Since winning the Tate Turner Prize (1999) and the Caméra d’Or award for first-time filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, the “film painter” Steve McQueen is considered one of the more significant artists of our times.

mcqueen_charlotte_03_l 3

Steve McQueen, Charlotte, 2004, film still, Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, Courtesy the Artist © Steve McQueen

McQueen (b. 1969 in London) is an artist who uses the camera as a painter uses a paintbrush or a sculptor uses a chisel. He is the complete author of each of his works that invariably inflame and sometimes inspire.

Two feature films have established his reputation as a thought-provoking director: Hunger on the hunger strike and death of Irish Republican Bobby Sands (2008) and more recently Shame about sexual addiction, both films starring Michael Fassbinder.

By presenting more than 20 of his seminal works, introduced as installations, the Schaulager – after the Art Institute Chicago – is pioneering the recognition of the moving image as an art form. This is McQueen’s “first comprehensive retrospective” and oddly, it’s taking place in Switzerland.

The spectacular Schaulager, designed by Herzog and Meuron – and that looks that like a giant Weetabix – is the perfect venue for such a venture, including the slanted surfaces on the front that act like cinema screens. The “City of Cinema” that took more than two and a half months to build, functions like an origami, where the inside becomes the outside and outside becomes inside.

To appreciate what the hype was all about, I went up to Basel for the opening and came away intrigued and distressed.

There is something profoundly phallic about the way Steve McQueen uses the camera, as if he needed to penetrate and possess the images as he captures them.  In concentric circles he captures his prey.

With proud defiance, the Statue of Liberty resists. In a 7-minute film entitled “Static” (2009), a helicopter encircles the icon, the throbbing sound of the wings pounding our ears. One of my favorites.


Steve McQueen, Static, 2009, video still, Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, Courtesy the Artist © Steve McQueen

Installation Static

Photo of the installation on 15 March, 2013 by Michèle Laird

McQueen is investigating out invisible obsessions. He is both deeply cerebral and intensely physical and the impression we get is that the opposing forces compete.

He is obsessed with errant animals, patriotism, unlikely innocence, story-telling, urine, the aesthetics of time-standing still. The sounds that accompany the images fill the space like oratorios. McQueen is also obsessed with sound.

Paradoxically, his “time-based art” pins his subjects, and time, to the ground. Steve McQueen captures us physically and mentally. He captures our time and our perceptions. He throws a net over us.

But the artist does not impose his torment. His almost pathological sensitivity can be felt like the sweat oozing out of pores, but he leaves us with the force of his images and only our own sensitivity to interpret them.  Our eyes become the entry point into multiple sensations.

He is arresting us, stopping us in our tracks, but he is not attempting to influence us. Does he care? At the press conference, he sounded almost detached.

five easy pieces

Steve McQueen, Five Easy Pieces, 1995, Courtesy the Artist / Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London © Steve McQueen, photo of the Schaulager installation Michèle Laird

This is militantism without a trumpet, without a banner, without even a cause.

The careful orchestration at Schaulager, where the artist decided on every detail of the design of the display, betrays the need for control, some would say perfection.

Pursuit (2005), where luminous points in an obscure mirrored room destroy our sense of orientation is the most claustrophobic moment I have ever experienced in my life. I had to grope out of there, and fast.

He is with us, and yet he is absent. McQueen is the pivotal character of his own pieces (see below), including the performance-art-turned-still-art of Deadpan (1997).


Steve McQueen, Bear, 1993, video still, Courtesy the Artist / Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris and Thomas Dane Gallery, London © Steve McQueen

Because of the homoerotic content of some of his works, Bear (1993), Five Easy Pieces (1995) and Illuminer (2001) and Giardini (2009), Steve McQueen has been perceived as gay. My impression is that his work is the expression of profound narcissism, a narcissism that occasionally surprises us with art.
Steve McQueen at Schaulager
16 March – 1 September 2013

(One entrance ticket allows three viewings)

Participants, including for the richly illustrate publication, Steve McQueen, Works, available in English and German:

Steve McQueen
Heidi Naef, Senior Curator Schaulager
Isabel Friedli, Curator Schaulager

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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