Post War: Martin Herbert on Steve McQueen's Queen and Country

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FOR THE PAST thirty-five years, the Art Commissions Committee of London's Imperial War Museum has invited artists to make work responding to the activities of British and Commonwealth troops, whether they be engaged in combat or in peacekeeping missions. This privately run successor to the country's official war artists' program (which was created in 1916, partly for propaganda purposes, and dismantled in 1972) has thrown up the occasional attention-grabbing artwork--notably, Langlands & Bell's interactive digital animation. The House of Osama Bin Laden, 2003, a detailed re-creation of the terrorist's last known address. Most of the results, however, have been in the relatively uncontroversial vein of Linda Kitson's pallid conte sketches, from 1982, of soldiers training for engagement in the Falklands, and Peter Howson's muscular but conventional 1994 paintings of exhausted Muslim refugees and Red Cross convoys in Bosnia. Certainly, none of it has caused anything like the kind of ruckus sparked in recent months by the latest invitee, Steve McQueen, the thirty-seven-year-old Turner Prizewinning artist who was asked to make work connected to the war in Iraq.

When McQueen's invitation was first announced in the summer of 2003, the Art Commissions Committee stated that the artist had "an open brief." Surely, they assumed he would make a film, since, with a few sculptural and photographic exceptions, McQueen has been known for laconic but gut-pummeling shorts since the early 1990s. And indeed, he was planning to make a film, until he went to Basra for six days--and found himself closely shepherded by Ministry of Defence officials. As he later told the Financial Times, "It was like a magical mystery tour. They led me by the hand. I couldn't investigate anything." McQueen returned home with nothing in his camera, having been witness only to a few school-rebuilding projects; his plan to revisit Iraq in 2005 was canceled in light of increased hostage-taking in the country. And so the artist, understandably, was beginning to think that he would never complete his commission, when a solution presented itself--a eureka moment of sorts, occasioned by his licking a stamp for his tax-return envelope. The idea: a run of Royal Mail stamps featuring photographs of all the British soldiers who had died in the Iraq war.

Herein lie the beginnings of controversy. When McQueen contacted the Ministry of Defence for the addresses of the families of the 1 15 soldiers who had died thus far in the conflict, the agency refused to help. "The second-in-command there is also on the board of the Imperial War Museum," the artist recalls, "and he suggested I do a landscape instead." The museum was similarly disinclined to support his cause, and the Royal Mail rejected his proposal. Stonewalled by the establishment, McQueen went forward without official help, encouraged by Alex Poots, the director of the Manchester International Festival--who said that he would gladly display the project at this cross-media event devoted entirely to newly commissioned work. Poots helped McQueen hire a researcher to assist in locating and contacting the families of fallen soldiers--the vast majority of whom sent photographs (ninety-eight agreed to participate and only four refused outright; the others did not respond)--and the artist made his own samizdat run of stamps.

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Collectively titled Queen and Country, 2007-, these stamps are currently on view in the circular Great Hall of Manchester's Central Library, under the auspices of the Manchester International Festival, displayed in an archival cabinet of English oak. The library seems an appropriate symbol of access to information, of which McQueen provides much: Each of his cabinet's 120 vertical, glassed drawers slides open to reveal a different twelve-by-fourteen grid of stamps bearing a dead soldier's portrait--or a blank, black, waiting space. The whole, from one end of the cabinet to the other, comprises a chronological procession of untimely endings, from Colour Sergeant John Cecil, age thirty-five, on March 21, 2003, to Corporal Matthew Cornish, age twenty-nine, on August 1, 2006. …