Steve McQueen Rides a Dead Horse at Marian Goodman

With no Charlotte Rampling to poke, the video artist turns to Venice and Lady Liberty

Back in the time of cathode-ray tubes, video art was the province of the boring, the grainily obscure, and the documentary. Then came certain camera-shaking developments—DV camcorders, high-definition video, Final Cut Pro—that made slick productions possible on less cash than it cost to cater Weekend at Bernie's. In cinema, this brought the blossoming of independent film. In art, it has given us scores of videos that take their production cues largely from movies—while stubbornly holding onto a pomo ambiguity that's at home almost exclusively in art galleries.

The Paleozoic age of video was pegged by pioneer Frank Gillette's dictum that its practitioners should learn to use the medium like a pencil. Its future arrived sometime in the mid-1990s in the form of visually ripe, painfully overlong works by the likes of Matthew Barney, Shirin Neshat, and Gary Hill. Sumptuous as these films can be (the distinction between film and video today seems largely quaint), sitting through them can still feel like a night of frozen daiquiris: Next morning, you wake up to a gut of empty calories, zero intellectual nutrition, and woolly thoughts.

A tilt toward the convoluted characterizes a lot of moving-image art today. Partly the result of a procedural bias that video inherited from old-time conceptualism (by this, I mean its habit of continually observing itself observing) and partly confusion at the glut of newfangled possibilities, much recent video art—like any 15-year-old runway model—looks gorgeous but has little to say. For a medium built on the moving-picture version of an image being worth a thousand words, this is a crappy bit of luck, indeed.

Italy goes to the dogs, attractively: Giardini, 2009
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Italy goes to the dogs, attractively: Giardini, 2009

Only a few artists, it turns out, have successfully crossed the line from art to cinema and back again, with anything approaching critical appeal. There's Julian Schnabel, whose movies are huge improvements on his doggedly meathead paintings; the photographer Larry Clark, whose film Kids propelled his second career as a chicken-hawk cineaste; and the example of Steve McQueen, the 2008 winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Camera d'Or for his film Hunger and the U.K. representative to last year's Venice Biennial. That's one less than there are horsemen for the apocalypse.

McQueen, who presently has three films on view at Marian Goodman Gallery, is an earnest artist committed to dense pictures with a sympathetic if predictable conceptual spine. Early works, like his films Bear (1993) and Cold Breath (1999)—featuring, respectively, large black men wrestling naked and the artist irritatingly tweaking his own nipple—hewed to textbook postmodern concerns with the body and its transgression. A third film, called Charlotte (2004), upped the ante on McQueen's meditations regarding corporeal discomfort. A steady closeup of the artist's finger repeatedly poking the actress Charlotte Rampling in the eyeball, the film's blustery inarticulateness—despite the artist's later protests about critics putting words in his mouth—blurted out irascible volumes of associations, from penetration to torture to Rampling's famous role in Liliana Cavani's sadomasochistic The Night Porter.

While decidedly narrative, McQueen's prize-winning first feature still bears the mark of his previous efforts. The story of the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, the film is constructed on frame after excruciating frame of actor Michael Fassbender portraying Sands's racked and pustulant body, as well as repeated shots of beatings and shit-flecked walls. Though militantly ambiguous, Hunger proves more than just standard-issue video art. Not content to merely outline the abstract of endurance, McQueen produced a visual essay on human endurance itself. In his own words: "What I did before was like trying to be Beckett, containing everything in this very tight kind of minimalist ball. Hunger was more like trying to be Joyce."

Though Hunger is not on view at Marian Goodman, its bracing directness colors most of what is. Often exhibiting the internal logic of a nervous tic, a great deal of McQueen's earlier, more conceptual work today looks like a run-up to that more fulsome breakthrough. The two later films in the Goodman show, on the other hand, draw few lessons from the feature's Joycean expansions.

One of those earlier works showing at Goodman, Running Thunder (2007), simply presents a 16mm, 10-minute movie of a dead horse lying goggle-eyed in the grass. Mute and dumbly impervious to criticism, the film truculently displays the ultimate certainty with zero mystery: Forget taxes, it says, we'll soon be gathering flies, too. Static (2009), one of the more recent films in the show, loops seven minutes of a circling chopper's-eye view of the Statue of Liberty. Like Running Thunder, it's plainspoken to the point of obviousness, its effect being principally to describe raw, unmodulated power. It would, one thinks, be just as edifying to be jabbed in the eye with the artist's dick.

Still, it is Giardini (2009), the 30-minute film that McQueen made explicitly for the last Venice Biennial, that most disappoints in view of this artist's clear ability to channel imagistic turbulence into thought- and nerve-provoking terrain. A winter meditation on the off-season doings of the public gardens where Venice stages the art version of the Eurovision Song Contest, McQueen's movie employs two projections to display all manner of handsome visuals. Light-mottled slugs, scavenging greyhounds out of a Carpaccio painting, the furtive nighttime encounter between two burly uomos—all of these and more vie lengthily for what critic T.J. Demos refers to as the artist's "denial of the certainty of identity and the clarity of signs on which hegemonic order rests."

Ugh! Taken from the essay penned for the artist's Venice catalog, this weighty twaddle is like lead when foisted onto McQueen's film, since what it's describing here is the video equivalent of watching gorgeous wallpaper being hung. A movie in search of a message beyond dog-eared Foucault, Giardini proves to be a pretty film about a fancy garden, a piece that suffers the same repetitive shortcomings as much contemporary art. "Movies are not made, they're remade," legendary Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg once said. Who knew that, decades later, avant-garde art would chime in so heartily?

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