In Focus

The Poetic Nature of Static

Steve McQueen’s Static 2009 (Tate T13425) circles around more than just the Statue of Liberty, which is one of the most familiar icons of all time, yet one whose meanings have been anything but static in the almost 150 years since first conception. The name chosen for McQueen’s film is ironic in respect of the constant shifting of position between the original intentions of the French abolitionist activist Edouard René de Laboulaye, the broad appeal of the statue’s national symbolism, fostered by American politicians, and the spontaneous perceptions of immigrants on arrival at Ellis Island. As a black artist, McQueen will surely have registered the deriding of the statue’s received meanings by the African American press on the occasion of its dedication in 1886. And in the 130 years since then, it has been impossible to stabilise or consolidate the perceptions of artists and writers – especially poets – whose very active conscriptions have turned the statue into a virtual monument of disunity. This essay will concentrate on the writing strategies of the American poet Hart Crane (1899–1932) and Irish writer Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) that offer especially powerful models for thinking about and representing the evasive symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, whose presence on the North American shoreline comes to resemble that of a modern Proteus.

Static and the state we’re in

Even materially, the statue has undergone constant change. It existed for many years as just a part of itself – the arm holding the torch – exhibited separately in Philadelphia in 1876. The head came next, also as a separate entity, exhibited in Paris in 1878. When the construction of the whole figure was underway, the plan to clothe a 150-foot high brick pier in copper sheeting was exchanged for that of an iron scaffold that would be more flexible in high winds. The statue itself has never actually stood still; by the 1980s the point of one of the sunrays projecting from its crown was seen to be sawing through the arm as its rocking motion grew more pronounced. It is possible to move around inside the statue and to share its own perspective on the world, but not always: public access has been withdrawn for long periods of time, especially after the events of 9/11 and the re-examination of ideas of liberty and licence, and how variously they can be understood. McQueen’s film was made towards the end of a period of closure, lasting from 2001 to 2009, when the statue could only be experienced at a distance.

Steve McQueen Static 2009 (installation shot)

Steve McQueen
Static 2009 (installation shot)
Tate T13425

In this context, the bird’s eye view of the statue shared by McQueen’s camera cannot avoid an association with the kinds of surveillance manoeuvres performed routinely by police helicopters (fig.1). The statue is more than just a symbol of liberty, a vehicle for the idea of a society founded on the principle of individual rights. It is also a metonym for the condition in which that society actually exists, subject to certain limitations on its freedom of movement. In McQueen’s film, liberty itself is being shadowed and monitored like a suspect – as well it might be, since absolute liberty is a serious threat to the state.

Static hovers obsessively over the question of how much or how little the reduction of liberty is justified; and in whose interest, finally, is a regime of control to be maintained? Of course, this question is sharpened by the realisation that the circling movement of the airborne camera is also that of the airliners whose mercilessly controlled collision with the Twin Towers was what triggered the introduction of emergency powers. We can understand the suspension of access to the Statue of Liberty as a practical measure, but the statue is not just an actual place but also an idea, a problematically constructed idea with a long history of controversy over its meanings, and it is therefore a site whose local reality is almost lost behind the global reputation it has acquired. The question of liberty is truly cornered by McQueen’s film, which has no time or space for anything else, its brief span an epitome of the arbitrariness involved in any truncation of its scope.

‘Static’ is also a noun referring to the noise that interferes in the transmission of radio or telecommunications systems. The only noise we hear in McQueen’s film of the same name is that of the helicopter engine that drowns out all other ambient sounds. The medium of aural representation is filled with the sound of its own apparatus, the helicopter being a necessary component in the mechanical system of filmmaking – as necessary as in a surveillance regime. Radical critique in the medium of film uses the same machinery as that of counter-terrorism. The output signal of independent filmmaking encounters feedback when its point of view, its style of documentation, and its technical media all reproduce those of control systems. And vice versa: surveillance procedures can be foregrounded by independent filmmaking as key elements in the move to a social reality where an increased degree of control is accepted as normal; just part of the everyday routines of the modern state.

Foretold to other eyes

When it was first conceived, by the French anti-slavery campaigner Edouard René de Laboulaye, the Statue of Liberty was intended to celebrate the principle of freedom exemplified by the abolition of slavery in 1865. But it is now understood universally as a symbol of the open arms policy towards immigration that has prevailed for much of the history of the United States. The decisive factor in this respect has been poetry, in particular the words of the sonnet ‘The New Colossus’ written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 when the statue was still under construction. As a figure welcoming new arrivals to the United States, the statue has become indissolubly linked to the phrasing of the sonnet’s lines 10–12:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

However, the poem was not in fact mounted on the pedestal of the statue until 1903, with word and image circling around one another for a period of twenty years before their relationship was literally cemented. The poem’s title links the statue to yet another association that was certainly in the mind of its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who had proposed in the 1860s to build a lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal amalgamating elements of two of the ancient Wonders of the World, the Pharos of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes. The torch in the hand of the Statue of Liberty retains the association with a lighthouse beacon, while Lazarus’s poem envisages the upraised arm of the statue holding a lamp to light the way to an open door. This scenario is behind Lazarus’s appellation of the statue as ‘Mother of Exiles’, beckoning emigrants to their true home. However, the maternal element is absent from classical and Revolutionary French conceptions of Liberty as a virginal figure.

Subsequent poetry has changed the meanings that the sponsors and builders of the statue hoped to leave to posterity, but it has also given it a longer and longer anteriority by tracing the origins of its meanings in historical and mythological precedents. The passage of time occupied by the viewer of McQueen’s film is enough to register the fact that what is being contemplated is always seen during a period of transition – always undergoing some degree of semantic transformation – at times gradual and unspectacular, at other times sudden and dramatic. But it is actually never static.

McQueen’s approach in this film and other early works has been seen as non-narrative and therefore, almost by default, as poetic. Certainly, poetry has been described – most influentially by literary theorist Roman Jakobson – as being organised primarily along a vertical rather than horizontal axis, consolidating its meanings not by means of the consequential unfolding of story, plot and hermeneutical progress, but through the amplification of figure, trope, consonance and what we might call idea-rhymes. In this sense the progress that is gained through reading a poem is not linear in character, and might well be thought of in terms of circling round and round the same set of concerns in order to augment and refine our awareness of them. Certainly, this is the effect of reading the poetry of Hart Crane, whose work returns several times to the Statue of Liberty, giving it an unusual depth of context, and a salutary ambiguity. The most complete single statement of its potency as a socio-political emblem for the historical significance of American statehood is Crane’s poem ‘To Liberty’:

Out of the seagull cries and wind
On this strange shore I build
The virgin. They laugh to hear
How I endow her, standing
Hair mocked by the sea, her lover
A dead sailor that knew
Not even Helen’s fame.
Light the last torch in the wall,
The sea wall. Bring her no robes yet.
They have not seen her in this harbour;
Eyes widely planted, clear, yet small.
And must they overcome the fog,
Or must we rend our dream?1

This poem, written at some point in the late 1920s and unpublished during Crane’s lifetime, may have been left unfinished. It is tempting to think that its thirteen lines might reflect an attempt to respond to Lazarus’s fourteen-line sonnet. I quote it here because it draws symptomatically on other traditions of thought about American liberty than that now associated with interpretation of the statue since Lazarus’s poem was affixed to it, both physically and ideologically.

The most immediately striking difference is the identification of the figure as a virgin, since this forges a link with the earliest personification of America as Virginia, the name given to the earliest settlement by Europeans denoting a land previously untouched, even though the first settlers would have known very rapidly that there was no basis in fact for such a claim. But the name stuck because the idea of the land as a tabula rasa was needed by Europeans wishing to fashion a way of life there that was a projection of the desires they had brought with them from the Old World. Crane insisted on the essential ‘virginity’ of America throughout his work, precisely because the experience of first landfall was repeated hundreds of times over with the arrival of each boatload of immigrants from elsewhere. America became the screen on which the immigrants would project their hopes and wishes for a fresh start. Crane’s major work The Bridge (1930) begins ostensibly with an address to Brooklyn Bridge, but the address is deflected almost immediately by an acknowledgement of the Statue of Liberty, viewed across the harbour. The switching of attention is partly cognisant of the allure of the statue and what it represents to those seeing it for the first time, an allure conceived of precisely in terms of cinematically curated desires:

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent towards some flashing scene
Never disclosed but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;2

America itself is being conceived of as a spectacle of illusions: fantasies of renewal and redemption; deceptive fictions for the most part, but necessary fictions all the same. The power of dreams is such that Crane imagines it detaining even the Statue of Liberty itself:

And Thee, across the harbour, silver paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!3

If we pause to ask ourselves the question, ‘What does the Statue of Liberty think?’, the answer is, according to Hart Crane, the same as every refugee who gazes on its face – it is ‘stayed’, which is to say that its desires are arrested, in a condition in which freedom can only ever be qualified. Every refugee knows that movement is the first condition of their freedom, but Crane observes and dwells on the fact that Liberty herself is in a pose of arrested movement: of stasis, in fact. The idea of Liberty literally outruns the reality.

Even more revealing and suggestive is Crane’s opening address in the same poem, which is made not directly to Brooklyn Bridge, but to a seagull flying above it:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty – 4

In defiance of the ideological version of freedom represented by the architecture of public statuary, the climbing motion of the seagull is ‘building’ towards an airborne expression of true freedom. There is an astonishing parallel here for the viewer of McQueen’s film between the circular pattern of the ‘white rings’ left on the surface of the ‘rippling’ sea where the bird rests, as well as the circular pattern of its flight as it wheels ever higher above the harbour, and the circling manoeuvres of McQueen’s helicopter as it traverses the same airspace. Crane underlines the natural freedom of the bird by insisting that the ‘bay waters’ under the jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York are ‘chained’, in a deliberate and provocative allusion to the broken chain that lies at the feet of the Statue of Liberty as part of the work. By comparison with the seagull’s unconditional freedom, the sculptural representation of a broken chain is no more than a rhetorical gesture, since the motion of the statue is impeded regardless. By juxtaposing Crane’s gull with McQueen’s helicopter, we can appreciate the full force of the latter’s irony in tracing out a cinematic architecture with the flight paths of an authoritarian reaction to what, in 2009, seems an extenuation of political paranoia.

To return to Crane’s poem ‘To Liberty’, the second half of the first verse evokes the epic tradition that gave poetry real ideological power in the forging of nationality and statehood. The reference to Helen in connection with a ‘dead sailor’, alludes to the twin aftermaths of the Trojan War, in the story of Odysseus, who was to be turned into the archetypal exile for European culture, and the journey of Aeneas, departing from the ruins of Troy to found the state and future empire of Rome. Crane’s sailor does not share either of these illustrious fates and is a reminder of the many unremembered refugees and exiles whose stories – and sometimes lives – are simply lost. Crane’s second verse insists on the lighting of torches for those who have not yet returned home or, more realistically, who have yet to reach their new ‘home’. The outcome of all those anticipated journeys hangs in the balance, since it is too early to decide what ‘robes’ to wear, in expression of mourning or celebration, and Crane’s virgin here seems to double for the widows whose part in the national story is given architectural expression in all the ‘widows’ walks’ seen in houses along the coast of New England. The poem concludes with a set of alternatives which render ambivalent the advantages of seeing through or past ‘fog’ to ascertain a reality which might do no more than ‘rend our dream’, suggesting that Liberty is more of a dream than anything else, and that its insubstantiality must be recognised even if it is repeatedly embraced.

Of course, McQueen’s film does not refer directly to these poems, but it works in comparable ways and elicits reflection on the same range of concerns. As a British-born artist of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, McQueen is in a position to be especially sensitive to the fundamental challenges to a sense of identity that translocation involves, including the impossibility of fully replacing one idea of ‘home’ with another, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of exile. Among his own stated artistic influences, he has named Samuel Beckett with some frequency and has incorporated Beckett’s own language into the titles of several of his films and exhibitions. He admires Beckett’s economy of means, combining resonance with extreme concentration, and emulates the writer’s carefully calculated reticence and obliqueness. But his work also overlaps many of Beckett’s central concerns in its conceptual focus. Beckett is in many ways the exemplary writer as exile, going further than many in his use of a second language – French – as chief means of expression for the majority of his works written after leaving his native Ireland. All of these works dwell obsessively on departure from home and on the locations and relationships left behind, insisting on exile, vagrancy and the necessity for increasing the distance between origin and destination, while always looping back psychologically to repetitions with variations of the same scenarios, revisiting past dreams of anticipated futures, and reviewing past decisions in order to recapture imagined alternatives. Beckett’s abandonment of English to write in French reverses the priorities encountered by emigrants to the United States, but parallels their situation in having to remake the self through acclimatisation to the mindset and sensibility permitted by the host language. Part of the self is inevitably lost in translation. Beckett typically writes in French about a past Irish self originally constructed through the medium of English. For much of his career Beckett deployed a wry comedy to camouflage an unbearable degree of emotional damage and to convert this into a pretext for resilience, while in his late works there is a much more anaesthetic evenness of tone, suggesting an excessive degree of self-alienation.

But even in his late English works there is an obsession with the point of origin from which one is irrevocably removed, requiring a constant reassessment and redefinition of concepts of home, of the maternal and paternal, of the landscape that provided initial orientation in the world. A focal work for McQueen is Beckett’s short play Not I (1972), whose opening words ‘Into this World’, when transplanted to the filmmaker’s world, immediately relocate the Beckettian reference to birth to the settings of a twenty-first-century socio-political reality. McQueen was to use the phrase as the title of his show at Thomas Dane Gallery, London, in 2004. But the structure of Beckett’s text, organised around key moments of uncertainty about the identity of the self, involves a compulsive circling around the experience of dislocation and disassociation that is reflected in the many-layered, concentric movements of McQueen’s Static, a more detached and meditative work, but one which is never very far from a sense of political pressure, and touching incidentally on so many of the same threats, anxieties and lost illusions.