At the Art Institute of Chicago’s Steve McQueen exhibition, I saw something unusual: museum-goers spending time — minutes of it! — watching moving images. In an otherwise bustling museum, the visitors in these rooms were silent and enthralled.
McQueen and the Art Institute collaborated to make the exhibition an experience, not just a series of screens. The galleries are movie-theater dark, lit just well enough to avoid tripping. All attention is on the works themselves, which occupy entire walls. And against the grain of other museums’ grand gallery exhibitions (87 artists from 52 countries! 247 works, 117 of them loans!), the Art Institute constructs an eloquent portrait of the artist in just fifteen works.
Three of McQueen’s early, silent films — “Bear” (1993), “Five Easy Pieces” (1995), and “Just Above My Head” (1996) — are projected against the sides of a monumental triangle, each dominating a slice of a spacious room. The nude wrestlers in Bear become a dance of titans, their faces and bodies pushed against the huge plane of screen.
“Girls, Tricky” (2001) occupies its own soundproof room. Tricky, in his recording studio, bounces to the beat, rapping, and growling into a mic, the music turned so loud your cheeks rattle with the drumbeat. The too-close camera shots, the ferocity of his expressions, and the dim lighting convince you for a moment that you are trapped in the recording studio with him. I found myself fearing this man, hoping he wouldn’t turn around and growl at us, the meek museum-goers. During the fourteen minute video, he never acknowledges the camera.
McQueen’s work is engaging, but not easy. For the 24-minute “Western Deep” (2002), visitors are advised to enter its dedicated theater only on the hour and half hour, when the film restarts; built-in risers reference the Lumiere cinema in London, where it was originally shown. During the first five minutes of darkness and rumbling sounds, several visitors got up and left. Those of us who stayed found that we were descending into a mine shaft. Painterly, chaotic images of helmet lights and the ominous, hazardous sound of machines tearing away rock hit upon the mix of beauty and horror called sublime.
Lekha Waitoller, the exhibition manager for Contemporary Art, says that McQueen “doesn’t want you to be able to leave easily.” The claustrophobia of the mine shaft, the roaring closeness of Tricky: these are only possible when works are given the space to effect. Visiting the McQueen exhibition cemented a conviction that has been growing in me: if you are not going to properly install film and video, it’s better to do without it.
I’ve been to too many exhibitions that include video and film art works as if they were afterthoughts or, more likely, included by curators because of idea of the piece more than the experience of watching it. I’ve sat in gallery screenings where the sound from a nearby video or installation spills over to the one I am watching; this, to me, is the equivalent of stacking one painting on top of another.
Were McQueen’s works installed on 17” Radioshack monitors with headphones dangling next to them, I doubt any visitor would watch them for more than a few seconds, let alone try to unravel their ambiguities.
Give us some credit: Americans are sophisticated in nothing if not the moving image. We all parse the merits of the theater with the comfy seats against the one with the good sound, whether the big screen is worth the extra $3 dollars at the theater across town. We believe, I think, Frank O’Hara’s idea of “the soul that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images.”
McQueen, who works in cinema, film, and video, understands this. His work is difficult — a risky proposition for a museum — but unquestionably powerful. Volumes can be written on the political and social resonances of McQueen’s work, which I have not engaged here. Before digging into theory you have to care about the work; this exhibition shows why you should.
Steve McQueen continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park, Chicago) until January 6, 2013.