War Artist: Steve McQueen and Postproduction Art
Evans, David, Afterimage
Since it opened in 1917, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London has been acquiring art in various ways. Most of the museum's art collection deals with the two world wars, and drawing and painting are the favored media. There is an emphasis on art as a document or record, although this does not preclude experimental work. Since 1972, the museum has specifically commissioned art related to contemporary conflict involving British forces. Currently the Art Commissions Committee of the Imperial War Museum has eight members and is chaired by sculptor Bill Woodrow. Gill Smith, the secretary of the committee, recently explained to me how artists are commissioned:
The process which the Committee adopts for selecting and commissioning artists is that a short list of artists is drawn up. This will comprise any artists who might have written in to express an interest in a future commission as well as artists (not necessarily always established) who the Museum would like to have represented in their collection, or whom the Committee believes might present a good approach to a particular subject. The list is narrowed down to some 6-8 artists.... Prior to [each] interview, the artists are sent a short brief but the Committee does not at this point necessarily expect an artist to know exactly what the result of a commission might be. A period of research, which would normally involve a visit to the "combat zone," is undertaken and a proposal submitted at a later date to the Committee for their agreement before the final work is made. The Committee very much realizes that commissions of this sort must, to a certain extent, be artist-led in order to achieve the best results. (1)
In recent years, commissioned artists have been sent to Northern Ireland (Ken Howard, 1973, 1977); the Falkland Islands (Linda Kitson, 1982); the Gulf (John Keane, 1991); Bosnia (Peter Howson, 1993) and Kosovo (Graham Fagen, 1999/2000); Afghanistan (Paul Seawright/Langlands & Bell, 2002); and most recently, Steve McQueen was sent to Iraq (2003). (2)
For McQueen to create significant work in response to the war in Iraq is easier said than done. In late 2003 he visited the war zone and spoke with British troops in and around Basra. However, plans to film in Baghdad were disrupted by the security situation. Such practical limitations were no doubt compounded by creative considerations. For what can an artist create that differs substantially from the work of Victorian artist-reporters, or contemporary media professionals like photojournalists or editorial cartoonists? And what can an artist learn about a complex war situation after a brief visit, under official supervision? Not a lot, feared Nico Israel, whose 2004 article for Artforum about artists in Iraq specifically mentions McQueen's lightning tour:
Given McQueen's filmic track record, he will almost surely produce something provocative and weighty, but can McQueen really learn that much more in seven days "on site," in the presence of Defence Ministry representatives, than, say, George W. Bush can learn talking turkey with US servicemen? (3)
Is tourism-as-art ... part of the same set of forces as art-as-tourism (biennials, fairs, etc.) with the same power structures undergirding them? If so, the more difficult subsequent question--how and whether it is possible to avoid being embedded, either as a tourist, artist, or journalist (even art journalist)--remains to be answered. (4)
That McQueen managed to subsequently produce something "provocative and weighty," despite the multiple problems outlined above, is worth further examination and discussion.
QUEEN AND COUNTRY
After the short, abortive trip to Iraq, McQueen returned home to Amsterdam. There, he came up with a new …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: War Artist: Steve McQueen and Postproduction Art. Contributors: Evans, David - Author. Journal title: Afterimage. Volume: 35. Issue: 2 Publication date: September-October 2007. Page number: 17+. © 2008 Visual Studies Workshop. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.