Black and white aesthetics. Steve McQueen's films at Portikus/Frankfurt

Jan Winkelmann

Steve McQueen's latest film, "Just Above My Head," is an invitation to silent reflection. The empty sky is projected onto an entire wall, drawing one irresistibly into the frame. Only the head bobbing up and down at the bottom of the picture prevents one from becoming totally submerged in its monochromatic surface. Steve McQueen is running, his face shot from an extremely low angle so that it traces rapid elliptical circles. He disappears only to resurface; sometimes just his forehead is visible, sometimes the entire head, moving faster at first, then more slowly. Is he running away or toward something? Does he know where he is going or is that irrelevant? Toward the end of the film the monochromatic sky is suddenly torn asunder: tree branches spread over the wall from left to right, vanishing as fast as they appear. But the artist keeps on running.

For his first solo exhibition in Germany, three of McQueen's four 16-millimeter films were screened at Frankfurt's Portikus: "Bear" (1993), "Five Easy Pieces" (1995) and "Just Above my Head" (1996) ("Stage," also from 1996 was not included). During the exhibition Portikus was transformed into a kind of standing cinema, the narrow rear wall of the room serving as a projection screen. When projected on such a monumental scale these black-and-white silent films disrupt the moviegoing experience the unaccustomed silence is deafening, heightening the viewer's own perception. He finds himself reflected into the whole, no longer able to seek refuge in uninvolved consumerism. One sequence in "Five Easy Pieces" makes this dramatically evident: clad only in a pair of white boxer shorts, McQueen straddles the camera. The extraordinary aesthetic quality of the shot, reminiscent of a Calvin Klein ad, is abruptly shattered when McQueen reaches into his shorts, pulls out his penis and begins to urinate on the camera lens. The hermetic nature of the film's narrative structure is defiled and the viewer's position changes from distant voyeur to brutalized victim.

The chiaroscuro of McQueen's films, their unusual camera angles and predilection for diagonal composition are all characteristic of 1920s photography and cinema. Distinct forms occasionally become blurred because of extreme zooms or close-ups which reduce them to purely material surfaces; images are intercut abruptly one into the other. The altered perspective not only casts things in an unfamiliar light but also seems to undermine the narrative structure of film itself. The fictional content in Steve McQueen's films is reduced to a minimum, thereby offering maximum scope for the viewer's mental projections.

McQueen's films are beautifully composed ciphers of human existence and its wants. In a highly poetic manner they address such themes as sexuality, tenderness, aggression, violence sometimes graphically, rarely directly, at times a little shyly. To that extent "Bear" runs the entire gamut of human emotions. Two naked men face one another as if in a sparring match. They size each other up, stare at and circle round each other like two wrestlers. The two bodies lock together, their grimacing faces reflecting the physical strain and effort. The next moment we see four legs circling synchronously in extreme slow motion, as if dancing a waltz. The violent facial expressions give way to gentle smiles. One of the figures ventures to touch almost caress the other. The smile now changes into one of undisguised lust, the touch into an urgent embrace and instantaneously into overt aggression. Rarely has a film touched me so deeply.

(Translation: Ruth Koenig)

published in Art & Text, No. 58, August-September 1997

© 1997 Jan Winkelmann

Please find a shortened German version @ Blitz Review