The anticipation is immense. Approaching Baltic, where Steve McQueen’s two works ‘Pursuit’, 2005, and ‘Running Thunder’, 2007, are showing, a gallery attendant thrusts a laminated disclaimer at me. Flashing lights and loud noises render the exhibit unsuitable for the elderly, pregnant or those of a nervous disposition. With its darkly suggestive title, this promises to be an ordeal.
‘Pursuit’ is truly disorientating and inescapably immersive; groping your way into a blacked-out space you are confronted by a large double-sided screen that flickers alluringly with white lights which in turn bounce off 360° mirrored walls. Judging the room’s size requires haptically tracing the edges. The compromise of your visual faculties is exacerbated by a pounding track of indefinite sounds, panting, running, gunfire, percussion, at a volume enough to warp the walls. The experience is certainly oppressive and has its greatest impact within the first few minutes. Indeed the longer you gaze at the screen or creep tentatively around the space, the more the illusion unravels.
Time comes to feel your way through to ‘Running Thunder’, a continuous projection of a motionless (deceased) horse, lying in lush grass animated by the breeze and itinerant insects. The film’s tragic serenity is counter-balanced by the whirring presence of a vintage projector, the antithesis of the concealed machinations of ‘Pursuit’. The horse is an unmistakable trope of war; fallen, it further evokes an air of defeat. McQueen is official war artist to Iraq and has received attention for his postal stamp series entitled ‘Queen and Country’, 2007.
Produced two years before those commemorative images of lost lives, ‘Pursuit’ is, of course, a spectacle. Far from refuting Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that our mediated experience of war negates the reality of the conflict, it directly confronts the dilemma of representation with pure simulation. Being told that staff are on hand if you become distressed reminds me of the journalist who, skeptical of its torturous nature, tried waterboarding under supervision (and the gaze of TV cameras) and was rescued when the ordeal became unbearable.
The juxtaposition of ‘Pursuit’s urgency with ‘Running Thunder’s contemplation, alongside mention of ‘Queen and Country’s witness, enables a trajectory of responses to the Iraq war, a conflict that has notably been met with relative silence from the art community. Efforts to redress this, as in the ICA’s 2007 ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ exhibition for example, have often emphasised the artist’s creative crisis with contributions oscillating between indignation and impossibility. McQueen succeeds in being both provocative and evocative.
Exiting however, involves walking back through ‘Pursuit’, by which time your eyes have fully adjusted and the apparatus is plainly obvious. This exposure may be deliberate, but on this occasion the power of the piece lies in the layers of enigma not the revelation of the trick.
Kate Cowcher is an art historian and critic