New work by Turner Prize art winner consists of one film and a wall…
ONE OF BRITAIN’s most powerful film directors Steve McQueen has returned to his art film roots in a very personal remembrance about the tragedy that is Grenfell.
From tomorrow (April 7), you will be able to watch a 24-minute film, McQueen has made on the subject, at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Park (a short walk from South Kensington tube).
On June 14 2017, a fire ripped through the Grenfell Tower killing 72 people.
McQueen has a very personal connection to the building and grew up in the area close to Grenfell, as he explains in a printed pamphlet along with further commentary by Paul Gilroy, professor of humanities at University College London.
McQueen describes going to Grenfell Tower in the early 1990s to visit a female art school friend who had just given birth to her first child. She was Italian and her partner was Algerian, he tells us.
“I remember the views from the window and thinking I had never been this high in London. The viewpoint was amazing.”
The film is silent as we get closer to Grenfell itself – and it is hugely powerful and ruminative.
It starts some distance away from Grenfell (the technical aspects of the film are deliberately not detailed) and McQueen travelled in a helicopter and has views of the building you are unlikely to have ever encountered before. He shot the film just six months after the actual tragedy and before the wrap around the building visible today.
We strongly recommend you see it – if not for anything else other than as a simple act of remembrance and solidarity with those who lost their lives needlessly and the family and friends left behind – and to say nothing of the community itself, that makes up Grenfell today and continues which to reverberate with a powerful community spirit that no one should ignore.
McQueen remembers working nearby in Portobello market, selling second hand clothes in early 1990s.
“What I loved was the community.
“All the people with different backgrounds from all over the world. There was a wonderful energy, a familiarity, an exchange which was unlike anywhere else in London. Also, it was cool. There was a buzz. There was a proudness, You were in the right place,” he writes of ‘Grenfell’.
McQueen’s work says he cares (intensely) – this not a conventional piece of artmaking, if there is ever such a thing – it comes from deep within and it encompasses many of the themes McQueen has been dealing with all his life – whether that be in his artwork or his latter more conventional feature filmmaking (‘12 Years A Slave’): alienation, desolation, isolation, distance, fragmentation and division.
A message of sorts is contained within this film but it isn’t written in any bold letters or there isn’t anyone with a material message to convey as such – the pictures do their own very stark talking. McQueen has shared this film and display with the families of the bereaved and Grenfell United, the group that represents the community, some time before the public opening tomorrow (April 7).
MCQueen trained at Chelsea College of Art and later attended Goldsmiths, University of London, and started his artistic practice in the 1990s, making art films. He won the top British art prize, the Turner in 1999 and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2009. His first feature film was ‘Hunger’ in 2008 and he was made a Sir last year and produced a seminal series of TV films, Small Axe – for the BBC.
Gilroy has penned an eloquent essay and guide to ‘Grenfell’ and in it he writes, “To me Steve McQueen’s work suggests that there is much to gain in confronting the meanings of the damaged structure and making the shock of our painful contact with it instructive.”
And a line or so later: “We cannot understand Grenfell unless we keep the reality of this building firmly in mind.”
As well as the film, there is one wall with all the names of the 72 souls that perished that evening.
On a more personal note, there is little doubt that McQueen and Gilroy identify a deep political sclerosis or inertia and one that isn’t defined by what goes on at Westminster – and isn’t about this party or that.
It is the role of artists to agitate, disturb and upset – and the issues of Grenfell have been simply allowed to rest – quite literally.
It is sad, yes but what can any of us do about it?
Resist – buck the temptation to simply mouth platitudes and pretend it is someone else’s problem.
It isn’t – the tragedy is ours and in that we must fight the forces that simply say, it was an accident and we have to move on.
The fight for justice cannot be allowed to simply ‘rest’. Ever.
The horrors and wrongs of tomorrow lie in our complacency, hopelessness and weakness, today.
There are echoes of the past in ‘Grenfell’, the Hillsborough Inquiry debacle and the spectre of an Inquiry into another public disaster – the number of covid deaths in the UK.
These artworks will be donated to the Tate once this exhibition at the Serpentine closes.
A note about these images – these are the ones requested by the artist (in consulation with the community and Grenfell United) to be used in articles covering ‘Grenfell’.
Main picture: ©SteveMcQueen, 2019
Grenfell by Steve McQueen from April 7 to May 10 Serpentine South Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA.
Bookings to see the film advisable (free) – 24 mins and shown in 30 min slots (enter and watch)