in Critic's Guides | 12 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

Life in Film: Steve McQueen

In ‘Life in Film’, an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice.

in Critic's Guides | 12 SEP 07

Steve McQueen’s recent films Gravesend and Unexploded (Handheld) were commissioned for the Italian Pavilion of the 52nd Venice Biennale. Queen and Country, his response to the Iraq war, was premiered at the first Manchester International Festival this year and will be shown at the Imperial War Museum in London this autumn. He is currently shooting his first feature film – commissioned by Channel 4 Films – which focuses on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. An exhibition of new work will be on view at Thomas Dane Gallery from 8 October – 10 November 2007. He lives and and works in Amsterdam.

Zéro de Conduite (Zero for Conduct, 1933), by Jean Vigo, had a massive impact on me. It’s just 45 minutes long and depicts a rebellion in a French boys’ boarding-school. The film says everything: it’s inventive, it’s magical, to some extent it is sexually ambiguous, it’s political, it’s bizarre and it has a great narrative at the same time. All these ingredients add up to something that’s huge, almost too big. But there’s also the fact that it’s so magnetizing, beautiful and wonderful to watch – you want to look at this film. You’re always thinking on different levels; not just about the images but what is happening and the psychology of the characters.

There’s a slapstick element to the film, a real sense of comedy, that drives it. I think at the time Zéro de Conduite was made, to create anything of that subversive nature, there had to be an element of humour to carry people along. However, it was banned for years by French censors and didn’t get a general release until 1946.

The influence of Zéro de Conduite, which I saw for the first time in 1990, is as much about a period in my life as it is about my understanding of art. Going to New York and coming across the Whitney Biennial in 1993, I felt that anything was possible if you did it rather than thought about it. At Goldsmith’s, where I was studying at the time, there were certain ways of doing things, of talking, which put limits on how you approached making art. When I went to New York, I realized that London was a dot on a white piece of paper at that time. Seeing Zéro de Conduite gave me a sense of permission, and in some ways it was the first movie that allowed me to think that things were possible. To some extent, your imagination is limited when you look at something and you’re not making work yourself. You’re trapped, because it’s all about the effort to actually do it. Say you have to lug a load of boxes up the stairs: if you think about it, your feeling is ‘oh fuck, I can’t do that’ – if you just do it, you’re involved.

While I was at Goldsmith’s, a film enthusiast came in – unfortunately I can’t recall his name – and brought with him a bunch of film reels, including Andy Warhol’s Couch (1964), in which one of Warhol’s superstars lies on a couch, with another lying along the top of the back-rest, just looking at him. He shot it at the average speed of 24 frames a second, but he projected it at a speed slower than the average heart rate. When it was projected, the film pulsated – it was incredible.

Couch and Zéro de Conduite were the two films that really did it for me. I think that’s where it started and, in a strange way, where it stopped. It’s one thing having, for instance, nice images on your studio wall that influence you when you’re just beginning as an artist or filmmaker, but when you go about getting into a situation where you begin to make work yourself, it’s a different kettle of fish altogether. It’s all about doing it – the physicality of making films. What you see at the end is never the same as the situation of how it was done, yet that process is very important. It’s all about making a lot of mistakes and being brave.

I used to go and watch a film at least twice: the first time for fun, the second time to look at it closely. If I liked it, I’d see it three or four times. But the last thing I want to do right now in my life is spend time in cinemas. I hate going to them. Nowadays, I’d rather go and see some- thing live – a concert, or dance; jazz or contemporary music – because when I’m in a cinema, I often feel that I’m wasting time watching something old and stale, shot two or three years ago, and that I should be doing something else instead.

The connection with the idea of ‘filmmakers’ and ‘film’ doesn’t mean anything to me. Exhibitions just about painting, sculpture, or film ghettoize the whole thing. It’s nonsense. I also feel a connection with musicians. For example, I like Tricky very much – he has his own sound and is amazing, but he never got his dues. Because he has asthma, there’s a lot of strange breathing that can be heard in his work. This connects back to Warhol’s Couch and projecting below the heart rate; there’s a really direct physiological effect, a kind of physical angst, that’s being explored in both artists’ work.

I shoot films, but I do other things; at the end of the day it’s got to be about the ideas, not one particular medium.