In 2009, the year the Statue of Liberty reopened to the public after 9/11, Steve McQueen filmed the iconic monument, circling it with a helicopter. The camera alternates between close-ups and more distant shots, repeating the circling over several takes, interrupting and restarting its inquisitive movement. The artist seems to have an urge to investigate this famous symbol of freedom by looking at it eye to eye: the lens, always horizontal, indulges in the details, leaving the spectator to momentarily lose the sense of scale, which is summoned back by the whirling sound of the helicopter blades. “What are you, Liberty, after all?” McQueen’s inquisitive gaze asks candidly.
In sharp contrast with the camera’s continuous movement, the title of the work, Static (2009), is projected onto a hanging screen, allowing visitors to move around it freely, just as the camera circles its subject. It is the first piece one encounters upon entering Steve McQueen’s darkness-soaked exhibition at Tate Modern. I found something grounding in the combination of dim galleries and this straightforward visual enquiry into one of the most emblematic monuments in the world. But as it turned out, this first feeling was akin to the fastening of a seatbelt before take-off. McQueen’s visual universe is anything but grounding, and travelling through it is a moving and disconcerting experience.
Throughout these darkened rooms, in a non-chronological display composed through emotional intensity and aesthetic feeling, nearly all of the works present images of the human body. These bodies, often seen in a close-up, are simultaneously sites of intimacy and of brutality, where the frailty of human skin comes into contact with the violence of the world. Images themselves are treated as if they had bodies, flesh of their own made of film grains or video pixels. In insisting on the haptic qualities of his visual world, McQueen suggests that it is not enough for an image to present itself to the eye, it should also have the power to touch it.
He does this literally in the film Charlotte (2004), which is presented small-scale against a wall using a 16 mm projector. The film, bathed in red light, shows a close up of the artist’s finger moving around actress Charlotte Rampling’s eye, caressing her eyelids and poking her eyelashes until he lightly touches her eyeball. It is a physically disturbing image, confirmed by the contorted expression of a fellow visitor. “The fact of the matter is I’m interested in a truth,” McQueen says in the exhibition text, “I cannot put a filter on life. It’s about not blinking.”
What is the unmediated truth that is revealed by physically touching our eyes? And isn’t blinking inevitable, as Rampling’s eye testifies? The film is beautifully paired with Cold Breath (1999), another 16 mm piece displayed in the same format on a wall close by. This black and white film shows the artist’s nipple being poked, squeezed, and caressed, playing with the subtle boundary between pleasure and discomfort.
One of the most compelling pieces in this remarkable collection is Western Deep (2002), which is filmed in the world’s deepest gold mine in South Africa. A journey into the darkest depths of the earth, the film is shot on 8 mm by Sean Bobbitt, also the cinematographer for McQueen’s four feature films. As the camera descends into the mine, darkness crumbles like a physical entity on the surface of the screen in grainy abstract images punctuated by glimpses of light. Loud sounds from these surroundings alternate with moments of silence and I flinch each time a sound brutally breaks the quiet, a physical reflex to the physicality of the piece. As the narrative develops and recognisable forms slowly emerge, we witness the extreme working conditions the miners are subjected to; it is their black bodies that carry the burden of the ultimate colonial experience of labour, racial injustice drenching their sweaty skin.
Violence is more abstractedly projected onto a body, this time that of the artist’s, in Illuminer (2001). Shot in a hotel room in Paris on a consumer-grade camera, it shows the artist lying on a bed in front of the television, watching a documentary about the training of American troops to fight in Afghanistan. We hear the sounds of the programme, dubbed in French, but only see the reflection of its images as blue light across the artist’s body. The small camera struggles to focus in the dark conditions and the images go in and out of focus, alternating between discernible forms and noisy pixelated abstractions.
Brutality is also written into the scar that transverses the head of a black man, which is displayed on a 35 mmslide and forms the backdrop of the piece 7th of November (2001). The more than twenty minutes of sound that accompanies this image is a detailed and disturbing first person account of how McQueen’s cousin, Marcus, accidentally shot his brother in the head. Throughout this recounting, I try several times to look away from the static image in front of me, only to realise that it is the spoken words which are upsetting me. The relation between images and words seems to be reversed for the film’s protagonist however, as he says about the unfolding of the tragedy, “I can’t picture it in my head, it’s just words.”
Marcus can tell his story, but he cannot bear the pain of summoning images of it. There is no escape from images, McQueen tells us throughout this intense and unnerving exhibition – a rare experience for its gravitas and honesty. Throughout his work, images undulate in and out of their medium, which often overtakes the representation. As spectators we find ourselves in front of images, inside them, and finally, behind them; we might not be able to escape images, yet images have the power to escape us. Within a contemporary culture overwhelmed by images, this contemplative body of work reminds us of the urgency to look harder. Of looking closely. Deeply. Slowly. It imposes the need to struggle with our gaze, to preserve the power of the image to signify.
The truth McQueen talks about resides, perhaps, in this effort to put things into focus, to resist the impulse to look away from the pain of the world. It is a bodily process rather than a mere display of fact. The artist has famously said that “the eye is an open wound.” In all its injustice and suffering, McQueen’s world is also an open wound. His images come into existence in the painful place where these two openings touch each other.