In Focus

Distance: Physical and Political

Within Static 2009 (Tate T13425), the shifting distance of the camera lens plays upon the viewer’s familiarity with the iconic Statue of Liberty. As a distant, iconic image, the statue is at once recognisable and surrounded by its constructed meanings. Close-up, it appears less pristine, less identifiable, and less legible in terms of its significance. Viewers of McQueen’s circling close-ups and distant shots increasingly struggle to situate and ground the gigantic statue, the stasis and silence of which become strangely ominous. This is all played out on an enormous screen, which fills one wall of the darkened room in which the work is exhibited.

Cinematic distance: The close-up

Steve McQueen Static 2009 (installation shot)

Steve McQueen
Static 2009 (installation shot)
Tate T13425
© Steve McQueen; courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Distance, and the overcoming of it, is a preoccupation throughout Steve McQueen’s work. His 2004 video work Charlotte sees McQueen’s finger slowly closing in on actress Charlotte Rampling’s unflinching eye.1 The distance between eye and that which it views is reduced, painfully, to nothing. Writing specifically about cinema, art historian Mary Ann Doane has suggested that the close-up shot mimics a pointing finger, and demonstrates the indexicality of the cinematic image: ‘With the gesture of presenting its contents (making them actual), it [the close-up] supports the cinema’s aspiration to be the vehicle of presence’.2 When the camera in Static gets in close to gaze at the folds of the Statue of Liberty’s draped clothes, the wear and discolouration in the pit of her still defiantly upright arm, and the apparent drips that have left thick black lines down her cheek and neck (figs.1–2), McQueen is certainly pointing at these intimate aspects of her very public appearance, and prompting viewers to see the weathered presence of an object which has become so symbolic as to seem sometimes more mythical than physical. As Doane notes, the close-up is ‘a manifestation, a showing’, which embodies the pure fact of representation.3 Yet McQueen’s work often points to vision and the mechanics of seeing and film itself, as much as the subject matter that is seen. Charlotte offers something of a reversal of the close-up’s usual pointing, a turning inward to point at the medium of sight. Similarly, the struggle of the camera in Static to focus upon the Statue of Liberty undermines the usual invitation of the close-up to take time absorbing each visual detail of the screen. Doane notes that discourse around the close-up treats it synchronically, as stasis, and thus as resistance to narrative lineality. While philosopher Giles Deleuze suggested that the close-up ‘abstracts its object from all spatio-temporal co-ordinates’,4 Doane argues that ‘the discourse seems to exemplify a desire to stop the film’.5 McQueen’s juddering close-ups in Static both offer and work against such a desire to examine a still image. Like the double direction of the point in Charlotte, the close-ups in Static encourage a detailed, ponderous, informative vision, yet this is undermined by the moving camera and the Brechtian attention it draws towards the fixed edges of the screen. Static, like many of McQueen’s artworks and films, interrogates both what is there and the ways in which it is seen and understood. His work therefore confronts viewers both with what is known and what is knowable.

Steve McQueen Static 2009 (still)

Steve McQueen
Static 2009 (still)
Tate T13425
© Steve McQueen

The close-up has a complex relationship with knowledge and its limitations. In philosopher Walter Benjamin’s analysis, it is one way of accessing the ‘optical unconscious’, allowing us to see things that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.6 Renowned Bauhaus photographer László Maholy-Nagy suggested a similar respect for the capabilities of the photographic close-up when he famously described it as ‘intensified seeing’.7 Yet Doane notes that while the close-up exploits the expansiveness of the cinema screen – or the gallery wall in the case of Static – and therefore ‘seemingly promises expanded cognition and recognition’, the close-up nevertheless also highlights the two-dimensional depthlessness of the image, potently revealing the screen to be mere surface: ‘the image becomes, once more, an image rather than a threshold onto a world. Or rather, the world is reduced to this face, this object’.8 The cuts between close and more distant shots in Static make viewers aware of a sense of both potential vision and further revelation, as well as physical limitation, as the image before them is brought up short – a literal wall imposed only a few feet away. The work offers viewers a contradictory pull, presenting a new, intimate vision while simultaneously highlighting the limitations of that vision. Doane notes that much film theory concerned with the close-up has ‘come to terms in some way with this opposition between surface and depth, exteriority and interiority’.9 Focusing on cinema’s preoccupation with the close-up of faces, Doane questions whether it is possible to ‘see a close-up of a face without asking: what is he/she thinking, feeling, suffering? What is happening beyond what I can see?’.10 Indeed, as Doane notes, film critic Béla Balázs suggested that the close-up of a face prompts a realisation of the limitations of the viewer’s vision: ‘we can see that there is something there that we cannot see’.11

Despite the inanimate nature of Liberty’s face, her magnetism for McQueen’s camera is evident throughout his film, and prompts consideration of what lies beyond the vision his viewers are offered. Through the push and pull of the varying distances between camera and statue, Static provides both knowledge and a reminder of what former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld famously described in military terms as the ‘known unknown’.12 McQueen asks viewers of Static how close or distanced they really are from this icon of liberty whose image is known globally. He repeatedly brings us in near, gives us a tantalisingly close visual hold of the statue, and asks us how well we know this face, and whether it is indeed that of liberty.

Political distance

Connected to the formal uses of the close-up is the ontological and overtly political presentation of distance within Static. Historically, the Statue of Liberty would have grown larger and larger in the eyes of migrants nearing it in boats in the hope of starting a new life in America. By 2009, and since McQueen made the artwork, the question of distance has become all the more loaded, and increasingly concerned with the capabilities and impacts of lens-based technology. Pre-dating historian Mitchell Schwarzer’s analysis of a contemporary ‘moving landscape’,13 the German writer Ernst Jünger argued in 1934 that endless image recording and transmission was not overcoming distance as might be expected, but was actually creating it. With striking formal resonance with McQueen’s circling camera and looped film, Jünger wrote:

Today whenever an event takes place it is surrounded by a circle of lenses and microphones and lit up by the flaming explosions of flashbulbs. In many cases, the event itself is completely subordinated to its ‘transmission’; to a great degree, it has been turned into an object … The event is bound neither to its particular space nor to its particular time, since it can be mirrored anywhere and repeated any number of times. These are signs that point to a great distance.14

As historian Eduardo Cadava has noted, Jünger was writing in the year of the Nuremberg rallies, giving a great sense of urgency to his text. Cadava argues that ‘what is at stake for Jünger is the articulation of a space in which the growing objectification of life would correspond to our increased capacity to endure pain, in which “the growing petrification of life could, in a deeper sense, be justified”’.15 The transmission of the image corresponds to the petrification of life; here technological movement produces human stasis, and does so through the extension of distance.

Schwarzer’s more recent analysis of the relationship between technology, motion and monuments, examined earlier in this In Focus study, is one of many that discusses the role of distance in an age saturated by lens-based media, now distributed digitally. With the acceleration of global capitalism following the end of the Cold War, the 1990s saw a number of geographers, philosophers and cultural theorists focus their attention towards distance and what they saw as its transformation. Marc Augé, in his now famous account of the non-place in ‘supermodernity’, argued that under globalisation people can increasingly only cope with ‘the near and the elsewhere’, as though a scale of distance has disappeared and there is now only the local and the ‘other’, only the close and the somewhere else.16 Fellow French philosopher Paul Virilio also argued in 1997 that digital technologies and advances in transport were prompting a ‘pollution of distance’, so that the natural horizon line that helps us to locate our physical presence is increasingly broken.17 The implication of such ideas is that in the twenty-first century people are plagued either by the short-sighted limits of localism, or by the sheer disorientation of globalisation.

Simultaneously, globalisation theorists noted that amid increasingly borderless flows of capital, information and services, immigrants and refugees ‘test the new order’ in their frequent inability to cross national boundaries.18 Augé’s and Virilio’s accounts seem to diagnose the condition of those who have privileged access to the latest communications technology and transport. As cultural theorist Homi Bhabha highlighted in 1992, even the slightest distance is enormous to those who cannot traverse borders.19 Given Liberty’s relationship to the history of migration, McQueen’s manipulation of distance within Static poses difficult questions about people’s mobility and the lack thereof. Each cut of the edit reveals McQueen’s – and thereby his viewer’s – privileged proximity to the monument. His film surveys Liberty as an equal, his level camera meeting her gaze, mocking the empty middle distance into which her iris-less eyes seem to stare. In his determination to look at the statue on a level, McQueen asks his viewers how meaningful Liberty is, both physically and metaphorically, to those who seek physical asylum around the world today. For the viewer within the darkened gallery space, these issues of distance also force a consideration of their own physical distance as being all that separates them from the suffering and political injustices that are ongoing as they view the artwork.

For art historian Jean Fisher, Static offers a highly critical view of the statue, and of the capitalist society which created it. While associating the sound of the artwork with ‘urban surveillance and the Vietnam War’ through Francis Ford Coppola’s feature film Apocalypse Now! (1979),20 Fisher also reads the dialectic between movement and stasis in the artwork as indicative of the stagnant nature of an essentially hollow symbol of freedom: ‘Isolated from the world of commerce whirling around it, there is also no escape from inertia (and shame and hypocrisy) for this shell of a monument to the ideals of universal liberty.’21 In this reading Static ultimately highlights the impotency of the Statue of Liberty, and the stark contrast between its high goals and its physical and metaphorical dilapidation. Perhaps the most striking element of the artwork that leads to such a reading is the sound of the wind, which is heard at two points in the film when the helicopter noise fades out. In the relative quiet the wind speaks both of the weathering that Liberty is undergoing, the continuous difficult conditions in which she stands, and also of a strange sense of depopulation, of human absence. Akin to tumbleweed rolling past, the sound of the wind echoes a joke never made, a failed punch-line that was never heard. Fisher’s description of Liberty as a ‘shell’ is evocative of a sense of emptiness, of a shelter long abandoned. That McQueen made his film in the same year that President Obama reopened the Statue of Liberty to visitors following the attacks of 11 September 2001, however, perhaps alters this reading, as on a literal level the statue becomes inhabited once more. Just as the artwork presents a complex relationship between stasis and motion, memory and forgetting, subject and object, the close and the far, personal and public, so it offers critique and possibility. McQueen’s work to date has revealed historic and contemporary crimes and terrors, suffering and endurance, and throughout has drawn attention to the difficulty and effort involved in seeing events and circumstances clearly. In simply not looking away, in refusing to blink, he suggests some slight potential for change.

Critical distance

McQueen’s pointing of his camera towards overtly political subject matter has often raised questions about his own critical distance as artist or filmmaker. His responses have suggested a desire to prompt others to look, but to present them with un-manipulated fact as far as possible. In a 2014 interview with curator Okwui Enwezor, McQueen was asked whether he felt he had to be neutral behind the camera. His response was telling:

I try not to manipulate. I, as every human being does, have a sense of morality. It’s a bit like when people ask ‘how can you make horrible things beautiful?’ … I wouldn’t ask the cameraman to put a dark filter on [in 12 Years a Slave]. I/we cannot put a filter on life. It is what it is. Things happen. How they happen and where they happen – there’s no judgement. If I’d done that, that would have been me interpreting my morality onto something which in reality wasn’t like that at all. And that’s the perversity of life. That’s what makes it difficult to deal with. We have to accept that. We don’t want to so we sentimentalise things but the reality is they are what they are. That’s it.22

This statement suggests that McQueen seeks to avoid imposing his own interpretation as much as possible. His work is not didactic in this sense. In his own words, ‘there is no judgement’, and, as he implies, it is this that perhaps makes his artworks and films so often uncomfortable to view. We long for interpretation, for a reassuring filter that can classify and comfort. Such interpretation requires both critical distance and the break, the pause of a historical re-reading and rewriting. McQueen’s work, including Static, demonstrates his readiness to close in on contentious, criminal or tragic subject matter and present it without blinking, without altering it in anyway.

However, McQueen clearly does take time to present artistically shaped and carefully edited work. Jean Fisher sees his tactic as a direct prod towards the viewer’s sense of responsibility:

To date, McQueen’s strategy has been to disclose an often-concealed documentary fact through the medium of aesthetic affect with the aim of prising open a space of discussion between mediated fiction and experienced reality. However, although McQueen’s work does not offer any direct ethical judgements, it becomes the viewer’s responsibility to ‘listen’ to what the artist’s visual and aural chord changes signify.23

Following this reading, McQueen wants to reach as close as possible to hidden fact, and to make it as real as possible to those far away from the time or circumstances of his subject. His lack of interpretation prompts a void into which the viewer is prompted to make their own analysis. In the case of Static, there is something uncomfortable about the film’s duration over time that prompts the viewer’s sense of responsibility. Watching something static over time emphasises the potential for action and change more than viewing a static photograph of a fast-paced event. As with the unbearably lengthy scene in McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave in which Solomon Northup hangs from a tree, scrambling his toes around the dirt, there is something excruciatingly real about watching individual people, factual events or physical objects endure over time. The viewer no longer looks at a relic of the past from the comfortable distance of the present, but instead watches something unfold or endure in real time before them. This emphasises not only our relation to the scene but also our inaction, our own inexcusable stasis. McQueen’s ‘lack of filter’, then, constitutes part of his refusal to view the past as separate from the present; while critical assessment is prompted, it is not allowed the comfort offered by a sense of historical distance.

In its seven-minute loop, Static interrogates both Liberty as a physical construct and the historic Western construction of liberty as a value. It cuts deep to the nature of film as a medium, and to the capability of art to provoke movement and change. It refuses to forget the past, ignore the present or suggest that they can be compartmentalised separately. Finally, and perhaps primarily, it highlights the fundamental importance of a dogged determination to see and to understand. Ultimately, Static shows that Liberty is continuously doing something that McQueen disallows his viewers the comfort to do: staring into the middle distance; looking without seeing. Liberty is filmed here as the petrification of a blink, the solidification of an interpretation and rewriting of history. Her copper inability to see is contrasted with the visitors who were newly enabled to look out from her crown in the year that McQueen made his film. Static defines liberty as the freedom to look. It also highlights the obligation, and the responsibility, which that freedom entails.