It burns. It flickers. Steve McQueen’s installation at IFFR is both a spell and a curse

A huge red swirling sun illuminates the large exhibition hall on the fifth floor of Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. The sun can be seen twice on the large screen that divides the room diagonally in two. On one screen you can see the entire sun, as well as a full-screen close-up. On the other side of the screen two more of the suns in the same way. The Sun’s film is interspersed with edited images from The jazz singer (1927): known as the first major sound film and as the film that normalized white actors’ black face paint – ‘blackface’, a racially stereotyped mask. It burns. It flickers. One sun image zooms in while the other zooms out. Meanwhile, we hear the hypnotic, ominous voice of filmmaker and visual artist Steve McQueen whisper “Shine on my sunshine state. Shine on me.” It is a spell and a curse.

The ‘Sunshine State’ is the nickname of the US state of Florida, where Steve McQueen’s father traveled from Grenada in the early 1950s to pick oranges. Sunshine State is also the title of this enormous video work in which his story is told. It is heartbreaking, intimate, a story that draws a life. The work is central to the Art Directions program of video art and spatial film screenings and performances of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

A work like this belongs at a film festival because it reveals how imaging works

Sunshine State by Steve McQueen (director of i.a 12 years a slave from 2013 and TV series Hatchet from 2020) was originally supposed to premiere last year during the IFFR. But when it was canceled at the eleventh hour due to a new Covid lockdown, the installation was exhibited for the first time last summer in the enormous Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, where the viewer felt like an astronaut adrift, drawn by the gravity of the work . In Depot Boijmans, it fills the room, and you get the feeling that you have come too close to the solar flares. As a result, the work gains meaning. There is no escape from the light. Those who look into the flames are (temporarily) blinded. And in the darkness, McQueen’s memory of his father lights up.

Other installations

Steve McQueen Photo James Stopforth/Thomas Dane Gallery

Coincidence or not, the sun, the colossal life-giving self-igniting star, the theme of light so necessary to the birth and existence of film itself, can be found in several of the installations selected for IFFR. Spectral constellations by the English artist duo Semiconductor, for example in the Joey Ramone gallery, where data on young stars has been translated into LED light mosaics. Or AEther (poor items) by the Chinese artist Shuang Li, who was already exhibited at the exhibition last year The milk of dreams of the Venice Biennale, and now shown in the hall at Rotterdam Central Station. Shuang Li switches back and forth between images of a solar eclipse and a ring light, favorite toys of YouTubers and online influencers, to look flattering. Where Steve McQueen in his work reflects on the role of light and darkness in a decisive moment at the beginning of film history, it is Ether a reflection on what we call post-cinema, the moment when cinematic images are everywhere: crushed into a digital domain where the difference between a virtual and a physical world is no longer so clear.

Indictment in silence

McQueen tells three times the story of his father leaving the labor camp where they were billeted for a night with two other black men to visit a bar. Words disappear every time. Just as the memories become more and more rigid. The Breathtaking”We do not serve [N-woord]” It will become “We do not serve”. That silence makes no sense. And then the account of the fight and subsequent racist murder, which his father Philbert managed to escape by hiding in a ditch, becomes increasingly fragmentary. A charge that screams in the silence.

The same is the case with the pictures from The jazz singer. They blink and fail. The scene in which the actor Al Jolson paints his face as the Jewish Jakie Rabinowitz, who has broken with his home and his traditions, can be seen side by side in positive and negative. White becomes black, black becomes white, and then McQueen rewinds them: to apply becomes to erase, but it doesn’t just erase the harmful history that represents black people in Hollywood. The moment Jolson has his blackface on, his head has been retouched. The visible man becomes invisible. Or not, because this ghost of history draws attention to itself.

‘Sunshine State’video installation by Steve McQueen at Depot Boijmans.
Photo Hans Wilschut/ Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery.
‘Sunshine State’ by Steve McQueen with edited footage from Warner Bros.’s ‘The Jazz Singer’. Pictures.
Photo Hans Wilschut/ Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery.
‘Sunshine State’ by Steve McQueen at Depot Boijmans with edited footage from ‘The Jazz Singer’ by Warner Bros. on the right screen. Pictures.
Photo Hans Wilschut/ Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery.

Western

In fact, everything in it Sunshine State invisible becomes more present precisely because McQueen manipulates it, turns it inside out, interrogates it through his voice-over and image processing. It strongly resembles what McQueen conjured in the installation at the Holland Festival in 2018 End credits, in which he used singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson’s redacted, blackened FBI files. Both End credits whose Sunshine State relates to the Freudian death drive we experience when it comes to archives, memories and history. They have their own impossibility: always incomplete, one collection always excludes another, we must always think of what is missing.

History, and certainly film history, which can be so dominant, is not static. Therefore, a work like this also belongs at a film festival, because it reveals how imaging works. Not only on a conceptual or film-historical level – McQueen compares the moment when the three men enter the bar to a western, and then we also ‘see’ the absent images because we live in a time when almost everything we experiences is filmed. . But he also allows us to witness the impact of stereotypes on the lives of individuals. His most personal work is therefore as activist and activating as it is enigmatic.

You should definitely give yourself time to watch it several times, because there is so much more going on in those words and pictures than meets the eye.

Kind directions. More video installations and performances during IFFR, 26 January to 5 February. Inc.: ifr.com

‘Sunshine State’ by Steve McQueen with edited footage from Warner Bros.’s ‘The Jazz Singer’. Pictures.

Photo Hans Wilschut/ Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery.

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