LONDON — Let’s say, for the sake of deploying a dangerously crude argument — and it is crude and even more than a tad over-simplistic — that there are two categories of filmmaker.
In the left-hand corner of the ring huddle those artists who belong to the artfilm crowd, perhaps young and cash-strapped, blinking into the light, not accustomed to overmuch interrogation of their motives. They do what they have to do because film is an experimental medium.
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These directors make the kinds of films that are often either blessedly short or horrifyingly over-extended. A single shot down a receding railway tunnel can threaten to last a lifetime of ceaseless yawning. Generally speaking, their practice often feels inward-turned and even solipsistic, as much concerned with me-ness and process as outcome. But the point is that they are artists, making ART.
Then we have the mainstream boys and girls with their big budgets and studio backing, wedded to the idea of mass entertainment and the telling of stories…These films are the silken products that we lay down good money for when we buy buckets of popcorn at the cinema. What is more, some of the actors and actresses who star in them live the kinds of lives that our parents and grandparents once dreamed of living.
Where does Steve McQueen, a Londoner born in 1969 with family roots in Grenada and Trinidad, fit in to all of this? McQueen is somewhere straight down the middle. In 1999 he won the Turner Prize — solid proof that he is an artist. In 2009, he represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, transforming the villa that has always been the British Pavilion into a micro-cinema, complete with steep rows of very uncomfortable, ass-taunting seats. The film he showed then was all about those unauthorized gangs of scavenging, mangy dogs that haunt the Giardini in the off-season, when the fashionable art crowd is safely back home. It felt chilly, rebarbative, strange. It also ended, quite surprisingly, with a homoerotic kiss. That’s art for you.
By then something quite astonishing was already happening. McQueen was growing out of at least part of his former self, and becoming a director of full-length, big-screen-hungry feature films. A trio of them appeared within the space of half a decade. The first, Hunger (2008), told the story of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands; the second, Shame (2010), was a mean tale of an urban serial rapist; and the third, 12 Years a Slave (2013), interrogated the subject of slavery, unflinchingly. These films deserve to live and to live.
And now this serious-minded artist-cum-filmmaker is enjoying a full retrospective at Tate Modern. Fourteen separate installations take us through a diet of film (many), photography (not much), and sculpture (one). It feels austere in the extreme. On the morning of the press preview, there were no texts or biographical information about the artist on the walls, and no attempts to describe the thematic trajectory or development of the work. There was no particular chronological ordering either. What you could pick up was a leaflet (white text printed on black paper) telling you much of what you needed to know — but only if you could read it in the half-light.
Instead, what we were ushered into was a cavernous, low-lit gallery space occupied by screens large, medium, and small, some suspended around the room’s center, others on the walls, and yet others in tiny, dedicated cinema spaces of their own. The central gallery was the most difficult to deal with because soundtrack competed with soundtrack — ranging from the clatter of helicopters to the chatter of human voices — in the same space. Some of the films use vintage projectors, which added to the general ruckus. No photography or filming of any kind was allowed. Every furtive appearance of an iPhone was quickly shouted down.
The show is part excellence and part slight be-puzzlement. Some of the early work feels like a movement toward his achievements as a feature-film maker, tiny moments of obsessive personal concern that long to be embedded or explored more fully in longer forms — a motionless woman on a shoreline; the stroking of a nipple; the interrogation of a single human eye.
The least effective of these is End Credits (2012-ongoing), a film buzzing like a frantic fly about the subject of the singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976), who was blacklisted and then put under surveillance by the FBI.
Much of End Credits largely consists of an endless scrolling-down through microfiched, typewritten documents, often heavily redacted, from the security services. The accompanying voice-over describes their typical content, in the unwaveringly dull tones of officialdom.
Who in their right mind could ever have regarded this as an effective piece of cinema? But that is not the point. Of course it isn’t, dummy! What concerns and obsesses McQueen is the injustice meted out to Robeson. It burns and burns within him. This looks and feels like a film in the gestation. What we see here is not that film.
Not so Western Deep (2002), though, which takes on the subject of gold-mining in South Africa. Screened in the largest of the purpose-built cinema spaces, which comes complete with raked seating, it’s quite remarkable in its power to move, disturb, engulf, enthrall.
We think back to Sebastião Salgado’s photojournalism, and recognize how, compared with this film by McQueen, his photography of human degradation is slightly tainted by the potential of glamour in the depiction of wounded human beings captured in wounded landscapes.
McQueen’s film is, by contrast, stark, pitiless, relentless. It makes rapid and abrupt shifts from scene to scene, from noise to noiselessness, from jittery, dust-choked, unstable near-dark to the blare of full illumination.
The miners go down to the gold-face in cages — we experience their long descent through the coming and going of light-flicker bouncing off the cages’ metal meshing. There are remarkable portraits of individual faces seen as close as you can get. So many individual moments of this film could be isolated and re-presented as a photography exhibition.
This is McQueen at his very best: a fiercely interrogatory journey down and down into hell’s mouth itself in pursuit of stark evidence of human pain, human labor, human stoicism.
Steve McQueen continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through May 11.