Steve McQueen


Those with a less-than-iron constitution may have come away from Steve McQueen’s recent exhibition feeling a bit queasy. The show had visitors spinning on a mirrored playground carousel, watching in silence as a house fell down, or sitting—it was better to sit—while Manhattan revolved around them in giddy triplicate.

The merry-go-round, White Elephant, 1998, is a sort of oversize praxinoscope, the early cinematic device whose rotating mirrors created the illusion of movement in a series of images. Sitting in a neon-lit, Barbie-doll-pink space, McQueen’s mirrored carousel splinters your body into multiple images unless you jump on and move with the thing yourself. The collapsing house appears in the short black-and-white film Deadpan, 1997 (first shown as part of MoMA’s “Projects” series), a reenactment of the Buster Keaton sight gag in which the front of a house falls down, leaving him standing unscathed in a window opening. In contrast, McQueen orchestrates the scenario so that we see it repeatedly from different angles, building the space and rhythm until a final drop apparently crushes the camera. Cut to black.

Drumroll, 1988, a three-part video projection, involved McQueen pushing an oil drum into which three cameras had been fitted through the streets of New York. (Two of the cameras faced out either end of the drum; the middle camera looked through a hole cut into the barrel’s side.) The central screen repeatedly shows sky, pavement, and the pink of McQueen’s shirt, while to either side there is the revolving street and passing storefronts, in the glass of which we can see the reflections of both barrel and artist. Until recently McQueen’s films have been silent. Built as they are out of the logic of the framing, shooting, and editing processes, a separately conceived sound track might have muddied their clarity, made chaotic what is already complex. With Drumroll, however, we have simply the sound of its own making—the rumble of the heavy container along the pavement and, above that, traffic noise and the startled exclamations of passersby, often preceded by McQueen’s own polite and very English “Excuse me, please.”

What is both seen and heard in Drumroll is the accidental understood as integral. This quality is evident, too, in both Exodus, 1992/1997, and Barrage, 1998. The former is a very short film sequence showing two middle-aged Afro-Caribbean men carrying tall palm plants from East London’s Columbia Road flower market up to Shoreditch High Street, where, with some difficulty, they get on a bus and turn to wave from the upstairs back window as it drives off. Barrage is a series of fifty photographs of the cloth rolls used by Parisian street cleaners to block and divert the flow of water in the city’s gutters. Lying sodden by the curbstones, they are pictured as they are found: soft and weighty, inert but useful, carefully made from otherwise unwanted materials.

One of the six pieces on view had not been titled, which caused it to float somewhere between being a distinct work and helping to shape the context within which the show as a whole was encountered. This anonymous intervention is a brick wall, reaching well over head height and running the length of the museum’s ground-floor corridor so that a series of shallow bays usually used to display small-scale works was cut off from sight. Access to the space behind was further denied by the shards of broken glass set into concrete along the top of the wall. While blocking the expected view and constricting the spectator’s space, what McQueen’s wall challenges most particularly is an easy reduction of his work to the status of social commentary. It is as if he were daring us to think that images of cloth rolls are just about homelessness or to conclude that the most significant thing about Drumroll is that oil drums are used by West Indian steel bands, when in fact the material strengths, structural subtleties, and formal coherence of his work exceed such trite categorizations.

Michael Archer