Steve McQueen represents Great Britain at Venice Biennial

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Multi-media artist Steve McQueen is representing Great Britain with a solo exhibition at the 53rd Venice Biennale, “the Olympics of modern art,” which opened last week and runs until November 22. McQueen, born in London in 1969 to West Indian immigrant parents, studied at Chelsea College of Art, Goldsmiths and the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. His first film, Bear (1993), now part of the collection at the Tate, is a 16mm film showing two naked men, one of them McQueen, “silently eyeballing each other for several minutes before they wrestle. It is unclear whether they are engaged in some complex courtship ritual or preparing for a bloody tussle to the death.” In 1999, he won the Turner prize with Deadpan, a short black-and-white film that paid homage to Buster Keaton’s slapstick movie Steamboat Bill (1928). In 2003 he went to Iraq as an official war artist. His ongoing work, Queen and Country, intended as “a modern-day version of the poppy,” commemorates the British service personnel killed in Iraq by replacing their faces for the head of the Queen on postage stamps. McQueen considers the work unfinished until the stamps are officially issued by Royal Mail. McQueen’s 2008 film, Hunger, about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, which he wrote and directed, ended up on several 2008 top ten lists and earned him the first-director prize at Cannes. In Once Upon a Time (202), McQueen uses a set of images that NASA sent into space on the Voyager 1 in 1977, chosen by popular astronomer Carl Sagan, and sequences them using a slide projector to the sound of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues.

Now he has joined the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, who have exhibited in the British pavilion, a former tea house in the Giardini, the public parkland created by Napoleon. In an interview with the Telegraph McQueen downplays the pressure. “As far as the audience is concerned, it’s exciting,” he says. “But, for me, it’s another gig. Yes, it happens to be Wembley, but I’ve got to focus on my game, otherwise I’ll get overawed.”

McQueen’s film for Venice is Giardini — named after the gardens in which 30 of the pavilions are located, “depicts in exquisite detail life on the site when the Biennale is not in residence.” McQueen said that the idea for a film about the unnoticed private side of a public place had been “in my back pocket” for five years but he had not known where to locate it until he first came to Venice.“It’s the only place on earth I know of where nationalism and art physically coexist,” he said. “And it’s a garden, of all places.” The film was shot over ten days in February and March. “The world that he captured of feral dogs, piles of rubbish and mysterious encounters with people who do not look anything like gallery owners was a ‘parallel existence’ rather than a contradiction of the world of the Biennale,” he said. “I embrace it fully. It’s not a case of challenging it — it’s more of a reflection.”

The Times writes this about the film:

With the Giardini as a subject he is on fertile historic ground. This leafy park, first laid out by the decree of a conquering Napoleon, has the feel of an upmarket housing estate. A host of nations — but first and most prominently the leading colonial powers — have been invited to build their own quirkily distinctive and often boastfully grandiose pavilions. It is as if the age of empire has arrived on Wisteria Lane. And colonialism is an area that McQueen, a deeply politicised artist of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, has repeatedly addressed.

. . . Giardini is a rigorously understated piece that shows us the gardens in winter. This strange hangover of a lost era of empire, currently heaving with excitable visitors, is abandoned to rubbish and builders’ detritus, to a pair of gay lovers and a pottering bag lady. The viewer gazes, sometimes in tight close-up, sometimes down long dripping vistas, at a desolate world of bare branches and burrowing beetles, boarded-up doorways and a pair of prowlers. A soundtrack of hammering raindrops and church bells, of birds singing and crowds chanting, builds up and then dies away periodically into a silence so thick that you almost suffocate. Black dogs scavenge, like a ghostly depression, around the scene.

That is pretty much it as far as anything actually happening goes. But the atmosphere is loaded. As dark and light, night and day, art and nature, sacred and mundane meet, the viewer feels the tension mount.

Violence threatens like the roar of an approaching waterfall but the spectator is never swept as far as its edge. As images are juxtaposed, or overlaid one upon the other in memory, meanings and possibilities gather like the droplet of water that gathers at the end of a twig. We watch it swelling and wait for it to drop. Will it?

For more on McQueen go to http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article6425922.ece and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/venice-biennale/5394613/Venice-Biennale-Steve-McQueen-interview.html

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