As its matter-of-fact name suggests (Schaulager is a “viewable storage area”), the main remit of this Basel institution is not to mount exhibitions but to facilitate informed study of its collections. Yet since it opened in 2003, the Schaulager has hosted about one show annually in its two bottom floors. This year it offers a lavish career retrospective of British filmmaker Steve McQueen, installed in an approximately 10,000-square-foot area expressly designed for the works.
McQueen was born in London in 1969. He studied at Goldsmiths College a few years after the Young British Artists. A brief stint at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York may have helped him avoid being corralled into their circle. But from the outset, his work was distinctive, steering clear of YBA brashness. One of the earliest films in the exhibition, Bear (1993), produced as his final Goldsmiths project, is a silent, black-and-white, 10-minute loop showing the artist wrestling with another naked black man. The action is sometimes playful, sometimes aggressive; the light is low, and the viewpoint constantly changes. McQueen orchestrates a dense work with oscillating dynamics. Is it about race? Affection between men? Could it be about these particular individuals? McQueen provides no ready answers.
In Basel, Bear is projected on one side of a large triangular column; the other facets screen two other early black-and-white films, Five Easy Pieces (1995) and Just above My Head (1996). The column is the centerpiece of the very successful upper-story installation, a gathering place of sorts. Another nine films and one photograph are installed in smaller surrounding rooms.
The exhibition includes 26 works in all, mostly film or video. And that does not count McQueen’s feature films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), which are part of a continuous, artist-curated screening program in the auditorium. The work is vigorous throughout, making it hard to believe that it spans over two decades. The most recent piece, a 2013 photograph, shows a tree near New Orleans where slaves were lynched, surrounded by their graves. The image relates to the artist’s feature Twelve Years a Slave, forthcoming in autumn 2013.
Also on view are anti-cinematic works like Drumroll (1998), a three-screen installation. Its disorienting visuals were gathered by cameras filming from three points inside an oil drum as McQueen rolled it around Manhattan. As time has passed, the films have grown more personal, demanding a greater ethical involvement of both artist and viewer. Western Deep (2002) communicates the hellish conditions in the world’s deepest gold mine, in South Africa. End Credits (2012) was installed just once before—last year, in McQueen’s solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago. Six hours long, it presents a series of projections of scanned pages from the FBI files compiled on the actor and activist Paul Robeson during the McCarthy era. Male and female voices read the redacted pages out of sync. There is no relief from the suffocating weight of the prying investigation and its dry documentation. If with Drumroll McQueen made a film that challenged cinematic conventions, End Credits interrogates the kinds of sources from which films can be generated.
McQueen has consistently ignored or overcome the givens of film and video in order to wrest from them new possibilities. This generous exhibition allows us to see the complexity and strengths of his career. Fixing his subjects with a steady gaze, McQueen does not look away when the watching becomes uncomfortable.
PHOTO: Steve McQueen: End Credits, 2012, projected sequence of digitally scanned files, approx. 6 hours; at the Schaulager.