Home Arts Steve McQueen’s Grenfell Tower movie at the Serpentine

Steve McQueen’s Grenfell Tower movie at the Serpentine

by godlove4241
0 comment

Why show us inside the ruins of Grenfell Tower?

Late in the evening on June 14, 2017, a fridge caught fire in a flat on the fourth floor of the London skyscraper.

The fire engulfed the 24-storey Lancaster West Estate building in Kensington. Within hours, 72 people died as a result of the fire; hundreds more were injured, traumatized and bereaved.

On December 18, 2017, British artist Steve McQueen, who was born nearby in a comparable housing estate, attached himself to a helicopter which rose and flew low over London until it reached the Grenfell Tower. There it began to tightly encircle the now gutted building, often flying treacherously close by.

The resulting 24-minute film, Grenfell (2019), shows us, in a single never-before-seen shot, the footage McQueen shot that day. Here we see, for the first time, the interiors of what is now essentially a bonfire, as Grenfell Tower remains the final resting place for many of those who died that night.

Over the next month, Grenfell will play on a loop at the Serpentine South gallery in London’s Hyde Park, a short walk from the tower’s location.

The film plays without words or music. Instead, we watch what McQueen filmed as his helicopter flew over the city. It’s a beautiful winter’s day, soft light and long shadows over London. We drift on the wealthy suburbs; birdsong is audible, a patchwork of trees and houses below. As one approaches the center, the din becomes more insistent. Beyond the roar of helicopter blades are traffic and sirens, the rumble of trains on the tracks, the roar of planes overhead. The city continues to move constantly.

The tower suddenly becomes visible. The noise of London stops as we begin to orbit, veering in close and then away from the building envelope.

By presenting the images in this way, without voiceovers, cuts, narration, stylization or first-person testimony, McQueen asks us to focus on what is still evident, the parts of the building that survived the fire.

Skylights cross the tower and illuminate the rooms within. You wonder: was this once someone’s kitchen? Was it a dining room? Room? Furniture appears to be visible, now stacked and unused. A bath is briefly seen. The sight of such things is reminiscent of the heartbreaking testimonies the Grenfell Public Inquiry has heard, such as the bereaved son who spoke with love of his mother and brother after their bodies were found “merged” in their bathroom.

We see groups of cloaked figures in white forensic suits as they sift through the debris; a reminder that the building remains an active crime scene.

We see, at the bottom of the building, the white cladding still in place, aluminum composite panels filled with polyethylene that were added to the exterior of the tower during a renovation. The coating burned like sulfur, spreading the flames, allowing the building to engulf itself. The camera focuses on the charred and charred panels that line the upper half of the building.

Grenfell, SO, asks big questions about the politics of architecture. On July 3, 2017, the building was described in the UK House of Commons as, quite literally, “a poverty trap”. The building was a 67.3 meter high cuboid that contained 120 apartments; the Metropolitan Police reported that 350 people called the tower home on the night of the fire. Beyond the combustible cladding, the building failed to comply with a litany of safety regulations. A network of around 20 separate companies were involved in providing security for the building, the inquest heard. McQueen’s film shows how design and space are direct expressions of class and power.

In a statement written for the exhibit and published by the Serpentine, McQueen described the fire as an act of “willful negligence”.

Steve McQueen © Photo James Stopforth

It’s personal for McQueen, who has walked these halls. He recounts visiting a friend and her newborn baby when they lived in the tower in the mid-1990s. “I remember the views from the window and thought I had never been so high in London before,” writes McQueen. “The view was amazing.”

Shortly after McQueen shot the footage, the building was enclosed in white picket fences, its interiors hidden from view. Green hearts have been painted next to the phrase: “Forever In Our Hearts”. Grenfell has remained in this state of dark limbo ever since.

“I feared that once the tower was covered, it would only be a matter of time before it faded from public memory,” McQueen writes. “In fact, I imagine there were people who hoped that would be the case.”

And therein lies the crux of the problem. The public inquiry into the Grenfell fire was launched on August 15, 2017. Since then, 400 days of evidence has been heard. But the full findings of the investigation have yet to be made public, more than five years later. No charges were issued.

Like an airtight work of art, Grenfell is as good as anything McQueen has ever created. And it exists in an evolving canon.

In 2009, in a film called Static, McQueen mapped a helicopter to fly over the Statue of Liberty in New York. He focused his camera on the imperfections of such a national symbol; pigeon droppings, rust, cracks and water marks. Static is a fairly obvious act of iconoclasm – McQueen made a representative statue look vulnerable, neglected and threatened. The piece was the focus of his Tate Modern retrospective in 2020.

A year later, in July 2021, McQueen released his three-part documentary Uprising, who explored a fire at a party in New Cross, London, in 1981 that killed 13 people. The documentary, while a virtuoso example of the form, was in many ways a conventional BBC documentary – a combination of archival footage and a mosaic of survivor testimonies.

Here, McQueen has combined the two sensibilities – his keen social conscience with his rigor as a conceptual artist – perhaps more purely than ever before.

Directly after screenings of the new film at the Serpentine, visitors are ushered into an adjoining room, empty except for the names of every victim of the fire. After the Serpentine, the work will enter the collections of the Tate and the Museum of London, where it will endure.

But Grenfell is not just an elegy. It’s a request. McQueen asks us to take responsibility for remembering Grenfell Tower. Galvanized by this brutal and brilliant work, we must now find how to collectively understand this horrifying event; grieve, learn and then change.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

@2022 – All Right Reserved. Designed and Developed by artworlddaily