Acts of Defiance

Article excerpt

Steve McQueen

Art Institute of Chicago

October 21, 2012-January 6, 2013

Since bursting onto the contemporary art scene in the early 1990s, enigmatic British artist Steve McQueen has ostensibly been on a steady ascent to become one of the finest and most celebrated experimental filmmakers of his, generation. Having successfully transitioned into mainstream cinema in recent years, a move mirrored by his compatriot Sam Taylor-Wood, McQueen is arguably better recognized these days for his, feature films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). Nevertheless, with each gallery-based presentation, albeit increasingly infrequent given his current preoccupation with cinematic releases, McQueen continues to challenge the boundaries of movingimage discourses within the proverbial white cube. As such, it is fitting that the Art Institute of Chicago and the Schaulager in Switzerland have now co-organized the largest survey of is artistic output to date. Spanning two decades, the exhibition Steve McQueen showcased fifteen works that underscore McQueen's unique ability to propel viewers into striking environments where image and sound elegantly collide. Beyond the exhibition's rich content, the installation was a satisfying jaunt through a variety of cinematic experiences, occupying a large central room with freestanding projections that foregrounded the relationship between the body and the celluloid screen, while conversely breaking up into smaller black boxes that called for more intimate engagement with the work.

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McQueen's unapologetic approach to filmmaking is distinguished for its aesthetic rigor and deep political consciousness. This was evident from the exhibition's outset, as with the opening piece, Static (2009), a looped large-scale projection of the Statue of Liberty shot from a helicopter. This honest portrait of the famed neoclassical sculpture is seemingly without embellishment; the camera shakily pans around the figure, switching between wide and tights shots set against the shifting hues of New York City's skyline. However, it is the intense roar of the helicopter's motor and propellers, which fade in and out in a choreographed manner, that underline the partiality of McQueen's lens. The all-too-familiar sound conjures up thoughts of military warfare and invasion, or indeed surveillance, in our increasingly policed cities. On the other hand, given the film's location, the audio also infers the rogue nationalism that brings the frontlines of conflict to America's shores, as with the aircrafts that were used as weapons of terror on that ill-fated clay of September 11, 2001. The film's foreboding soundtrack thus cannot go unnoticed, for here it intimates a critique of the public monument, whose assigned values of liberty and democracy are intertwined, with violence and structures of control. Concurrently, Static speaks about the relationship between the mediated image and propaganda--a concern that ran throughout the retrospective, in that McQueen intentionally plays with the ambiguity of his images in order to obscure any embedded or presumed intent. As the exhibition unfolded, a striking facet of McQueen's work to emerge is his fascination with his persona. Across a collection of rarely seen black-and-white silent films produced early in his career, McQueen appears as a central protagonist. In Deadpan (1997), tucked away in a separate viewing room, the filmmaker recreates a famous Buster Keaton silent movie stunt in which a collapsing house threatens to flatten the comic, save for a strategically placed aperture in the building's facade. In what was previously a slapstick moment, McQueen's rendition is somber and defiant. Staring straight into the camera and standing unflinchingly as the film's title suggests, a series of jump cuts documents the collapse from different perspectives. With each change in viewpoint, we see the artist resist the compulsion to react. …