A Few Thoughts on Steve McQueen’s Video Works

In April 2014, I was able to see five video works by Steve McQueen: 
  1. BEAR (1993), 10min., silent, 16mm b&w, transferred to video
    • his first film
  1. DEADPAN (1997), 26min., silent, 16mm b&w, transferred to video
    • restages a Buster Keaton stunt w/ house falling around McQueen
  1. GIRLS, TRICKY (2001), 15min., digital video color, sound, intended to loop
    • portrays the London-based experimental “trip-hop” musician and producer Tricky (born Adrian Thaws) as he rehearses a track in his dimly lit recording studio
  1. WESTERN DEEP (2002), 24min., 8mm color film, sound, transferred to video
    • takes the viewer, along with workers, more than three miles down into what is reputed to be the deepest South African goldmine. Like Girls, Tricky, in which the artist opted to preserve the dimness of the studio, Western Deep was shot in the mine’s natural darkness, with portions of the film lit only when the miners turned on their headlamps.
  1. GIARDINI (2009), 30min., 35mm color film, sound, transferred to video, intended for two simultaneous projectors
    • set on the grounds of Venice Biennale during winter
    • Of the film McQueen says: “There is an everydayness about it, it’s not exotic or foreign, but specific to the Giardini and to Venice.”
Here are a few thoughts. McQueen is a taxing, at times extremely repetitive and “slow” video artist, to be sure. Most of the students I viewed the films with let out a gasp when the 1hr 40min screening ended. Giardini is a masterpiece of the “spirit of place” variety. All except Giardini, his films are fascinating studies of the black male body, in different spaces, roles and poses, guided, in many cases, by “structuralist” impulses. I was especially taken with Western Deep, a more political and “tighter” Leviathan (2012, Castaing-Taylor & Paravel) that brings us into the world of black miners in South Africa. Shot in a mostly “observational” fashion on 16mm, the work is raw at times and highly controlled at others. We oscillate, as these men do, between violently rich and uncompromisingly austere perceptual experiences. The very dark grainy image deprives the eyes, and then “rewards” them with abrasive bursts of saturated neon blues and greens, and the sound even at times batters the ears, fluctuating between utter silence and sharp blasts of an automatic drill.