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“I’m not interested in issues. I’m interested in art.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Steve McQueen.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

One of the hottest tickets at this summer’s Venice Biennale is for the British Pavilion, where 1999’s Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s film Giardini is showing. Giardini is a remarkable alternative view of Venice, featuring the municipal gardens where many of the Bienniale’s pavilions stand, but filmed in February long after the circus has left town. Blending fact with fiction, and stray dogs with ambiguous human interactions, it led Britain’s Guardian newspaper to compare Mr McQueen to Turner.

Giardini continues Mr McQueen’s reputation for making hard-hitting politically charged works. His first feature film was Hunger – about the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands – that was one of the best things in last year’s New York Film Festival (and which won the Camera d’Or – for a debut director – at Cannes). He is also in the middle of a remarkable project Queen and Country, which began when he was an official British war artist in 2003, and which will culminate with the issue of 155 new British postage stamps, each one bearing the face of a British serviceman killed in Iraq. (Not surprisingly, Queen and Country has met with a degree of official resistance. An online petition in support of the project is still running. You can, and should, sign it here.)

Starting on Wednesday, July 1, New Yorkers who can’t make it to Venice – and that includes me – will get to see one of Mr McQueen’s most celebrated works when Creative Time present Deadpan (made in 1997 and based on a famous Buster Keaton scene) on Times Square’s MTV gilded screen (between 44th and 45th Streets) on the hour, every hour for an entire month.

Still from Steve McQueen, "Deadpan" (1997)

Still from Steve McQueen, "Deadpan" (1997)

Last week I spoke to Steve McQueen on the phone at his home in Amsterdam. He is as forthright and as thoughtful about the meanings and impact of his work as you might expect, and it turned out to be a fascinating conversation.

Steve, what do you think will be the effect of Deadpan showing on the big screen on Times Square?

I don’t really know what the effect will be. I know the location and I get the impression that all of the images in that vicinity are shouting for people’s attention. Deadpan will be the one thing that won’t be doing that. The idea for the piece comes from the 1928 Buster Keaton movie Steamboat Bill Jr where a tornado takes over this town, and Buster survives through luck because when the house frame falls over him, he passes through an open window.

I think it has resonances of the Katrina and post-Katrina situation: so many people were made homeless by that disaster, and so many people are not going back to New Orleans. It’s the politics of housing and shelter. Of course it also addresses the current economic times with so many people losing their houses. I hope that having the piece in Times Square will give people a chance to reflect.

Does that mean that Deadpan has taken on meanings that you didn’t intend for it when you made it?

Yes. Sometimes a work can live longer. It can last and have a life of its own. And I think a work should have a resonance for now.

What was your intention in making Giardini for Venice?


Steve McQueen, "Giardini" (2009) (Installation view, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale)

Steve McQueen, "Giardini" (2009) (Installation view, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale)

Well, I’ve been thinking about this piece for five years, but I’ve never had the opportunity to make it until now. I thought to myself that if I was ever asked to do the British Pavilion that this is what I’d do. I was there when I participated in the conference for the 2007 Bienniale when Rob Storr was chief curator, and walking through the Giardini in November it occurred to me that that could be the location for this piece. The whole idea of the piece is that it’s documentary but it’s also fiction. It layers a new reality on top of an existing reality to make something else, which isn’t necessarily documentary and it isn’t necessarily fiction.


Still from Steve McQueen, "Giardini" (2009)

Still from Steve McQueen, "Giardini" (2009)

I remember when the New York Film Festival showed Hunger last year they billed you as an “artist turned director”. Is their really any difference between an artist who uses film and a filmmaker?

No there isn’t, not really. Other people have to write about it and it’s their job to make distinctions and to make sense of it. It’s not my cup of tea. I just get on with it. It’s my job.

Whether we’re talking about Giardini or Queen and Country, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the idea and what the idea needs. If the idea needs to be a sculpture then it has to be a sculpture; if the idea is asking to be a 35mm feature film then it has to be a feature film; if the idea’s asking to be a piece like Deadpan, a 4½ minute 16mm piece shown in a space that is not a cinema, then that’s what has to happen. I’m not interested in mediums, I’m just interested in what the idea actually needs and how it’s best executed.


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Still from Steve McQueen, "Giardini" (2009)

Let me ask you about your time at Tisch in 1993. You were only a student there for a few months. What happened?

Yes, it was their graduate film program. It’s where Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and all those guys were, but I only stayed there for three months because I hated it. Really hated it! When I was in art school I wanted to be in film school, and when I was in film school I wanted to be in art school. It was one of those situations where I knew I had to get out, and just get on with it by myself.

You once said that the problem was that they “wouldn’t let you throw a camera up in the air”.

That’s true, both literally and figuratively. It was like a Chinese Circus – by the time you came out you could do the splits and everything, but nobody had any personality. Maybe I didn’t need to be there, but as a European with a fascination for American film, I thought that if I was going to make films, I needed to be here. But I came to realize that you can make films wherever you are. You can make a masterpiece at home, you just have to get on with it.


Still from Steve McQueen, "Hunger" (2008)

Still from Steve McQueen, "Hunger" (2008)

I still wonder whether an artist sees things, or does things, in a way that other filmmakers don’t. I’m thinking of the famous scene in the interrogation room in Hunger. There’s a single unbroken 17 minute shot in there. Is that the idea dictating the form?

Yes. It’s not about you putting a stencil on the subject. It’s the other way round. The subject has to put the stencil, as it were, on to the form. Allowing what the subject needs, rather than dictating to the subject, is what makes exciting film and exciting cinema. And that was very important to me in Hunger – letting the environment where the situation was happening dictate what I did with the camera. It has to. You have to be sensitive to the environment to allow the material to speak. Then it can fulfill its potential not only to be entertainment, but to be true.


Steve McQueen, "Queen and Country" (begun 2003) (detail: Corporal Ben Nowak, Royal Marines, died 12 November 2006 aged 27)

Steve McQueen, "Queen and Country" (begun 2003) (detail: Corporal Ben Nowak, Royal Marines, died 12 November 2006 aged 27)

I was delighted to see that people are still signing the petition in support of Queen & Country.

Oh yes. It’s going to happen. People want this project to happen, and so does the Arts Council [England]. The public want it, and the majority of the relatives of the people who died want it too. The Royal Mail have had some sort of a problem, but hopefully we can find out what that is and sort it out with them, and then get on with the job at hand.

Steve McQueen, "Queen and Country" (begun 2003) (Installation view, display cases)

Steve McQueen, "Queen and Country" (begun 2003) (Installation view, display cases)

It’s remarkable is that people on both sides of the debate around the war seem to support the project. Would you say that’s the best thing we could expect of political art?

I’m not a politician. I’m not interested in political art for a second. This is all about the people who died in the war. The soldiers, and the Iraquis who died in the war too. This is what happens when people go to war. People die. So when people go to war we should respect them and visualize them in a dignified fashion. Not hide them. The second in command of [Britain’s] Ministry of Defence said to me, “Why don’t you do landscapes?” And I said, “What!? Are you ashamed of these people?”

Are you saying you’re not a politically-engaged artist?

I haven’t got time for politics. I’d say I was people-engaged. I don’t think that any artist isn’t. It’s impossible not to be. If you open your eyes and look around you, it’s very simple. Art’s about people, if it makes any sense at all. I think that every artist is – or should be –aware of that. It’s quite obvious.

Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is a very political painting, because it’s just about what happens around us. I’m interested in what happens around us. You can’t be neutral. But I’m not interested in issues, I’m interested in art.

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2 comments to “I’m not interested in issues. I’m interested in art.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Steve McQueen.

  • Thanks Robert for this interview!!
    Saw his film in Venice, very beautiful and very engaging.
    Your interview is a thoughtful, intelligent, and helpful addition.
    Best regards,
    Lorraine Peltz

  • Robert Ayers

    Hi Lorraine, and thanks for visiting A Sky filled with Shooting Stars. Delighted you enjoyed the interview with Steve. I found him an enormously intelligent and thought-provoking guy. Thanks for your encouraging words.