PRINT January 2020


Steve McQueen, Ashes (detail), 2002–15, still from the HD video component (8 mm and 16 mm transferred to two-channel HD video, color, sound, 20 minutes 31 seconds) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising a two-sided screen and posters.

STEVE McQUEEN’s work makes one aware of movement—migratory, political, forced—that has been compelled and then interdicted. Many viewers will likely be familiar with his feature films, Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Widows (2018), but perhaps less so with his immersive, often Minimalist sculptural and video installations. Tate Modern’s survey this spring will bring together twelve of these gestural, spontaneous, and menacing pieces from 1992 to the present.

Much of this work evokes wanted and unwanted closeness, tenderness, and longing. In Charlotte, 2004, we encounter the discomfort of McQueen’s finger approaching actress Charlotte Rampling’s open eye; in Girls, Tricky, 2001, we get an ecstatic close-up of rapper and producer Tricky in the recording studio. In the installation Weight, 2016, we find a prison bed canopied with a diaphanous mosquito net. The net is cast in gold, bringing together all that heavy value and devaluation, the homophony of weight and wait, the scales of injustice. Like many of those in the show, these are works of juxtaposition. And that makes sense. McQueen is more interested in parallels than in opposites.

The video installations attending specifically to Black life are also works of intimacy and disorientation. There’s Ashes, 2002–15, an elegiac diptych of the life and death of a West Indian fisherman; Western Deep, 2002, a claustrophobic document of compelled labor and terrible circumstances in the mines of South Africa; and End Credits, an ongoing durational work begun in 2012, so far comprising more than fifty-five devastating hours of two voices reading from the redacted FBI files of Paul Robeson.

This exhibition is coextensive with another ambitious McQueen project on view at Tate Britain—Year 3, a collection of more than three thousand school photographs shot by the museum’s trained team, amounting to a near-comprehensive citywide portrait of seven- and eight year-old children in London.