Issue #200
A Party To End All Parties November 9, 2012

Steve McQueen
Exodus
1992/97
Photo courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York /Paris; and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

View Gallery

Steve McQueen

Art Institute of Chicago

Through January 6, 2013
by Patrick Bobilin

To remain true to their donors and to keep a foot on the contemporary pedigreed institutions are forced to dance very delicately with the moving image. With Steve McQueen and his eponymous retrospective, The Art Institute of Chicago has found a fitting body of work to appease their various audiences from rigorous academics to casual visitors. The Art Institute attempted to softly conflate McQueen’s feature-length film work with his shorts and installation works by running free screenings of both films (2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame) for the sake of banking on his notoriety outside of the art world. Thankfully, the focus remains almost completely limited to McQueen’s film work for the gallery exhibition, with work shown across walls, on monitors, in individual rooms, running through film projectors and looped digital projections.

The museum, curator and McQueen have avoided the missteps of similarly spectacular installations by creating an exhibition that is measured and austere, highlighting McQueen’s modernist tendencies. Space is given to large-scale projections, including a massive triangular projection surface on which the trilogy of Bear, Five Easy Pieces, and Just Above My Head force the viewer back—pragmatically through projection placement and emotionally through the monumental object itself—onto the benches where one’s view is rarely obstructed by other works. The architecture of the installation is masterfully articulated. What the installation offers the work, which exhibitions of single objects never could have, is the kind of modernist power found in the installation of works from Donald Judd or Robert Morris. The literalist shape of the triangle upon which the trilogy is projected communicates the formidable power of the three films; rather than collapsing the three works onto one another for mutual support, the structure makes these films experientially and spatially monumental through a multi-directional inescapability rather than the unidirectional format of the screening rooms lining the perimeter of the exhibition.

New for American audiences familiar with McQueen’s work are Queen and Country, exhibited for the first time outside of the UK, and End Credits, a 6-hour exhumation of documents and testimony gathered by the FBI (and obtained by McQueen through the Freedom of Information Act) during their 30 year long surveillance of activist, performer and anti-imperialist Paul Robeson.

In an interview with The Guardian, Adrian Serle claims it difficult to fit Queen and Country within the context of McQueen’s oeuvre1 without addressing how much of McQueen’s work pursues issues of formalism and portraiture throughout art history. What is contemporary about McQueen is his acknowledgement that his subjects will have identity forced upon them resulting in a degree of political agency missing in much contemporary work, making Queen and Country all the more potent.

Without the pathos found in Queen and Country, McQueen’s new work End Credits, with its fast scrolling page-after-page chronological illustration of data and dictation of information results in the exhaustion of information overload. Overly removed and uninvested, in a way unlike any of the other works on display, the work suffers from the problems of much research-based art from the last decade. Through curatorial text and even a quick Google search, the affective importance of the work is obvious, but without a motion capture apparatus, McQueen’s implicit commentary turns cold and administrative. Simply creating a work seems less an exercise in duration or comment on the FBI’s century long commitment to absurd amounts of surveillance and more of McQueen’s own exhaustion in beginning to contemplate the summit of this mountain of material.

Given America’s comparably heavier investment in the Iraq war and the profound changes in government surveillance in the last decade, both Queen and Country and End Credits can’t help but imply a lack of relevant political content and self-reflexivity in American contemporary art as compared to work in the UK. When the curatorial text forces a weak association between Western Deep/Caribs’ Leap and the images of defenestration from September 11, 2001, the absence of such commentary from U.S. artists seems glaringly obvious.

For McQueen, the body is a political site, a medium for transcendence, a corporeal and legislative vessel vulnerable to both literal and figurative invasion. In this respect, Static is an introduction to how all of the work functions throughout the exhibition. However, projected in the front of the exhibition and made into a massive object through its free-hanging 20-foot projection screen, it seems positioned to appease the rubbernecking tourists the museum caters to through its proximity to Millennium Park and the other must-visits of Michigan Avenue. While painting an expertly articulated portrait of the Statue of Liberty, the work has little of the pointed rumination of the other works and instead appeals to the inclination of tourists to encounter the familiar. Perhaps this is a highly calculated point of attraction to open audiences to McQueen’s work, or perhaps this is the sort of pandering that leads the already initiated art audience to feel condescended to. However, the low light of the exhibition allows the spectacle to balance with the solemnity of most of the subject matter. So rarely does a museum that caters (and even encourages in its advertising) to aggressive rubbernecking allow for meditative experiences. McQueen has forced the institution into a curious position where, in order to use his celebrity, they must build such a labyrinthine and solemn auratic experience.

Approaching difficult material with careful movements, institutions have so much at stake that curators in these institutions are often saddled with an unbecoming timidity toward social politics, not to mention the specter of wealth that haunts all major institutional projects.  More often than not, McQueen is one of the few blue chip artists whose hands are clean. Support for the Royal Mail and Ministry of Defense challenging Queen and Country is coming from The Art Fund and much of Steve McQueen’s sponsorship coming from The Warhol Foundation and contemporary collectors Donna and Howard Stone.  This collaboration between institution and subject is an example of the inspired ways in which an artist applies constructive institutional criticism on the boundaries of an institution’s conservatism while adopting models of presentation that are befitting of the inevitable canonization that such exhibitions invariably result in.

Patrick Bobilin is a Chicago-based artist, educator and director of Noble & Superior Projects.

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1 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/mar/12/iraq.art

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