Show Hide image

The nation's conscience

Representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale, Steve McQueen is an extravagant talent. And his

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 amaraderie 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. Here, they could be themselves. They were all looking for their sons in the cabinets. I had a little boy come up to me and ask where his daddy was, and we looked, you know, for him, and everyone was crying and drinking tea. I was very humbled. There was a cosiness to it. It was, how shall I say, an extremely British occasion.”

What makes that kind of Britishness, and what threatens it, is increasingly his obsession. McQueen has lived for nearly all of the New Labour years in exile in Amsterdam – “I met a woman there, fell in love, we have a daughter, what can I say” – which has given him some perspective on his native country and kept him immune from any shark-infested London art-world vanities. He has in that time received a unique quartet of honours – a Bafta, a Caméra d’Or, a Turner Prize and an OBE. In June he will become Britain’s artistic ambassador to the Venice Biennale with what seems a simple brief – to erase the memory of Tracey Emin’s somewhat embarrassing performance of two years ago.

He wants the work there to be a surprise (“I want everything to be brand new, always”), but it is hard to imagine that it will not bear some relation to his singular stamp collection, and to the second strand of his evolving interrogation of Britishness and his extraordinary feature film – Hunger, about the 1981 IRA hunger strikes at the Maze Prison that left ten men dead.

He resists the suggestion that the film, released last year and five years in the making, was also a response to the growing sense of himself as a war artist. But he does concede that he was led to its subject in the context of the War on Terror, with its determination always to meet violence with violence. “Surely, we should know by now that no good can come out of that.”

The feature marked an unprecedented leap for a maker of short, beautiful gallery films into narrative drama. “What I did before was like trying to be Beckett,” he says, “containing everything in this very tight kind of minimalist ball. Hunger was more like trying to be Joyce.”

Hunger has all the disturbing, set-piece visual power of McQueen’s gallery works, allied to a remarkable emotional rawness. He has long been preoccupied with the front lines of physical interaction, the boundaries of bodies (in Charlotte, for example, McQueen’s fingers prod and pinch the eye and eyelid of Charlotte Rampling for 16 deeply uncomfortable minutes) and he pursues that interest to its extreme in Hunger. The front line in the British government’s conflict with Irish republicanism is reduced to the bloodied knuckles of a particular prison guard and the wasting flesh of Bobby Sands.

McQueen was typically painstaking in his research for this. “I was over in Belfast for days and days of interviews,” he recalls. “I wanted to ask all the things I could not find in the written accounts. I wanted to know at what point during the dirty protests did you get used to the stench of excrement on the walls? What was it like to watch maggots turn into bluebottles all around you? Some people want to avoid that way of looking at it. They just saw these people as madmen. But to me, it is only by looking at the human scale that you make some sense of it. If you don’t, if you just think about the politics, you are led into the troubles we have now in the world.”

At the Biennale

The Venice Biennale is the world’s leading contemporary art festival. This year features work from 77 countries. The fine-art exhibits will be accompanied by separate festivals of film and architecture. The highlights of this year’s festival include:

Gilbert and George The British-Italian duo are best known for their large-scale photo collages, which often feature a controversial mixture of religious symbolism, nudity and swear words. They represented Britain at the Biennale four years ago.

Miranda July The artist, director and author (left) won prizes at Cannes in 2005 for her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. She will bring her latest performance art to Venice.

Goshka Macuga The Turner-nominated sculptor’s most recent work, which took the theme of Picasso’s Guernica, is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London.

Huang Yong Ping Chinese-born, but now living in France, Ping makes Dada-influenced art that has shaken up the eastern and western art Establishments, most notably Bat Project (2001-2005), a reconstruction of a US spy plane that was removed from an exhibition in Shenzhen for fear that it would damage international relations.

John Cale The former Velvet Underground musician explores the language of his native Wales with an audiovisual installation.

Compiled by Gabriel Byng

The hardest interviews were not with the IRA men, who were routinely eloquent about their struggle, but with the prison guards. “I spoke to one guy at great length,” McQueen says. “I liked him very, very much. He talked about his daily experiences. Going into this hellish place five, six days a week, walls covered in filth, practising this routine brutality, and then coming home and trying to be normal with his family.”

In doing his research, McQueen came across an interview that the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael had done with Jean-Luc Godard two days after Bobby Sands died. Godard said the reason why people like the Baader-Meinhof Gang and Sands were powerful was that they were “childish”. “I thought when I read that: ‘What the hell?’” says McQueen. “But quick as a flash came into my mind this image of a child, sitting at a table and refusing to eat his food. The parents saying you are not leaving the table until you do. It’s that. Parents can control everything about your life. But they cannot force you to eat. I tried to remember that simplicity in the film.”

It is a very different version of that childish stubbornness that McQueen himself seems to embody. As a film-maker, he worries over and over at images, refusing to let them go until they affect you in the way that they have affected him.

We talk about the roots of this determination, and he traces it again to an idea of Britishness, something that came from his parents, first-generation arrivals to west London from Grenada (his father worked for London Transport, his mother was a nurse), and to his school in Ealing. Recently, he says, he went to the funeral of an old school friend and was struck by something. “All these people I hadn’t seen for years were there. And it was only then that I realised how many of the people had been second-generation. Greek, Portuguese, West Indian, Iranian, Pakistani, all my friends. It was amazing. At school it was just Frankie, Reza, Peter. None of us had thought about it before. It had never even struck us as kids. It is completely amazing that this country could pull that off. Genius.”

McQueen wishes there were more young black directors making films (“It can’t just be me!”) and that the reality of the country made it more often on to the screen (“instead of just, excuse my language, reality fucking TV”). But that spirit of tolerance he knew as a teenager is one of the things which gives him his rigorous and sustaining optimism; it helps him believe that the government will eventually sanction his memorial stamps as a series for Royal Mail. (He met Gordon Brown at a function and the Prime Minister promised that someone in charge would be in touch soon. McQueen is waiting by the phone.) It is also why he is proud to be pulling on the national jersey, as it were, for the Venice Biennale.

“I’ll treat it like any other commission, though. I’m not going to polish my shoes, I’m not going to wear a tie,” he says, laughing. Yet he will just as surely, on his distinctive terms, once again be giving his all for Queen and country.

An exhibition of new work by Steve McQueen will run from 7 June to 22 November at the British Pavilion, Giardini di Castello, 30122 Venice.
Details: click here

Tim Adams is art critic of the New Statesman