In Focus

Medium: Seeing, Stasis and Movement

Rachel Wells

‘There is no history without the capacity to arrest historical movement’
Eduardo Cadava, 19971

One of the first impressions the viewer has of Static 2009 (Tate T13425) is that of movement. The image projected on the wall never remains still, so that while the viewer knows that the Statue of Liberty itself is immobile, McQueen’s film instantly creates a paradoxical relationship with its title. As curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas has noted, the constant circling of the camera is disorientating, and ‘confuse[s] a sense of spatial perception, with both the statue and the cityscape beyond seeming to be perpetually on the move’.2 Carey-Thomas interprets this destabilising of the statue by McQueen’s camera as questioning both Liberty’s ‘fixed identity and the values it represents’.3 As much as it undermines the stability of this historic construction of liberty, however, the artwork is also an examination of the difficulties of looking, and the persistence that it requires. Throughout Static what does remain fixed is McQueen’s desire to focus on the statue: there is a determination to look at, and to see, this enormous physical object and its myriad, complex and constantly changing meanings. With each circling and each cut, the struggle to control the camera becomes as central to the artwork as the statue itself. The film is often a fight to gain the time, closeness and stillness that is needed to see clearly.

The necessity to keep looking is arguably the key recurring theme within Steve McQueen’s work as both an artist and director, and he has used both stasis and movement to highlight the obstacles that must be overcome in order to see. While the continuous movement of the camera in Static presents a physical challenge to sight, sometimes McQueen has used the prolonged stillness of the camera to present a psychological challenge to keep looking. Unlike Static, his feature films have become known for significant lengthy scenes which are allowed to play out in front of a static camera for much longer than conventional cinema would allow. The sixteen-minute single static shot in Hunger (2008), for example, in which Bobby Sands and Father Moran sit at opposite ends of a table and talk, breaks the narrative flow of the film with its prolonged insertion of real-time conversation, and reflects the inertia of imprisonment. Critic and curator Cameron Bailey suggests that this scene invites viewers ‘to a kind of clock-watching: how long must I keep my focus, how long can the actors keep it going, how long before the camera blinks?’4 There is a similarly intense and famous scene in 12 Years a Slave (2013), in which the camera remains still and distanced while the central character Solomon Northup hangs from a tree and makes tiny, fraught movements with his toes as he strains to stay alive. If these lengthy scenes shot from a static camera in Hunger and 12 Years a Slave emphasise the discomfort of staring into a forgotten, supposedly completed past via the unfolding narrative of a feature film, the bobbing, jostling camera in Static uses the disrupted temporality of a looped artwork to suggest the difficulty of seeing the present condition of an iconic, supposedly timeless historic construction.

According to philosopher Walter Benjamin’s influential writing on historicism, the stopping of time and the stilling of movement is a precondition of history itself. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin states that historical thought involves ‘not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well’.5 Discussing this statement, the scholar Eduardo Cadava has argued:

For Benjamin, there can be no history without the Medusa effect – without the capacity to arrest or immobilize historical movement, to isolate the detail of an event from the continuum of history. Adorno himself recognised this point when, in his 1955 portrait of Benjamin, he claimed that the glance of Benjamin’s philosophy is ‘Medusan’. The Medusa’s gaze stalls history in the sphere of speculation. It short-circuits, and thereby suspends, the temporal continuity between a past and a present. This break from the present enables the rereading and rewriting of history.6

For Cadava, this philosophy is highly connected to photography and to its role within historicism; still photographs offer the arrest and immobilisation which allows a caesura or interruption in which history can be both reread and rewritten. While the film or video functions differently by extending over time and foregrounding duration, as a medium film nevertheless presents a limited, finite time-span. In Static any kind of stilling or stopping is either disallowed or never achieved, and even the finitude of the unfolding film is undermined by the looping, repeated nature of the artwork. McQueen here disallows the arresting of movement which Cadava claims, via Benjamin, to be a precondition of history.

McQueen has already been identified by curator Mark Godfrey as contributing to a trend of contemporary art that is concerned with the historical.7 For Godfrey, McQueen is one of a number of artists who choose to focus upon locations that have been ‘touched by past events’, as seen in his artwork Carib’s Leap 2002 (Tate T12019). However, in Static McQueen not only chooses a significant historical landmark but poses questions about the construction of history through his deployment of the camera. While within his – notably historical – films Hunger and 12 Years a Slave McQueen privileges the static camera as if to invite a re-examination of the past and a reconstruction of history, Static offers the viewer no such pause, and no such invitation. The implication, as this study aims to show, is that the Statue of Liberty herself, as both an immobile object and an unusually static depiction of Liberty, signifies an attempt to construct history, and that this attempt is dissected and destabilised by McQueen’s moving camera.

The enduring eye

Steve McQueen Charlotte 2004 (still)

Fig.1
Steve McQueen
Charlotte 2004 (still)
© Steve McQueen

With Benjamin’s insistence on the need for the arrest of historical movement as a precondition of history, the challenge not to blink which Bailey identifies in McQueen’s work becomes more loaded. Blinking functions as a brief break from sight, a caesura in the duration of seeing. McQueen’s 2004 work Charlotte is entirely focused upon a literal fight to resist blinking: it presents a close-up shot of actress Charlotte Rampling’s eye, drenched blood-red by a filter. Her unflinching gaze is maintained as McQueen’s outstretched finger reaches closer and closer to prod her iris (fig.1). The artwork has been seen as a metaphor for McQueen’s approach towards film, and towards looking in general: the subject, camera and viewer must not ‘blink’. Charlotte suggests that it is important not to look away, to remain open until the last, however uncomfortable such a determination might be, and however vulnerable it might make the viewer. That brief respite offered by a blink, its short refuge and opportunity for internalisation and privacy, is denied by McQueen’s static camera in Charlotte. Such a cessation of the gaze is precisely what happens at times of historical rupture: the blink becomes suggestive of the ‘standstill’ which occurs at moments of trauma, and which prompts the ‘rereading and rewriting of history’. For Cadava, again interpreting Benjamin: ‘History comes to a head in a moment of disaster, in the time of the disaster that structures the danger of history. In the almost no-time of this breakdown, thinking comes to a standstill. It experiences itself as an interruption.’8

Just as a blink is an instinctive physical reaction to the oncoming trauma of a prod in the eye, so an arresting of historical movement is perhaps the instinctive collective reaction to periods of chaos and suffering. McQueen’s work demonstrates his interest in resisting this instinct, and instead seeing on through the pain. Such an artistic preoccupation with continuous looking suggests a Benjaminian desire to see the past on a continuum with the present, a desire to disallow any comforting separation between the two.

This challenge to keep looking has led many commentators to discuss the effort which McQueen demands of his viewers, as concerted attention and commitment is required. He is not the only artist to test viewers in this way, of course, and his work can be said to resonate particularly with Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, or ‘Stillies’, made between 1964 and 1967. As a temporal extension or elongation of the photograph, these ‘tests’ function as examinations both of and for Warhol’s subjects, as they remain static and try not to blink. Furthermore, given its focus upon an iconic New York landmark, Static bears particular resonance with another of Warhol’s artworks – his eight-hour film of the Empire State Building titled Empire 1964. Warhol placed his camera in the Time-Life Building and filmed from a static position for six hours as darkness fell, later slowing down the projection from twenty-four frames per second to sixteen. According to curator Joseph D. Ketner II, Warhol’s film is ‘an endurance test’ for the viewer, in which the ‘motion picture is reduced to an immobile image’.9 Given that the essence of film is often conceived of as time itself, ‘slowing time down to an almost static experience’ is read as an investigation into film as a medium, creating a ‘meditative experience’.10 McQueen’s Static presents a stark reversal of Warhol’s Empire in its constant movement of the camera and its looped brevity. Yet it presents a similar investigation of the fixed determination to look, a challenge to the viewer to re-examine what has already been seen, and an artistic investigation into the nature of movement and stasis within film.

While movement has often been considered as a defining aspect of film as a medium, the role of stasis has often been ignored. Film historian Justin Remes has noted the centrality of the static within film, noting that motion in film began only as an illusion created by the serialising of still frames. In this sense, analogue film itself ‘blinks’: 35 mm film blinks twenty-four times a second, yet McQueen has notably stilled this blinking in Static by transferring the film to video. Beyond analogue film’s practical, inbuilt dependency upon stasis, however, Remes has also investigated the philosophical discussion of stasis, arguing ultimately that ‘absolute stasis is impossible’.11 Philosopher Henri Bergson’s famous consideration of duration is key here; in Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson suggests that the temporal nature of experience necessarily prevents the ‘static’ from existing:

There is no feeling, no idea, no volition which is not undergoing change every moment: if a mental state ceased to vary, its duration would cease to flow. Let us take the most stable of internal states, the visual perception of a motionless external object. The object may remain the same, I may look at it from the same side, at the same angle, in the same light; nevertheless the vision I now have of it differs from that which I have just had, even if only because the one is an instant older than the other.12

In effect Bergson offers here a philosophy of nineteenth-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s observation on the static: namely that ‘Naught may endure but Mutability’.13 McQueen’s Static can be read as a meditation on this very idea: his focus on the ‘motionless external object’ of the Statue of Liberty emphasises the constant physical motion and changing viewpoint of the viewer, and in so doing the circling camera offers a metaphor for the continuously shifting nature of perception, and its very inability to become static.

Despite the smooth circling motion of the film, then, a jarr or rift is created within the artwork as the persistently mobile viewer and their ever evolving perception hits the immutability claimed by the Statue of Liberty in terms of what it symbolises. Echoed in the paradoxical nature of McQueen’s title for this moving film, the constant unfolding of time and change are presented in direct conflict with a monument and its claims to permanence.

Monuments and memory

In their 2003 study Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade, art historians Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin use this very dichotomy between stasis and motion to define what a monument is:

More than most works of art or architecture, not to mention ordinary objects, monuments enjoy multiple social roles. As things, they share their status with other objects: the term monumentality suggests qualities of inertness, opacity, permanence, remoteness, distance, preciosity, and grandeur. Yet monuments are prized precisely because they are not merely cold, hard, and permanent. They are also living, vital, immediate, and accessible, at least to some parts of society.14

McQueen’s film reveals just such a combination of inert, cold, copper object with its grand scale and remote fixed expression, and moving, ongoing perception which changes over time, and changes the meaning associated with the object. If a monument is defined by its peculiar coalescing of stasis and motion, Static itself functions as a monument, structurally reflecting this combination of the inert and the immediate.

In their exploration of this ‘hybrid’ nature of the monument, Nelson and Olin make reference to sociologist Bruno Latour’s analysis of ‘quasi-objects, quasi-subjects’ first expounded in his 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern. Latour suggests that within social science the strength of objects, including works of art, has been either over- or under-estimated: they either ‘count for nothing’ and act like a blank cinema screen for the projection of society, or they are considered ‘so powerful that they shape human society’.15 Latour then follows philosopher Michel Serres’s use of the term ‘quasi-objects’, discussing them as society’s ‘co-producers’.16 According to this conception, the Statue of Liberty as monument functions not merely as a cinematic screen for the projection of a society’s ideals, but rather itself contributes to the construction and evolution of those ideals. Nelson and Olin use Latour’s discussion to suggest that the static/mobile, noun/verb dialectic they detect at the heart of a monument aligns with that of the object/subject relationship.17 The implication of this argument is that monuments then have a form of agency in their hybrid status and their ability to ‘trace and enact social networks’.18

It is this vital subjecthood that perhaps links the monument most closely with memory: the unique combination of permanent, enduring object and ‘living’, unfolding subjecthood acts as an aid to remembering, and a prompt to commemoration. Indeed, Nelson and Olin make reference to Alfred Gell’s anthropological research into the agency of art when they note a synergy between the monument and his definition of the art object as ‘a means of acting, a way of transforming the world’, rather than a mere ‘means of symbolic communication’.19 This complicates any straightforward model of the relationship between monuments and memory as akin to that between product and process. Rather, that relationship is complex and circular, an inextricable looping echoed in the structure of McQueen’s film.20

McQueen’s interest in memorialising and his refusal to forget become apparent through a study of Static and the rest of his work, as well as from what McQueen himself has revealed in interviews. McQueen’s artworks and feature films have often focused on actual people and the events by which they are remembered, be it McQueen’s cousin in 7th Nov 2001, Bobby Sands in Hunger or Samuel Northrop in 12 Years a Slave. Discussing these latter two films, McQueen has made links between these historical events and current situations: imprisonment in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay, for example, and ongoing slavery and human trafficking.21 The suggestion here is not only that the past must not be forgotten, but also that the past can be used to highlight the failings of the present. McQueen refuses the ‘blink’, the caesura, which separates the two. Making this persistent interest in remembering explicit, McQueen has stated that ‘The only doctrine I have as an artist is to not allow the dust of the past to settle’.22 McQueen’s practice is dedicated, it seems, to keeping the dust moving, refusing it the rest and stillness of forgetting, and resisting the impulse to cordon it off safely as ‘the past’.

Steve McQueen Broken Column 2014 (installation shot)

Fig.2
Steve McQueen
Broken Column 2014 (installation shot)
© Steve McQueen; courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

In 2014 McQueen made a sculptural work which perhaps constitutes his most direct approach towards the monument. Broken Column 2014 (fig.2) was exhibited at Thomas Dane Gallery in London alongside McQueen’s film Ashes 2014, a film combining footage shot in 2002 of a young man called Ashes sitting gleefully on the front of a boat bobbing in the Caribbean Sea with the more recently recorded soundtrack of men recounting the story of his murder (fig.3). Like Static, the film’s central juncture is that between living, vital movement and inertia, here in the form of the implied stillness of death. McQueen highlights this theme and the poignancy of the man’s name by using it as the title for his film, which is an artwork but also primarily, perhaps, a memorial, a monument to the man and his memory. When shown alongside this film, Broken Column takes on immediate associations: the two black columns are identical except in their varying scales, and the different ways in which they are exhibited. The larger version stands balanced upon a wooden pallet, its shiny granite surface resting incongruously on such a blunt and casual pedestal. In an adjoining room the second smaller column echoes its larger partner but is matt, raised on a plain white pedestal common to modern art galleries, and is encased in Perspex. Within this protective casing dust has settled around the sculpture. The doubling and differing conditions of the two forms suggest the difficulties and dangers of attempting to evade time and its effects through plastic preservation. Even in artificial, careful conditions, dust creeps in and sleeps, and time makes its mark. Absolute stasis, as Bergson observed, is impossible.

Steve McQueen Ashes 2014 (installation shot)

Fig.3
Steve McQueen
Ashes 2014 (installation shot)
© Steve McQueen; courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

In their shape, both parts of Broken Column resonate with previous sculptural deconstructions of the traditional monument. The shorn-off top of the cylinder, as if cut at an angle, evokes Claes Oldenburg’s giant lipstick (Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks 1969), while the very title, Broken Column, makes direct reference to Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk 1963–9. As critic Rosalind Krauss argued in her landmark 1979 essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, Newman’s sculpture, which she described as ‘all base’, absorbed the pedestal into itself and so, along with other contemporary sculptures, radically refused the fixity in time and space that had characterised previous modernist sculpture.23

Critic Adrian Searle has argued that the exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery revealed McQueen’s art as one ‘of resistance’, fighting against both ‘invisibility and death’, an argument that is founded notably upon the comparative mobility of the sculpture, which connects it to particular and evolving social roles:

McQueen sees [Broken Column] as a kind of portable monument to lost and wasted lives: the premature and avoidable deaths from drugs, shootings, suicide and Aids were on his mind. The death of Ashes, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and innumerable others.24

This monument, then, like Static, is portable, mobile, alive. It is perhaps the exemplar of the monument as ‘quasi-object, quasi-subject’, a steady determination to remember alongside an acceptance that memory too is unstable and transient. It also, as Searle’s commentary emphasises, reminds viewers that memory always has a genitive: it is always specific, always directed. In Static, that specificity is tied to the camera’s focus on the Statue of Liberty, which is explored in depth in the following section of this study. If, for Latour, monuments such as Liberty can be considered misguidedly as functioning like a blank cinema screen onto which society can project its ideals, McQueen presents a reversal of this view by suggesting that film and the screen endow objecthood. When asked in 2012 about the political efficacy of art, McQueen replied:

Art can’t fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What’s important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It’s someone’s view of an incident, an advanced starting point.25

Static, like Liberty, becomes a quasi-object, both subjective and objective, around which debate can circulate and attempt to focus.