Steve McQueen's Films Leave Us Confused In The Dark At Tate Modern

Steve McQueen, Tate Modern ★★☆☆☆

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Steve McQueen's Films Leave Us Confused In The Dark At Tate Modern Steve McQueen, Tate Modern 2
It's mainly films and not all hit the mark. © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

I’m watching a film of a man talking about how he accidentally shot his brother with a gun he didn’t think was loaded. It’s devastating. Fortunately we’re all sat in the dark, because I imagine there are tears among my fellow viewers. It's by far the strongest and clearest work by Steve McQueen in his Tate Modern exhibition.

McQueen is now better known as the Hollywood director of 12 Years A Slave, Widows and Shame but video art is where he started out, and this exhibition recaps his past 25 years as an artist.

A film about a man who accidentally shot and killed his brother is devastating. © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

A 70-minute film consists of photographs which were sent out to space on the Voyager I and II probes, highlighting that any alien civilisations which discovers one of the Voyagers would get an idyllic glimpse of Earth. McQueen makes the point that there’s no poverty, disease or war present so it’s not a complete picture of our home world. Well sure, but this is essentially an extended hand of friendship and nobody introduces themselves by pointing out their own flaws in the first encounter, so I’m not sold on the point this lengthy work is trying to make.

This work is representative of a show that deals with big sociopolitical issues but makes the audience work hard for it, to the point where a lot of it feels inaccessible. I’m all for complex work with important themes, but too often it feels like some choice editing and a bit more context around each work would have led to more productive audience engagement.

You're going to be spending a lot of time wandering around in the dark. Copyright Tate Photography

The artist pulls at his own nipple, fingers the eye of actor Charlotte Rampling and lies asleep in front of a television — in such a taxing exhibition this wave of introspective works leave me feeling fatigued and struggling. It's a shame as his work at Tate Britain is the opposite — accessible and far more engaging.

That's not to say it's all bad. A claustrophobic film of South African miners excellently captures a dark working environment that's more sound than light, and a close up of music artist Tricky performing in a studio is intimate and pulsating with raw emotion. It's just these works are outnumbered by the ponderous ones either side of them.  

A film about a man who was later shot dead is part of the exhibition. Copyright Tate photography.

The inaccessible nature of the show isn’t helped by the guide to the show being on a printed leaflet instead of illuminated on the wall. I constantly find myself having to read about the work using my phone as a light, and several others are doing the same.

In total there’s around five hours of film in this show, which is a long time to spend in an exhibition — and that’s only if the timings between the films align (Spoiler: they don’t). I stumble out of the dark both physically and mentally drained — and not in a good way.

Steve McQueen at Tate Modern is on from 13 February to 11 May 2020. Tickets are £13.

Last Updated 12 February 2020