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Inside Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen's new immersive art exhibit


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: In 2022, Steve McQueen, the British-born son of Caribbean immigrants, was knighted for his work as a filmmaker and artist, the two worlds in which he's achieved commercial and critical success. His latest work takes his art in yet another new direction.

Jeffrey Brown recently joined McQueen for a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: An enormous hall, bathed in slowly shifting colors, filled with improvised music created by bass instruments. It can feel like walking through a strange city or dreamscape, like scenes from the pandemic or being inside an immense abstract painting.

Steve McQueen, Academy Award-Winning Filmmaker: It's a space to reflect. It's not a mirror. It's a space where things are bouncing off you as a viewer, and you can expand it into something more, because so many things come into your head, the fact that you bring in history, you bring your past into that space, and you are engaged in that moment.

Jeffrey Brown: So I'm part of this art?

Steve McQueen: How can you not be? How can you not be?

Jeffrey Brown: Steve McQueen is best-known for his films. He's the Academy Award-winning director of 2013's "12 Years a Slave," earlier movies, including "Hunger," more recently, the "Small Axe" series, and the documentary "Occupied City" about Amsterdam during World War II.

But he first made his name in the 1990s for his art. And at the Dia Beacon Museum, a converted Nabisco box factory on the Hudson River in Beacon, New York, he once again straddles both worlds.

Steve McQueen: I always equate art as poetry and film as the yarn, as a novel,using the same tools, doing virtually the same thing, but doing it differently.

Jeffrey Brown: And so you're not interested in labels, if I ask you, do you see yourself as an artist or as a filmmaker or...

Steve McQueen: I do stuff.

Jeffrey Brown: I do stuff?


Steve McQueen: I do stuff.

No, I'm very privileged to do stuff, and I work very hard because I know I'm privileged. I'm allowed to do stuff in order to sort of have an understanding or have some kind of feeling of what work could be.

Jeffrey Brown: Most of his previous artworks are video installations, shown here in still photos, and use recognizable images. The installation at Dia Beacon titled "Bass" in a 30,000-square-foot basement space is perhaps his most abstract work yet, one chief material, light, a longtime fascination for McQueen.

Here, he has 60 light boxes subtly change color through the spectrum every 28 minutes.

Steve McQueen: The whole idea of the intensity of light, which makes -- that makes color and the whole idea of what we see in our perceptions and so forth and whatnot. And I was just interested in having -- I wanted it all. I wanted the color to encapsulate everything. And, of course...

Jeffrey Brown: When you say you wanted it all, you mean all of the lights and all the changes?

Steve McQueen: Everything that surrounds us. Again, it's a kind of dawn-to-dusk thing. You want to sort of embrace it, but, of course, it's impossible. But light is the thing which sort of, in some ways, can illustrate that.

Jeffrey Brown: The light and colors bring out the space in new ways, the cracks in the old floors, the surfaces of pillars, the history of what was once a place of work and workers.

McQueen's other main material here, sound, improvised music filling the space from three speaker stacks by five musicians from different parts of the African diaspora who play different kinds of electric and acoustic bass instruments. They got together to record this three-hour-plus soundtrack in the exhibition space.

Steve McQueen: It's the sort of base of most music. It's the backbone. But I wanted to bring that thing which is usually in the background into the foreground and have five bassists.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, while this may be an abstract, image-free work, McQueen began it with his own narrative in mind, a story of trauma, of limbo and passage, the so-called Middle Passage, the transatlantic voyage that brought enslaved Africans to the America's, including the voyages of his own family from Africa to the Caribbean to England.

Steve McQueen: I was thinking about how Black people are post-apocalyptic people.

Jeffrey Brown: Post-apocalyptic?

Steve McQueen: In the sense that we've had to invent and reinvent ourselves, this transatlantic crossing, the sort of Middle Passage, just a space of limbo, as it were, and, therefore, what that journey entails, but what -- of course, the horrors of it, but also the sort of what was positive about it in some ways.

I mean, nothing was positive, but, at the same time, how people survived it. I mean, I am here sitting with you, opposite you as an example of that survival.

Jeffrey Brown: But McQueen wants us to take our own walk and bring our feelings and history to the experience.

Dia Art Foundation curator Donna De Salvo worked with him on this commission, a partnership with a Swiss museum.

Donna De Salvo, Curator, Dia Art Foundation: I think it's also about what art can do, you know, the experience. And I kind of like that there's, in a way, not this standard image that you might imagine would be, because there's an openness to that.

I mean, actually, in its way, it's very much about the viewer and what they want to bring in. You're not told what to do. You're not told what to think. You're not told how to move. But there are conditions that are created here, inevitably, by the artist that he wants you to have an experience with and respond to.

Jeffrey Brown: McQueen puts it this way:

Steve McQueen: Everyone tries to cling onto narrative, because it's almost like the safety rails in a swimming pool, because if you soon let go, my God, I'm floating, I don't know what to do, dah, dah, dah, dah.

Jeffrey Brown: It helps us find a way.

Steve McQueen: Yes, but you have to feel comfortable with floating because you can actually float, let go, unclutch, feel it, relax, lay into it, feel what you feel.

Again, I feel that is sort of the key to experiencing the work. Things emerge. Heavy stuff emerges.

Jeffrey Brown: "Bass" remains on view into April of next year. Steve McQueen's next work, a dramatic film set amid the London Blitz in World War II.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Dia Beacon in Beacon, New York.

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