Should we look at Grenfell Tower? From the moment visitors took selfies at the site days after a high-rise fire killed 72 residents on 14 June 2017, this question has haunted its acrid-tasting aftermath.
A Chinese tour operator was caught driving a coachful of disaster tourists to gawp at the burned-out structure. At the inquiry, 20 survivors walked out in distress when barristers showed explicit footage of the building in flames, without warning. Newspaper picture desks searched around for alternative photos to the building’s charred husk.
By early 2018, the tower was covered in white sheeting to shield it from public view. A grey awning is wrapped around the top, bearing a green heart and the comforting message: “Grenfell Forever in Our Hearts”.
Well, Steve McQueen doesn’t do comfort. In his 24-minute, one-take film, Grenfell, the director takes his impulse to linger mercilessly on unresolved injustices and shows us – up close – the tower. Captured from a circling helicopter in December 2017, the film is an unedited shot of what remains. An approach both suffocating and absorbing, it echoes his 2009 work, Static, displayed at the Tate Modern three years ago, which gives a helicopter’s eye view of the Statue of Liberty in New York.
In Grenfell, we begin soaring over the outskirts of London, a patchwork of cricket greens, thickets of trees and picture-book houses with gardens and chimneys – no high-rises here. A white noise of road traffic, pricked by the occasional birdsong or siren wail, accompanies the scene as we pan across the west London suburbs. There’s the arch of Wembley Stadium, a plane tipping towards Heathrow Airport, the seething Westway, and smog thickening on the pinky-blue horizon line as we reach White City.
Which one is Grenfell? Housing blocks stretch up to the sky everywhere you look; from up here, those in shadow could all be the ashen ruin. As the camera reaches the exoskeletal horror of the fated one, the sound stops. Four once-identical towers surround it, standing sentinel. Below, men beetle around in high-vis jackets, and a Central Line train snakes overground. On a balcony opposite the lower floors sits a pink plastic Wendy house.
What follows is a mute onslaught; the camera spirals and swoops around the building. Zooming in on blistered bubbles of molten insulation like volcanic rock, charred concrete, and shimmering plastic over where the deadly cladding panels once “decorated” the façade. We peer inside gutted rooms, through the once-windows, gap teeth in the maw of a terrible giant. Pink plastic sacks of debris, neatly tied, are piled up inside, as forensic teams in white masks and plastic suits pick the carcass.
It is disorientating, hypnotic, and silent. I don’t think a single person in the 50-odd audience coughs. We file out to read the names of the fire’s victims listed blankly on a white wall. Everyone, in their head, is counting the clusters of identical surnames.
For years, McQueen “sat on” the footage, reluctant to release it too soon. Before filming, he spoke to local community groups and posted notes through letterboxes. He wanted to capture its horror, to stop the tragedy from being covered up – even after the building literally was. As a west London boy himself, growing up in Ealing, McQueen had a friend who lived in Grenfell Tower. In the exhibition notes, he recalls visiting the block decades ago. His film, which was shown to bereaved families and survivors first in private viewings, appears generally to have been accepted by those it’s about.
Yet it leaves questions, too. Before Grenfell begins, audience members already receive pointers on how to feel about it. Three tissue boxes sit on the tiered seating of the intimate screening room in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Gallery. We’re reminded that someone is on-hand to help us, and there is space to “pause, rest and reflect” elsewhere in the gallery. With tourists and art students shuffling through its doors as it plays on a loop all day, this theatre around the film at least feels like another part of the recent wave of Grenfell entertainment.
In the summer, the National Theatre will run a play about Grenfell, Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors – the third to be staged with a verbatim script, alongside Grenfell: Value Engineering (2021) and Grenfell: System Failure (2022) – and the BBC is working on a dramatised three-part series. People in and around the Grenfell community are fed up: more than 56,000 people have signed a petition against the BBC drama, and the play has also drawn anger.
The Grenfell story is unfinished. With the public inquiry yet to conclude, and a criminal investigation ongoing, definitive works about it are impossible to create. So artists cling to a studious realism instead: first-hand testimony is dialogue; the wreckage scenery. In the hands of a director less confident than McQueen, Grenfell could even feel like the opening credits of a story yet to be told. That it works as a confrontation in itself sets it apart from other works of voyeuristic disaster entertainment.