LOS ANGELES — In a city whose name is synonymous with the motion picture industry, it’s common for the worlds of film and art to collide. It’s less common, however, for them to collide in a way that’s critical and not simply flirting with the idea of celebrity. The installation of British artist and Oscar winner Steve McQueen’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, is one of those rare, shining moments when art and Hollywood cohabit in a cogent, sober, and analytical manner.
On view at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center outpost, Steve McQueen: Drumroll is comprised of just two bodies of work created by McQueen, both in 1998 (before his current filmmaking fame): “Drumroll” and Barrage. Filling the first gallery are selections from Barrage, a series of 56 photographs that McQueen shot over the course of several days in Paris. Here the artist eschewed the iconic structures of Paris, the stylish residents or tranquil parks, instead photographing bundles of rags and cloth he found bound together with string in gutters. These images of rag bundles, which are commonly used in open-air vegetable markets in Paris to direct water and garbage into the gutters, have a melancholia to them, a feeling of abandonment and neglect. The gutter dams seem to stand in for those abandoned and neglected by society. The photographs’ presentation at eye level allows the viewer to become immersed in their world.
The anchor of the exhibition is “Drumroll,” a three-channel video installation for which McQueen won the Turner Prize in 1999. For the piece, McQueen took an empty oil drum, drilled three holes — one on each end and one in the middle — in it, and installed three video cameras inside. He then took the drum on a tour of midtown Manhattan, rolling it down 56th, 57th, and 58th Streets. The piece captures a fractured, syncopated rhythm of the city, by way of incomplete images, flashes of light, and the sound of the drum rolling against the cement. “Drumroll” is discombobulating and dizzying, as well as mesmerizing and hypnotic. Its chaos directly illustrates and documents the course of McQueen’s drum through the streets of Manhattan, but also evokes the uncertainty of our course through life. It reads like a commentary on life’s journey, the obstacles and hazards we encounter along the way, and what it means to be in a dialogue with where we are and where we’re going.
Given that it’s a small exhibition of older work, one has to wonder why MOCA planned this show now. It may be in part due to McQueen’s Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave at the Academy Awards this spring — MOCA has faced much controversy for its celeb-centric programming and may be hoping to leverage McQueen’s newfound fame for audience numbers. But he began his career as a video artist, and the installation transcends any fleeting associations with fame. “Drumroll,” if not elegiac, is at least a strong example and reminder of McQueen’s work prior to his more mainstream success. Raising questions about neglect, liminality, loss, and what it means to be human, the work on view here is as relevant and poignant as ever.
Steve McQueen: Drumroll continues at MOCA Pacific Design Center (8687 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood) through September 21.