Steve McQueen’s ‘Static’ (2009) impresses through its sheer directness — and it’s very far from static. A succession of helicopter-tracking shots around the Statue of Liberty, it’s the first film you encounter in this quasi-retrospective from the Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist-turned-Oscar-winning film director. Shot shortly after the monument reopened after the 9/11 attacks, it offers the eye an exhilarating whirl of light and colour, while the mind — given the potency of that historical context — goes on an equally dizzying train of associations through the notion of American liberty. While you bring these associations yourself, they seem to emanate naturally and directly from what you’re seeing. It’s that essential simplicity that gives this work its power.
Thereafter, however, the experience of this exhibition feels very much less, well, direct.
If McQueen the film director has proved adept in hitting the popular emotional jugular — notably in 12 Years a Slave — his work as an artist has been characterised by a near-clinical detachment. ‘Year 3’ (2019), his ‘portrait of London’ through photographs of every seven-eight-age class in the city (currently showing at Tate Britain), is brilliant in conception, but disappointingly flat as an experience.
This exhibition, comprising ‘moving image works’ produced since McQueen’s 1999 Turner win, feels like an exposition —certainly in large part — of the limitations of the contemporary art habit of providing the viewer with disparate contextual elements and expecting us to fill in the emotional and intellectual content. In ‘Once Upon A Time’ (2002), McQueen shows us 116 images launched into the solar system by Nasa as a representation of life on Earth. Showing life and work in many cultures, but eschewing any reference to war, poverty or disease, this well-meaning slide show is accompanied by a narration in ‘glossolalia’ — the ‘speaking in tongues’ found in many religions.