McQueen has said he sees no division between his work in cinema and his fine art. It is all part of what he wants to do creatively, he argues. And if anyone can straddle these two worlds then it is McQueen, according to Gregor Muir, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), in London. “He is an extraordinary man,” said Muir. “He was not just an artist who became a film director, he was one of the best artists of his generation. He has surprised us throughout his career.”
To underline McQueen’s value, four days ago a leading Dutch museum acquired two of his artworks. The pieces — a lightbox containing a photograph of a boy on a beach and footage of a dead horse lying in a meadow — will go on display in December at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, a museum that already owns 7th Nov, his 2001 short film recounting the events of a fatal accident. Commenting on the purchase of these works, the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz saw a false distinction between art and showbiz that assumes that the art world represents “a refined elite above the vulgarities of consumer society,” while, in fact, “it is just as intoxicated by the razzle-dazzle of celebrity culture as the readers of Grazia. Fame in the art world has the same effect as fame in the rest of society: it raises the value of an individual’s stock.”
Muir, who evangelized about the importance of video art when he worked at the Lux Gallery in east London and then at the Tate, central London, before he ran the ICA, thinks there is another false distinction at work.
“We shouldn’t assume that fine art is always going to be less popular or entertaining than a commercially made film,” he said, citing the example of Christian Marclay’s acclaimed 24-hour montage The Clock.
“In the early 1990s artists began to explore film because suddenly they had access to camcorders and digital film-making. They could deconstruct film as never before, whereas in the past artists had to form co-operatives to make videos together.”
Muir points out the ICA’s role at that moment. In 1999 the institute was the venue for McQueen’s first big solo show, although some of his work had been shown by a London dealer. Tracey Emin was one of the first to jump into film with her short biographical pieces.
“Tracey received a lot of support for her early films, both in the world of art and of film,” recalls Muir. “Some of those early films were truly touching vignettes.”
But it was McQueen and Taylor-Wood, now known as Sam Taylor-Johnson following her marriage to actor Aaron Johnson, and acclaimed for her debut feature Nowhere Boy, who were to head for the big screen.
“Sam saw a path for herself and she has taken it. But Steve and Douglas Gordon, the artist who made a film about the French footballer Zinedine Zidane, were both influenced by the artists Bill Naumann and Bill Viola and wanted to expand on their ideas. It was clear they wanted to test the way in which narrative film could exist as an art form. They had quite a different route from Schnabel, who just suddenly surprised us with his rare talent in film.”