New York

Steve McQueen

It was the ultimate curatorial head-scratcher: Assemble a portfolio of images to represent to aliens what life is like on Earth. Addressing an unknowable audience, a team of NASA researchers, chaired by astronomer, educator, and author Carl Sagan, set themselves this unusual brief back in 1977. More recently, their choices—which are still hurtling through space aboard the Voyager II probe—formed the basis of British artist Steve McQueen’s Once upon a Time, 2002. Seventy minutes long, this slow-motion computer-simulated slide dissolve of all 116 well-traveled pictures reveals a fascinating time capsule, an extraordinary (and extraordinarily skewed) portrait-by-committee of the planet we call home.

Beginning with a line drawing of a perfect circle and ending with a photograph of a violin and score, this unique visual primer also illustrates flora and fauna, the rural and the urban, continental drift and the United Nations. Notably absent, however, are any images with explicitly negative connotations: To judge from Sagan et al., different races interact harmoniously, mass production is free from harmful side effects, and poverty and disease are nonexistent. The capacity of scientists to underestimate or overlook the persistence of everyday human problems in their optimistic excitement about the possibilities of new technology and the potential for future discovery, resulting in quasi-propagandistic bias, was never more clearly demonstrated. The sound track to Once upon a Time comes not from the archive of audio recordings sent along with the images on Voyager but instead consists of examples of glossolalia—speaking in tongues. It’s an inspired juxtaposition: In its indecipherable recasting of everyday speech, the otherworldly gibberish parallels the images’ anticipated transition from broad familiarity to absolute strangeness.

The three other works in McQueen’s recent show (his first at Marian Goodman since 2000) are less epic in scope but no less involving. In Girls, Tricky, 2001, a roughly fifteen-minute color-video projection, the Bristolian trip-hop innovator is seen working on a vocal track in a darkened recording studio. Utterly focused (the occasional toke aside), he launches into a pared-down, looping snarl of a rap that builds in intensity until his shoulders shake with the effort. It’s an intimate and mesmerizing study of a very particular kind of performance, a work in progress intended to be heard but never seen.

Charlotte, 2004, also focuses on a public performer engaged in semiprivate activity. In a red-tinted, silent, 16 mm film loop, we observe another of McQueen’s muses, the seasoned actress Charlotte Rampling. The artist pinches the skin of Rampling’s eyelid and, in a test of age, waits for it to resume its previous shape. The image is a close-up and its subject is thus rendered almost anonymous, but the doleful activity of assessing bodily deterioration will be familiar to anyone past their twenties. And it is appropriate that Charlotte also contains a host of cinematic references, beginning with the notorious eyeball-slicing scene in Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929).

In a more explicit allusion to corporeal violence, 7th November, 2001, features the projected image of a man’s scarred cranium accompanied by a spoken account in which a narrator—who identifies himself only as “Marcus” but is, in fact, McQueen’s cousin—remembers accidentally shooting and killing his own brother. The unembellished force of the delivery makes the story absolutely compelling, and while Marcus’s assessment of his act’s aftermath ultimately provides little original insight into the psychological trauma induced by tragic death, his sheer gusto ultimately transcends the work’s ostensible subject matter, transforming it into a comment on the power of word and image in and of themselves. In 7th November, as in all the works here, McQueen combines an awareness of his medium’s inherent magnetism with an acute sensitivity to the expansive significatory range of the human voice, its capacity for encoding sense in nonsense, the universal in the specific, and all time in a single, frozen moment.

Michael Wilson