Steve McQueen: A Star Director at Tate Modern

Mise en page 1

Thibaut Wychowanok (Numéro) reviews the Tate Modern’s major exhibition of Steve McQueen’s artwork in the UK since he won the Turner Prize in 1999. The show opened on February 13, 2020. The show features 14 major works spanning film, photography and sculpture by this British artist with Caribbean roots (Grenada and Trinidad). [See previous post Two Steve McQueen exhibitions in London.] Wychowanok writes:

In his films, Oscar-winning artist Steve McQueen examines all bodies—from Charlotte Rampling to miners in South Africa—with the same surgical precision and the same wish. [. . .]

Static is a video from 2009. It opens the vast exhibition that the Tate Modern devoted to the London artist before its premature closure due to coronavirus. The event had already been described as exceptional even before its opening in early February. Steve McQueen is the only artist and director who can be proud of having an Oscar (best film for 12 Years a Slave in 2014), a Turner Prize (the prestigious artistic award was awarded to him in 1999) and a Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (for Hunger, his first film, in 2008). The presentation of 14 of his artist videos at Tate Modern was to be the most significant celebration of his work by his home country in twenty years. The fact is that Steve McQueen is a “total” artist. This does not imply that he is in line with German romanticism and its heirs, combining all techniques and disciplines to wrap the viewer in the utopian project of a fusion of art and life. Steve McQueen is, most certainly, a total artist of his time: a creator crystallizing the issues of the moment and modes (of action). As a good postmodern being, Steve McQueen draws his inspiration from the past and the present, joyfully intertwining yesterday’s autonomous and irreconcilable domains with today’s. Steve McQueen is what fashion people also call a “slasher”: a mannerist painter of motion pictures / general public filmmaker / a curator / a manager of audiences / a bankable artist.

[. . .] A little over a year ago, African-American artist Mickalene Thomas explained to me her frustration, as a child, at not being able to identify with the models of the paintings exhibited in museums: white women and men. An effect of the reality of an indisputable racial, cultural and economic domination, this absence of artists and non-white models (if not in a deeply colonialist exotic and erotic context) is gradually being resolved. Steve McQueen participates in his own way, transforming himself, like many others, into someone in charge of audiences and the democratization of art. But this historical progress seems to come at the cost of a constriction [or narrowing down]. The social and political issue of the representativeness of communities takes precedence over the question of representation, of the artists’ capacity to create a personal language addressing the universal (more powerful than the language, vocabulary, or culture that trained him). The individual is reduced to an identity that he has not chosen (by age, skin color, social class), and unable to grasp a representation that does not refer to it. Art is then integrated into the social and the political realms. He has lost his autonomy and his freedom. It may be the right price to pay.

Still postmodern, with 12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen took note of the fragmentation of society, of its “communitarization,” as the French would say, denouncing the fable of a post-racial society. He made himself the spokesperson for a community there, that of the Black community, deliberately speaking to it rather than to the chimera of a universal spectator (a shadow behind which hides, in fact, the western white man). This exposure of the black body and its history could only please a Hollywood in search of redemption (an intrinsically American attitude) and the audience of 40 million African-American spectators … Some of the videos presented at Tate Modern follow this same path: his masterpiece, Ashes (2002-2015), on the broken destiny of a young man in the Caribbean, or the intense Western Deep (2002), which follows the appalling journey of the employees of a gold mine in South Africa. With a formidable visual and sound efficiency, these works sometimes give the unpleasant impression of telling us what to think. Worse: what we should feel. This forced passage through pathos is unfortunately not always balanced by the ambiguity that is often aroused by Steve McQueen’s ambivalent aesthetic effects. But maybe our loss of freedom is another [right] price to pay.

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full review (in French), see

Also see

[Above: screenshot of Steve McQueen’s “Ashes” (2002-2015). Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery. Accessed via]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s