911 Words On Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country

Michael Baers

On Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country (2007)

Steve McQueen was posted to Iraq as an official war artist in November 2003 spending six disappointing days in Basra, confined mainly to the airport. Queen and Country, the work that eventually emerged from his frustrated sojourn, consists of an oak cabinet housing vertical pull-out drawers containing 160 photographs of British Iraq War dead (its first installment held 98), contributed by their families, presented as facsimile postage stamp sheets. Exhibited first at the Manchester Central Library in March 2007, the project subsequently toured the United Kingdom under the auspices of the British Art Fund, receiving near unanimous critical and public acclaim.

When for the purpose of this text I began reading news articles on Queen and Country, I was surprised at how frequently McQueen’s published opinions scarcely differed from those of your average munitions industry lobbyist, replete with homilies to “sacrifice” and “national ideals,” “camaraderie” and the fighters’ “extraordinarily hard, relentless job.” Admittedly, McQueen was speaking then as a politician as much as an artist, intent still on turning his facsimiles into actual commemorative stamps—a plan that has yet to find favor with the Royal Mail or David Cameron’s government. And in this sense, I lost the point, suspecting McQueen, in failing to differentiate among the types of wars a country can fight, had sacrificed his good reputation to political expediency. He had ample time to quietly put the project aside, to reconsider the merits of being an official war artist in the context of Iraq. Instead, Queen and Country was launched in the midst of a period of incendiary violence, when the criminal malfeasance of the war’s planners had become incontrovertible.

If it is not already apparent, I am somewhat hostile to McQueen’s project. Perhaps what I find most difficult to stomach is his desire to arrogate an exception from the ethical questions arising from his role as an official war artist, making official war art, in the context of a dubious if not illegal war, as if he could intervene in the symbolic economy of the British state while remaining immune from the possible ramifications such a move might entail.

Case in point: in a March 2007 article in the Guardian newspaper, McQueen mused, “It seems that for those who are against the war, my project is regarded as a good thing. For people who support the war, it is regarded as a good thing, too. It is not pro or anti-war. This work is like a sphere—roll it this way, roll it that way. In the end, it is an artwork.” This statement, expressive of strategizing common to contemporary art—what Frederick Jameson calls “blank parody,” a term whose operative logic infers a certain appositionality in relation to empirical social facts—betrays a certain obtuseness to the culpability inherent in McQueen’s official position. McQueen, like “everyone else in the country,” has his “feelings” about the war, but the “project is the project,” existing in a separate moral universe where the artist may remain at once political champion and disinterested scientist, state-sanctioned portraitist and autonomous artist.

In Dispatches, a memoir of his time as a Vietnam War correspondent, Michael Herr recalls his childhood fascination with the photographs of wartime dead in Life magazine. “I didn’t have a language for it then,” he writes, “but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first porn, all the porn in the world.” Numbers can be pornographic too, especially when they represent the discrepancy between how the deaths of the invaders and the invaded are commemorated. Thus I would like to place Queen and Country in numerical perspective.

Nine months after McQueen’s brief trip to Iraq, Dr. Les Roberts of John Hopkins University surreptitiously crossed the Jordanian border into Iraq, on his way to Baghdad to calculate how many Iraqi civilians had died since the war began. Using a standard methodology for measuring mortality—the cluster sample survey—Roberts and a team of Iraqi physicians surveyed 33 randomly selected neighborhoods over the course of a month. From this data they calculated that 100,000 civilians died in the 17 months following the invasion; nearly 43 percent of these were caused by coalition troops, a result surprising even to Roberts’s research team. The study, released shortly before the 2004 US presidential election, received scant media coverage, failing to make the front page of a single major American newspaper.

McQueen’s work, feted in the British and international art press alike, repeats a western propensity for disproportionately attending to occidental war deaths. In the Guardian article mentioned previously, McQueen alludes to the numbing scale of Iraqi deaths, but he then makes, for me, an odd but telling syntactical leap, jumping to the topic of how the Ministry of Defence counts battle fatalities. “I’m pointing out that these people [meaning the soldiers who died in friendly fire incidents, suicides, accidents] are all victims, too,” he said. “What happened to them all was a consequence of their participation.” McQueen’s project might be described by Judith Butler as an attempt to frame certain lives as “grievable,” using the structure of this frame to produce affect, which according to her conditions “ethical and political judgment and practice.” McQueen’s project may also concern this question, yet something in its framing remains reminiscent of the numerical pornographer declaiming his atavistic tribal prejudice.

Critics have written that it is difficult to fit Queen and Country into the broader context of McQueen’s work. Let us hope this remains the case.

Two more texts on Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country (2007): Tactical Smarts by Martin Herbert and The Loves and Lives of Stamp Soldiers by Sarah Rifky.

Michael Baers is an American artist and writer based in Berlin. He has participated in exhibitions throughout North America and Europe, usually with drawings or offset publications, and has in addition contributed comics and essays to many publications and print initiatives. Currently he is working on a graphic novel based on his research of the Picasso in Palestine project for inclusion in Issue Zero, the new online platform of the Berlin Documentary Forum at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a biennial program dedicated to documentary practices across a wide variety of disciplines.

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