The Nation's Conscience: Representing Britain at This Year's Venice Biennale, Steve McQueen Is an Extravagant Talent. and His Experience as an Official War Artist in Iraq Has Made Him Determined to Face Down Uncomfortable Truths, He Tells Tim Adams
Adams, Tim, New Statesman (1996)
Steve McQueen does not accept defeat easily. When he was sent to Basra at the end of 2003 as an official war artist, it was, he says, a bit like going to Brighton. He never made it out of the secure military compound, because of insurance issues between the Ministry of Defence and the Imperial War Museum, which had commissioned him.
"The only things I came away with really," says McQueen when we meet, "were just a sense of the camaraderie of the troops, which was fan-bloody-tastic, and a feeling that I had failed."
In the subsequent five years or so McQueen has used that sense of failure as a spur--and has made himself, through two indelible pieces of work in particular, the pre-eminent artist of the Iraq conflict. The first of these, Queen and Country, marked a turning point in his career. Until then his work had been concerned with quite abstract explorations of power, vulnerability and surprising beauty--for example, his film Bear, in which he play-fought with a friend, naked and in shadowy close-up, or Drumroll, in which he pushed a metal beer barrel along Broadway and filmed the barrel's-eye view, punctuated with his apologies to the parting pedestrian crowd. Queen and Country looked like something different: a political coming of age, a desire to engage directly with the world, to make art that was news.
Never forgetting the spirit he had encountered among the young soldiers in Iraq, McQueen had come to hate the way that the British dead and wounded were written out of the war--by the left, which had a problem sympathising with casualties of the "illegal" conflict, and by the government, which has consistently tried to block media access to the wounded, and seemed to want nothing to do with the families of the dead.
McQueen planned a tribute in the form of a series of postage stamps--one for each soldier who had not come back--and approached the MoD for permission to contact the next of kin. McQueen, 39, is a big man, broad-shouldered, with a voice that often affects a baritone BBC English. He is a flamboyant dresser, lately cutting a dash on the catwalk in an ankle-length skirt and pink suede shoes for the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto (a performance that caused the New York Times to name him the "new King of Cool"). However, you wouldn't necessarily want to be on the wrong side of an argument with him, and even now, three years on, as he recalls his exchange with the ministry, he boils with righteous anger.
"I ended up speaking to some guy," he says, "the second-in-command at the MoD, or whatever, about the idea, and he said to me, no word of a lie: 'Why don't you do landscapes, or you know, watercolours of the war?' I said to him: 'What? Are you ashamed of these people, who have given their lives?' I was just fuming. Steam was coming out of my ears."
The answer was still no, but it was fighting talk to McQueen, and after a lot of legwork he got the addresses for himself. Then he sent letters to widows, parents, girlfriends, brothers, sisters to explain to them what he was trying to do. For a while he heard nothing.
"I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, head in hands in despair, thinking: 'This ain't going to work. I've failed again.' But then slowly and surely letters started to come back. All of them were handwritten. "Thank you so much for doing what you are doing.' Photographs of sons, dead at 18 and 19. It was incredible, you know."
McQueen made more than a hundred large sheets of stamps, franked with the Queen's head, and exhibited them initially in oak cabinets at Manchester Central Library. The opening was just for the families; 300 people turned up. "We had an area where the kids could be," he says. "And it was the first time these people had all come together. They had been invited to Prince Charles's house once, but they were a bit overwhelmed by those surroundings. …