Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s steamy video Girls, Tricky (2001) shows the creative act unfolding. I melted while watching it. On-screen we see musician-producer Tricky (Adrian Thaws) deliver several takes of a manic song in a darkened London sound studio. McQueen’s camera circles Tricky as he puts himself through a kind of psychic avalanche, performing a frenetic hymn, coaxing supernatural sounds from himself while smoking what looks like a giant spliff. Over the course of 15 minutes, we watch as lived experience, thought, and desire are transformed into sonic matter. Girls, Tricky lets you see how controlled this moment of losing control is and how ultra-conscious tapping into the subconscious is. At one point, just when you think Tricky is in another universe, he stops, opens his eyes, and calmly says, “That was good; let’s do it again.”
De Kooning famously said, “Content is a glimpse.” Girls, Tricky provides a glimpse of something I’ve heard in the voices of Howlin’ Wolf, Billie Holiday, and Roy Orbison; Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain, and Dolly Parton on “Jolene.” I saw it in Muhammad Ali just after he knocked out George Foreman, Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, the skipping dance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the way Warhol put his fingers to his pouty mouth. I can hear it in Miles Davis; Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”; the way the lead singer on “Louie Louie” barks, “Let’s give it to ’em right now”; and now in Tricky’s possessed song. It’s the sight or sound of someone turning him- or herself inside out so that one of the selves that lives inside them can momentarily appear. For these reasons a young artist I know, Anat Elberg, calls Tricky “the black Vito Acconci.” When someone renders something this raw this well, it begins a journey into forever.
Forever and the limits of identity are places McQueen is interested in—a limbo where self and culture intermingle, where fiction and reality blend into history. This intermingling is rampant in Once Upon a Time (2003), a majestic 70-minute video in which 116 of the images that were launched into space by NASA aboard the Voyager 2 space probe in 1977 are projected in Goodman’s darkened main gallery. These pictures were meant to represent us to aliens. Here, each one is screened for a minute before it slowly fades into the next. Few viewers will likely see the entire work in one sitting.
Which may be the point. At this speed, the images are tyrannically oppressive. Kitschy, pious, and ragingly anal, all are universalizing representations of human- kind. We see babies being born, benevolent old folks, diligent factory workers, and decent farmers. Children play; animals walk in splendor; an astronaut floats in space. But there is no death or disease, no bad blood or sorrow. It’s an after-school special by way of “The Family of Man.” Roland Barthes lambasted such depictions as “amply moralized and sentimentalized.” Homi Bhabha notes “the position of social authority” images like these assume. Susan Sontag asserts that pictures of this type “deny the determining weight of history.” McQueen, who says they’re about “our so-called knowledge,” allows us to see all of them as a single picture—a portrayal not of who we are but of how we want to be seen. It’s an American version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, a sort of psychological black box that provides evidence of our attempt to manage images and deny death. This gigantic fake self-portrait clarifies why postmodernism and its ideas about pictures being biased took shape around the same time Voyager was launched. Once‘s soundtrack of people speaking in tongues highlights the aspirational side of these pictures, the hope that we’re not alone in the universe.
In the rear gallery, the riveting 7th Nov. (2001) evokes another kind of speaking in tongues—the language of trauma and repentance. Projected for 24 minutes is the solitary image of a prone black man seen from the crown of his head. A pronounced scar runs across the top of his skull. On the soundtrack, McQueen’s cousin Marcus recounts how he accidentally shot and killed his brother. It’s a terrible story told with sorrow, insight, and verve. The stillness and stateliness of this black body—which contrasts with the horror of the story—recalls Mantegna’s dead Christ and surrealist photos of truncated bodies. Here, the head is a black planet, an empty eye, or an abstract phallus. It is Rembrandt-esque, mysterious, and somber. The killing of a brother together with the scar suggest the mark of Cain. Rosalind Krauss has written about “images that do not decorate but rather structure the basic mechanisms of thought.” That’s what this image and soundtrack do. McQueen’s 7th Nov. is a contemporary history painting, a modern-day Death of Marat. It is a requiem and a confession, a cautionary tale about being human and being black, and an allegory for white society’s discomfort with blackness.
McQueen is a very serious artist. His work is sumptuous but laced with bittersweet mourning and the feeling that he’s engaging with history both as a participant and as an outsider. His vision is grand and symphonic, and so is this show.