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Steve McQueen, Giardini, 2009.
© British Council, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris; Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Photo: Prudence Cuming

Steve McQueen finds the essence of the Sublime in the sheer insubstantiality of a raindrop

by Floriana Piqué

We enter the British Pavilion through a calm Doric colonnade that induces a contemplative mood. Stillness. The Giardini is a place full of life, art, and crowds during the long summer of the Biennale, so it feels unfamiliar to see the site of such a celebration of plenty from a completely different perspective.


Born in London in 1969, winner of the Turner Prize in 1999 and of the Camera d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival for his first feature film, Hunger, Steve McQueen is representing the United Kingdom at this year’s Venice Biennale with Giardini, a 30-minute long staged film conceived especially for this occasion. The idea for this project has been in McQueen’s mind for a while, but the catalyst that caused him to bring it to fruition was the location: Venice, and the Giardini.


Two large, wide screens, adjacent in a continuum, take up the entire pavilion, completely absorbing the attention of the viewer. The shooting took place at the Giardini during the rainy days of February. Wintry, misty landscapes of empty, boarded up pavilions follow minimalist, lyrical images of nature: small beings, worms, beetles, raindrops.


The human presence of actors alludes to the possibility of stories, lives: an old lady carrying her trolley; a profile of a young man smoking in the dark; two men hugging each other, intensely, defying the borders of love and friendship. There is no narrative, but time and space are implied here. Every frame can live its independent life as a painting, demanding equal attention.


As for the images of thin, scavenger dogs, they never suggest ugliness, despite their crudeness; they never fall into an anticipation of death.


There is no space for complacency; the reality is never disfigured.


Sounds: church bells, the noise of persistent raindrops, chants from a playground, echoes of an everyday life, the noise of life which runs parallel to the silence of the images. Here, the artist finds the essence of the Sublime in the sheer insubstantiality of a raindrop.


McQueen challenges what could have been detritus, dereliction, emptiness with the power of his minute, extremely accurate observation, turning simplicity into joyful, new lives.


Venice is always present and keeps coming back in every frame, every sound; this place couldn’t be anywhere else.


The beauty comes from the illusion of beauty, from the shocking proximity of highlighted details.


Juxtaposing images on two screens, the artist requests our patience, the patience to look and look again, to observe, to take the time to wait for something, a nothing, to happen.


Leaving the safe darkness of the British Pavilion, walking in the sunny light along the grand avenue of the other pavilions, the viewer immediately acknowledges that, having seen the work of McQueen, his perception of the Giardini della Biennale has changed forever.

Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London. 

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