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Steve McQueen: Giardini Notebook

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2009
Published by: British Council
Year published: 2009
ISBN: 978-086355-625-8

image of Steve McQueen: Giardini Notebook

Publication, ‘Steve McQueen: Giardini notebook’ which commemorated Britain’s Venice Biennale contribution of 2009. Artist Steve McQueen was selected to represent Britain in the British Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, which took place 7 June – 22 November 2009. Several partners supported McQueen’s contribution, namely, Thomas Dane Gallery, London; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and the Art Fund Outset Production Fund Partners.  McQueen’s contribution was characteristically original and took the form of a film, given the title of ‘Giardini’. The film took its name from the ‘Giardini Pubblici’, the gardens located in the Castello region in the eastern part of Venice. ‘Giardini Pubblici’ is the name of the gardens in which the main pavilions of the Venice Biennale have, since 1895, been located.

‘Giardini’ took the form of a split screen film that documented the area of ‘Giardini Pubblici’, out of season as it were, in ways not normally considered or comprehended by the legions visiting the Biennale every other year. In McQueen’s film, feral dogs wandered, and shadowy figures lurked or engaged with each other in the hidden, less visible environs of ‘Giardini Pubblici’. This film presented a decidedly different view of gardens and buildings that are, during the time of the Biennale, pristine, manicured, and sanitised of the dubious or uncertain elements that characterized McQueen’s film. ‘Giardini’ presented an underside of the venue in which the Biennale is located, and in so doing, obliged its viewers to consider wider matters of visibility, abandonment, and the consequences and implications of a space that has in effect been reclaimed by an imprecise cast of characters. In some respects, ‘Giardini’ presented a counter view of the Biennale, in which ‘Giardini Pubblici’ was not so much empty, but more reclaimed, with the art world’s attention having moved on – for eighteen months or so – to shinier, more spruce, more socially disinfected spaces and locations.

‘Giardini’ was an understated, profound work, which drew much in the way of critical acclaim. It was a triumphant contribution by an artist whose trajectory since the first ICA Futures Award in 1996 had been onwards and upwards, including winning the Turner Prize in 1999 and receiving an OBE in 2002. Steve McQueen was the second Black British-born artist to represent Britain at Venice. The first Black British-born artist to win the Turner Prize was Chris Ofili. He too had gone on to represent Britain, at the Venice Biennale, in 2003.

This catalogue included a text by T. J. Demos, “Giardini: A Fairytale,” reprinted as  ”Giardini: A Fairytale” in Nka Journal of Contemporary Art, Number 27, 2010: 6-13. The catalogue was as original as McQueen’s film itself. Most of the catalogue consists of photographs documenting the ‘Giardini Pubblici’ very much in its in-between-biennales state. Bags of rubbish, the detritus from redundant now broken signage, copious evidence of the pulling apart and the rebuilding that is part and parcel of the exhibition installation/deinstallation process - such were subjects of the copious photographs in ‘Steve McQueen: Giardini notebook’. Other photographs show graffitied buildings and evidence of attempts made by nature to reclaim, over time, everything from statuary to parts of the built environment within the gardens. The photographs were taken by Sean Bobbitt. Extracts from Demos’ text as follows:

“A visually sumptuous film of thirty minutes, Giardini comprises two side-by-side projections that steadily present a series of evocative vignettes. Rainwater splashes out a quickening rhythm on the hard surfaces of gray and black stones; the blurred shapes of dogs move about restlessly, as if searching for food amid heaps of refuse on an otherwise grand promenade; the dark silhouette of an orderly row of trees creates abstract patterns against a blue crepuscular sky; a young man, seemingly anxious, with darting eyes, smokes in the shadows. With alternating bluish black and warm reddish tones, powerfully and suggestively imagistic, this film radiates a magical aura, one teeming with possibility rather than defined by a single narrative or by the clarity and authority of documentary information.

Like McQueen’s past films, such as Caribs’ Leap/Western Deep (2002) and Gravesend (2007), Giardini denies clear links between representation and significance, between form and content—not to exclude reference but instead to allow the image’s potential meanings to crystallize, its facets reflecting numerous paths of fabulation. Indeed, the film’s suspension of its images in a field of multiple possibilities defines its power: to release life from belonging to any certain code, clear narrative, or restrictive regimen, and to do so in the quintessential location of national order: the Giardini of the Venice Biennale. As its title indicates, the film is set in the famous exhibition grounds, the location of the aging national pavilions—the American, Italian, Swiss, and Israeli are among those shown. These otherwise well-known monuments are portrayed here in an unexpected light, during the interim between biennales, in the down-time and during the nights, in the shadows of the spectacle. The renowned gardens are thereby recast as a site where everything is suddenly up for grabs and seems unfamiliar and unpredictable, where life is shown to assume forms of creative survival that transcend the fanfare of the great exhibition. Few visitors, if any, experience it as such. In this sense, the film is attached to Venice’s Giardini only for convenience, and, indeed, its grounds are transported elsewhere by McQueen.

Giardini continues the political commitment of McQueen’s cinema in two ways: first, by making the figure of the excluded—the stateless, and the racial and sexual outsider—visible on the rarefied set of the showpieces of national spectacle; and, second, by directing the power of film to resist conventional representational systems, by producing an experience of perceptual creativity that denies the certainty of identity and the clarity of signs on which hegemonic order rests. In this regard, Giardini’s evocative realm of perceptual contingency might be seen to risk a certain aestheticization, which attends the film’s hypersensitive visual immediacy, no doubt intensified by the saturation that results from its basis in 35mm stock and the expansiveness of its panoramic aspect. A radical impressionism ensues at times, exemplified by the camera’s prolonged dwelling on radiant flower petals and its close-up depictions of the colorful splendor of beetles and the earthy camouflage of a garden spider. Such privileging of stylistic concerns also appears in the film noir associations of the film’s frequent images shot in nocturnal environments, as stages for shady dealings and suspenseful visions, without obvious critique or clear subversive point.”

Related people

»  Sir Steve McQueen OBE, CBE

Born, 1969 in London, UK

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  The British Pavilion, Venice

Venice, Italy