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Steve McQueen, 'Illuminer', 2001. Photo: video still © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

Steve McQueen’s major survey at Tate Modern is a masterclass in taking care of the dead. In the array of bodies at work, rest and play, McQueen foregrounds the not-quite-there: absence, image without sound, darkness.

I am sitting in the black-box gallery space, waiting in darkness for ‘7th Nov’ (2001) to begin. What to do with this anticipatory time? What becomes important in the dark? A man’s voice fills the room, recounting the circumstances which led him to shooting his own brother, accidentally. The voice is McQueen’s cousin Marcus. It is a frank, intimate voice, not overly emotional. A single 35mm slide fills the screen. A body with a jagged scar running from ear to ear lies there. The body is inanimate, a placeholder, the presence of an absence. Gently, we are engaged by the unfolding of Marcus’ narrative voice as it presides over the dark. What is lacking visually allows for the absolute centrality of Marcus; McQueen respects the story Marcus has to tell, however harrowing.

Conversely ‘Static’ (2009), shot on 35mm film from a helicopter circling the Statue of Liberty, animates and centres on the giant statue, her juddering flame dancing solely to the camera’s movements. ‘Static’ is most effective when the sculpted drapery remains in the middle of the frame, with the vast city landscape spinning and blurred behind. An intermittent helicopter soundscape joins the whir of a 16mm projector elsewhere in the gallery, confusing my sense of place. McQueen’s absences can simultaneously both destabilise and re-centre, whether they belong to the tale of an accidental murder or to the inanimate Statue of Liberty, newly reopened after the September 11 attack.

Now, a different kind of absence, a digital dark-noise, fills the screen save a few blue-tinged bedsheets. A dormant body—McQueen’s own—lies still in bed in ‘Illuminer’ (2001), lit by the light of a television. The image is sparse and although I am positioned like a voyeur, it reveals little. Sound from the television, mostly French and occasionally in English, speaks of the training US troops are given for tour in Afghanistan. This is a fact only accessible through reading exhibition texts or understanding the languages spoken. The act of withholding information or translation finds its parallel formally in the extreme, abstract nature of the image, the darkened room which substitutes image for image-noise in the absence of light.

I consider how McQueen has intended my own body to be conditioned by the space in parallel to a clear bodily theme within the work. Tension is missing—unlike ‘7th Nov’, ‘Illuminer’ is looped to give no clear indication of start and end point. Nevertheless I am unsettled by this spying on McQueen as he watches TV in bed. Fortunately, I am also free to leave the gallery.

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Steve McQueen, 7th Nov, 2001. Photo: video still © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

A more affective viewing discomfort is created by ‘Western Deep’ (2002): we descend three and a half kilometres underground down into TauTona, a South African gold mine, bearing witness to the repetitive and demanding labour of the miners. Their mouths move throughout and yet we hear only constant drilling, an aggressive and monotonous wall of sound filtered out as white noise until everything cuts, then silence proper.

Employing a thick soupy darkness, the film traps its audience in front of the screen and neatly side-steps the underlying colourism ever present in discussions of darkness when directly applied to the human body. With its gritty emulsion, the enhanced grain of Super 8 film is important to ‘Western Deep’, once again portraying McQueen’s interest in the presence of lacking.

Across this extensive show, McQueen tests boundaries, unsettling his audience at the same time as holding our attention. However, the more informative/instructional works, such as the dense, text heavy ‘End Credits’ (2012-ongoing) are harder to bear: with these, the limits of watching are uncomfortably stretched. Films with set times are more demanding than looping, non-narrative films which allow for a more distracted, uncommitted form of attention. Thus, some systems of power and control enacted through the method of display are more effective than others.

Often, particularly in ‘Ashes’, ‘Girls’, ‘Tricky’, and ‘Illuminer’ McQueen’s work puts the Black male to the fore. But while he portrays a decidedly Black masculine perspective, there are only a small number of Black males viewing the work, the rest being overwhelmingly white.

Who is the work for? This collection of fourteen works spanning film, sculpture and photography, from his first Super 8 film ‘Exodus’ (1992/97), to ‘End Credits’ (2012-ongoing about activist Paul Robeson), resist a single narrative, an overarching key to access. These fourteen works were not made to be shown together. The challenge of the viewer is to give the work the attention, care, respect, and sometimes distance, that McQueen has afforded his subjects.

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Steve McQueen, Charlotte, 2004. Photo: film still © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

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Rhea Storr (London/Yorkshire) makes films about black and mixed-race identities, asking where images fail or resist us. Her work focuses on the politics of masquerade and the way in which masquerade articulates identity. She seeks to interrogate what it means to be Black and British. Who has the right to speak about whom?

‘Steve McQueen’ opened at TATE Modern on 13 February, and is currently closed.