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reviews© 2010 by Nka Publications Journal of Contemporary African Art• 27• Fall 2010 118 • Nka Steve McQueen, Giardini, 2009. 35mm film transferred to HDCAM SR, duration 0:30:08. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London Steve McQueen Giardini Marian Goodman Gallery, New York January 19–March 9, 2010 Immersed and overwhelmed at my first Documenta in 2002, I found myself in a darkened gallery, being jostled about and squeezed by the crowd. Nothing seemed to be happening on the screen before me as I began to shift my weight from leg to leg. I soon left the gallery and promised myself a return lap later on. It never happened. As a result of this foolish lack of patience, I missed one of the most talked-­ about experiences of the show, Steve McQueen’s Western Deep (2002). I use the word experience because, by all accounts, Western Deep was not just seen: it was heard, felt, and, one might even say, smelled and tasted. The work plunges the spectators into darkness during the amount of time it takes gold miners in South Africa to descend via elevator into the hellish bowels where they work, so initially only bits of clanging and scraping are discernible. Clear visibility returns only once the workers themselves emerge into the mines. McQueen engineers, not just commands , the attention of his viewers. Giardini, displayed at the Marian Goodman Gallery, is no exception. A ravishing half-­ hour dual projection, it comprises vignettes recorded around the national pavilions that are the principal organizing spaces of the Venice Biennale. It is disorienting, but one quickly realizes that this disorientation results from the viewer’s baggage of preconceptions: hearing garden, one tends to think of nature, tamed and beautified; in the more specific context of Venice, giardini evokes a glamorous art-­ world event. Here one is given neither. We do get bits of raw nature— ­ a bug on a leaf, a snail crawling along— ­ but these are in extreme close-­ up, with no external context. Those images are overtaken by wider zooms showing vacated public spaces filled with trash, piles of building materials , and loose dogs on the prowl, hunting through the detritus for food and pissing at regular intervals, often with the nationality of the pavilion visible or partially visible (“Svizze . . .” for Switzerland). This is the Giardini between biennales, after the festivities have been cleared away, after the departure of visitors, critics, and journalists . As T. J. Demos phrases it, McQueen shows us the Venice Giardini “in the down-­ time and during the nights, in the shadows of the spectacle.”1 One of the most arresting images in Giardini is a close-­ up of a discarded, corroded nail, bleeding its rust onto a white surface, on the left screen. The camera remains on the nail for what feels like nearly a minute, with the shot getting tighter. The initial juxtaposition on the right is an extreme close-­ up of a green leaf, which is more quickly replaced by a medium long shot of a pack of greyhounds , centered, with stairs in the background. The dialectic between the images— ­ and between the viewer and the images— ­ is constantly shifting , with occasional blanks on one screen or the other. New points of tension arise every few seconds, yet a nearly palpable stillness accompanies each tableau. The weirdness and existence of life in the “shadows of the spectacle” is evoked, but the camera also dwells on things that tend to remain in the background, unnoticed, rarely contemplated with the close attention that McQueen forces on the viewer. The crystal-­ clear sound track of sounds both mundane (rain, crickets) and climactic (the orgiastic screams of the football matches that take place in a stadium behind the Giardini ) also forces such unaccustomed and tense contemplation. In presenting the surface and the banal as the true barometer of both a specific place and, more broadly, an era, McQueen’s work brought me back to Siegfried Kracauer, the great Weimar philosopher of the ephemeral, who also believed in the telling nature of unselfconscious architectural spaces: The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an...


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