Venice Biennale: Steve McQueen

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Steve McQueen’s newly commissioned work, Giardini, represents Great Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale. Giardini takes its name and subject matter from the main venue of the Biennale, the Giardini di Castello, on two separate, highly horizontal film screens placed seamlessly side by side. The images on each screen in turn interact with one another, offering different vantage points of the same imagery. Each screen is alternately blank at certain points during the film.

Unlike past work by Steve McQueen, Giardini lacks an overt social message. Instead, McQueen offers quite reticent imagery that captures the character of the Giardini during the long off season of the Venice Biennale. The camera work of this film is very still and patient while framing aesthetically interesting compositions that each stay on the screen for some time. The camera remains still while it captures passing images and movements. It’s presence is made known through the absence and return of the image to the screen and during the obvious switch from scene to scene. McQueen also makes use of the camera’s focus to zero in on details while blurring the background. The accompanying sound is largely applicable to the site of the filmed scenes, including dripping water and rain. There is also the addition of booming sound (like a cheering stadium of football fans), which further emphasizes the absence of people on the grounds.

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In Giardini the viewer is offered the antithesis to the experience of visiting the Biennale, which takes place during the height of Venice’s tourist season every other summer. In its place, the viewer sees rainy, cold conditions. The formidable grounds and national pavilions are abandoned and vacant aside from a pack of dogs, the occasional local walking through, and for illicit late-night rendezvous. The only hint at the festival’s high-profile bustle are its remains in the form of piles of garbage and the odd scattering of confetti. McQueen’s film takes on the guise of a nature show, pointing out the various bugs, spiders, plants and puddles that occupy the empty grounds and by taking the viewer from day to night. Giardini is highly relevant and site-specific to the Biennale context. It differentiates itself from the artist’s rich body of past work by maintaining an everyday quality and not addressing international issues of contemporary relevance.

Steve McQueen has been a prominent multi-media artist working in primarily video and film since attending the Chelsea School of Art (1989-90), Goldsmith’s College (1990-93), and the Tisch School of the Arts in New York University (1993-94). Among many prestigious awards, McQueen has received the Turner Prize (1999) and the Camera d’Or and International Federation of Critics Award, Cannes Film Festival (2008). In 2003, McQueen was appointed as the Official War Artist (for the current Iraq War) by the Imperial War Museum. The artist lives and works in London and Amsterdam.

Giardini by Steve McQueen was commissioned by Andrea Rose and curated by Richard Riley with support from the British Arts Council, the Thomas Dane Gallery, and the Marian Goodman Gallery, The Art Fund Charity, and Outset Contemporary Art Fund. The film will remain at the British Pavilion through 22 November 2009.

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