After directing and winning, as first black director, the award for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave (2013) at the Academy Awards in 2014, Steve McQueen (1969) became instantly known to a wider audience. He has become the first person to hold both an Academy Award as well as a Turner Prize. With his acclaimed feature films 12 Years a Slave, Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008), McQueen’s feature films have perhaps now overshadowed his film work as visual artist of the last twenty-one years. However, let’s not forget how it all began.
McQueen’s first film was Bear (1993). The film is in black and white, like all McQueen’s early films, and is silent. It depicts two naked men, of which one is McQueen himself, fighting and teasing one another. This encounter shifts between aggression and tenderness. A series of glances, stares and winks between the two men follows and underlines the feeling and language of threat and flirtation. During the 10 minutes and 35 seconds of Bear, the camera moves from one man to the other, shows close-ups of their bodies and movements while light dances on their sweaty bodies.
Bear was shot on 16mm film but has been transferred to video. It is installed from floor to ceiling across one wall in a black room. The floor is polished so that the reflection of the image falls across the floor. McQueen’s intention is to involve the viewer in the work. You are a participant and no longer a passive viewer. The silence in Bear is intended to make people aware of themselves when walking into the space. As the artist commented: ‘I want to put people into a situation where they’re sensitive to themselves watching the piece’.
In all these years nothing has really changed, McQueen has never stopped doing this. His feature films are the proof.