQueen’s film work (though not, he says, a conscious one here), is a ghostly presence in the grids of faces, their mute images utterly incommensurate with the lives lost. But in its commanding effect, Queen and Country far outstrips such shopworn references.

And, to a rare degree, it has become that highly contemporary form of art: a social process. First, it engendered an emotional exhibition opening attended by the dead soldiers’ families, who were keen to tell McQueen of their losses. Then word of it spread to the press—an upshot that the artist, for all that he would rather the potentially distracting hullabaloo hadn’t happened, sees retrospectively as part of the work. The projected next stage, of course, is a Royal Mail print run and the delicate, one-to-one engagement of living individuals with the human price of warfare. “Regarding the parameters of this work, there are none,” says McQueen. “It goes as far as a letter will travel. As a work, it goes high, it goes low, it goes Left, it goes Right. Because once you’ve got a situation where people have actually died for you, even if you don’t feel they should have, then you feel you ought to honor them at least.”

The artist has pointedly claimed that this is “not an anti-war project,” but that might be the voice of McQueen the tactician, the forward thinker and gifted improviser who, brilliantly, has managed to sail a subversive work of art into the mainstream consciousness and put the establishment in check over it. What he has done, to some extent now and hopefully to a greater extent soon, is undercut the self-interested will to invisibility and administration of spectacle that has notoriously characterized this widely resented conflict, most obviously in the United States government’s censorship of imagery of the returning dead. (It is perhaps significant as well that McQueen’s project, while garnering much attention in Britain, has been largely ignored in America.) McQueen has stated that this project is not only about the ninety-eight dead soldiers interred, in imagistic form, in Queen and Country. Behind them—in the blunt embodied fact that war equals death—are the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children who have died in the violence that has overtaken their country since the war began, and the losses suffered by the international military as well.

Given this social dimension, at first glance the project might not seem to fit with the artist’s previous work. But there is a sense in which it does harmonize, at least with certain key McQueen films, particularly those of recent years. If the threat of violence and death flickers in early films—such as Bear, 1993, in which two nude figures seemingly square off for a fight, and Deadpan, 1997, with its Buster Keaton motif of a house’s frontage collapsing around the unscathed artist—it later explodes. In 7th November, 2001, McQueen juxtaposes a voice-over recounting a fatal shooting accident with a static image of the head of a black man, apparently dead, with a fine scar running across his skull. Carib’s Leap, 2002, was filmed in Grenada on the site where seventeenth-century Caribs committed suicide rather than live under French colonial rule; the deaths are evoked in a scene set in a Caribbean funeral parlor, showing the spruced-up dead in glossy coffins. If McQueen has now broached a political prohibition against fixating on the face of death, he has previously circled around comparable taboos widespread in the West, where death does not interpenetrate everyday life as it does in other cultures. And he concurs, in conversation, that part of the resistance to Queen and Country may not be political but cultural.

But right now that resistance is mostly political, and as such it’s arguable that McQueen’s work might become a test case for the potential of art to insinuate itself into the fabric of reality. If, against the artist’s fervid belief, the project is never manifested in the mail, is either shut down or spun out of existence, then that is perhaps a dangerous omen—a bleak measure of art’s agency and the actual boundaries of its “open brief.” But if it succeeds—or even if it inspires artists to employ some of McQueen’s forethought, nerve, and refusal to settle for being sequestered in a gallery—then Queen and Country will be a bright ray of hope.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.