Steve McQueen at Marian Goodman Gallery

Steve McQueen, Giardini (2009), video; courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Accompanying a group of students through the galleries along West 57th Street, I heard bitching and moaning as we entered Marian Goodman Gallery. Was there any possibility, I was asked, that a person could do the rounds without having to encounter a darkened room—that is to say, a space featuring a video installation?

I commiserated: Video is, after all, a genre pretty much dominated by sub-cinematic poseurs whose specialty is indulging trivial (or base) obsessions. So, the video featured at Goodman was greeted by not a little skepticism, and then, surprisingly, with something approaching awe. Steve McQueen’s Giardini, it turns out, is hypnotic, unnerving, highly theatrical and evocative. It’s that rare creature: a genuine work of art.

Giardini is making its American debut, having originally served as the U.K.’s contribution to the 2009 Venice Biennale. Running about 30 minutes and projected on two screens, McQueen’s video is an almost unbearably sensual meditation on narrative disassociation, occluded metaphor and the quiddities of memory and place.

Give Giardini a chance. For the first few minutes or so, McQueen’s juxtapositions of imagery—bugs, men smoking, a stolen embrace in an alleyway, a drop of water and wild dogs foraging through Venice—seem willfully random. A score alternating the ambient noise of traffic, crowds at a sports arena and a forest glen doesn’t help. At which point, a slippery and haunting logic emerges, if “logic” is, in fact, the right word. Imagine De Chirico sub-contracting for National Geographic in the age of HDTV and you’ll get some idea, but only some,of McQueen’s spare and brainy poetry.

McQueen weaves together his fragmented scenarios through meticulous attention paid to texture, light, resolution, gesture and, not least, pacing. Giardini might move like a glacier, but it’s like a glacier in other ways, too: it’s monumental and sweeping, breathtaking and unstoppable.

Would that the same could be said of Static, a video made last year specifically for this show and with New York City in mind. It’s basically a virtual-reality amusement park ride: What, it posits, would it feel like to ceaselessly circle the Statue of Liberty in the choppiest of helicopters?  A measure of aesthetic integrity doesn’t redeem McQueen’s homage to Lady Liberty: it’s a pretentious, queasy-making bore. Skip Static and stick with the main event. That way there can be no cavils about this being one of the best shows of the season.

(c) 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 3, 2010 edition of City Arts.

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