Monday, 5 November 2012

Steve McQueen, Static, 2009

Each year we go to Chicago to SOFA, the sculpture and functional art fair on the Navy Pier. And we always take some time to visit the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The big exhibition at the Art Institute this year was Steve McQueen. I have very little patience with video art, preferring to decide how long I will look at an object on my own, rather than at someone else's bidding. So if a video work tells a story, I usually miss it. There are exceptions to this experience: I found The Clock thrilling, and an Omer Fast video in the More/Real at SITE Santa Fe captured me for some time, although I did not watch the entire thing. Likewise one video in the McQueen show kept my attention, but my experience was so different from what the label told me I should think that I wanted to report on it.
I walked into the first gallery of the show and saw the Statue of Liberty, just the top of it, obviously seen from a circling helicopter. I think I first thought "I wonder if there are people in the observation deck inside her crown," so I waited to see it, but the camera was so unsteady that the crown, and even her face, were not visible for a while, something that irritated me. Then I thought, "Oh, yes, Steve McQueen is a British artist of African descent, he might intend this to be about the Statue of Liberty as a symbol both positive and negative of America, but it really doesn't express any point of view to me on that subject." Other thoughts passed through my head: "Is there an observation place in the flame?" "Wow, the flame is really gold, gilt like so many domes and decorations in St. Petersburg." I remembered when I set sail for Europe on the United States in 1966 and passed by the Statue of Liberty, welcoming people to the United States, and thought of all the people for whom it's been a landmark of hope and freedom and opportunity, but also at the same time a symbol of hypocrisy when the United States was at war in some small third-world country or sending those hopeful immigrants home. As the helicopter circled, I looked beyond the statue to the landscape of New York and New Jersey, never seeing important landmarks, but the changes from the docks and watery landscapes to the skyline, also thinking that Hurricane Sandy had probably changed some of the landscape already. The statue seemed lonely, and it seems amazing that it has stood for so long, given its structure. Signs of wear were there, maybe some leaves caught in a fold of drapery, one eye seeming a bit too deep, maybe manifestations of the travails of the country it symbolizes. I thought about visiting it when I was a small child and couldn't actually remember if we did visit it or if when we did we climbed to the top - probably not, since my mother was afraid of heights. I liked when the sounds of the helicopter got quieter, something that seemed to correspond to the camera becoming more steady and focusing better on the face of the sculpture, but then also drifting down to show the folds of drapery. Briefly I thought of Bartholdi and the models he made, as well as other giant sculptures he designed.
After viewing the entire show, I found the booklet with information about the work. The label says the jump cuts, which I found very irritating, made the statue "seem.. to lift off its float and fly against the backdrop of lower Manhattan and its surrounds. " Nothing like that occurred to me. The label also said the "film defamiliarizes an eminently recognizable symbol whose meanings are assuredly entrenched in the popular imagination," but I thought it looked really familiar and I'm not at all sure what it means to people these days.
I liked this work a lot. I liked the close up view of the the Statue of Liberty and thought the color and texture of the sculpture looked beautiful. Seeing it from above, alone against its surroundings, did give another viewpoint to the work. And fragmenting the sculpture enabled me to look at its parts in more detail than I normally would. So aesthetically the video had positive merits at the same time it gave me the chance to ruminate on the work from my own personal experience, giving it meanings more powerful for me than anything suggested by the label.

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