Steve McQueen
Johannes Vermeer Award 2016 Laureate

Jury Report

The Johannes Vermeer Award is the Netherlands’ state prize for the arts. It was established in 2009 and is presented to exceptionally talented artists working in the Netherlands and across all disciplines. None of the previous laureates have restricted themselves to the traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines, and this year’s award once again goes to someone who excels in two different art forms.

The jury has unanimously nominated film director and visual artist Steve McQueen for his profound and enduring examination of the human condition in his films and other works, which often depict people struggling to preserve their dignity in circumstances of repression, enslavement and humiliation. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ms Jet Bussemaker, has confirmed the nomination and conferred the award on Steve McQueen.

Life and career

Steve McQueen was born in 1969 and grew up in West London. He attended Chelsea College of Arts and Goldsmiths College, University of London, as well as New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

McQueen shot his first videos in the 1990s. His use of cinematography was extremely sparing. For example, both Bear (1993) and Deadpan (1997) are black-and-white, silent films. Although his work has evolved, a minimalist but incisive signature typifies McQueen’s oeuvre. Not a single element is superfluous. The simplicity and precision of his craft lend unparalleled authority and visual allure to his entire body of work.

McQueen, who is of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, features regularly in his early works. Although racial inequality is not an overt theme in these films, it is an aspect of his work that has generated much discussion among film critics.

In the 1990s, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and other museums hosted solo exhibitions of McQueen’s works. At the age of thirty, he won the Turner Prize, the United Kingdom's most important contemporary arts award. More solo exhibitions followed at leading galleries and museums around the world. In 2009, McQueen represented the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale.

His work attests to his growing social engagement. For example, in 2006 McQueen went to Iraq as an official war artist. On his return, he developed the conceptual project Queen and Country, which consists of postage stamps commemorating fallen British soldiers. His video work Gravesend (2007) explores the wretched circumstances in which labourers in the Democratic Republic of Congo mine coltan for smartphones. McQueen offers no explicit commentary on this situation. His images are powerful enough.

McQueen released his first feature film in 2008. A raw exploration of the 1981 IRA hunger strike, Hunger received an overwhelming number of prizes, including the Caméra d'Or Award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. In 2011, McQueen premiered Shame, about a New Yorker struggling with sex addiction. The critics once again heaped praise on McQueen and his reputation as a cineaste was confirmed. In the same year, he was created Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to the visual arts.

His most recent feature film, the heartrending 12 Years a Slave (2013), marks McQueen’s breakthrough with general audiences. The film won three Academy Awards, including for Best Picture. In 2016, the British Film Institute presented McQueen with its highest honour, the BFI Fellowship.

In the meantime, he has gradually built a body of work as a visual artist. In addition to video works, he also produces sculptures and installations that are exhibited and collected by the most important museums in the world. His work can now be found in the permanent collections of such prestigious institutions as the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the MoMA (New York), the Tate Gallery (London), The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago), and the Musée National d'Art Moderne George Pompidou (Paris).

McQueen lives in Amsterdam with his partner, cultural critic Bianca Stigter, and their two children. He has lived and worked there since the 1990s.

Grounds for the award

The jury is impressed by the profound and sincere social engagement that speaks throughout McQueen’s work. He does not comment directly on current events, but goes beyond mere commentary by posing fundamental questions about human dignity.

McQueen is not afraid to address major universal themes like atonement and guilt, injustice, ethics, personal frustration and sorrow. They are often ignored in social discourse, except when current events force them into the limelight. Only then does society debate ethics and the boundaries of what is and is not morally acceptable. Art is one of the few arenas in which these themes can be discussed without a direct cause, and without addressing an underlying political or religious agenda.

McQueen draws inspiration from the widest possible range of topics — from the institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America to the IRA in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and coltan mining in present-day Congo — but goes beyond historical and current events by tackling such universal themes as repression, inequality, and the resilience of the human soul. In the hands of this artist and director, these stories acquire an urgency far beyond the specific time or place.

McQueen does all this in a superbly poetic yet subtle idiom and without moralising.

The jury is also impressed by the remarkably formal quality of McQueen’s oeuvre. Both as an artist and a director, his visual mastery is obvious.

Imagery has long ceased to be the defining factor in visual art, despite its name. Increasingly, the visual takes a back seat to the conceptual. The same is happening in cinema, where images often serve merely to illustrate the narrative. McQueen makes no concessions when it comes to image, however, over which he exercises a nigh-perfect degree of control. The skill with which he alternates between cinema and visual art is unparalleled. He is equally rigorous and ambitious in both worlds, making him unique as an artist and a director.

McQueen’s artistic eye never loses its focus in his feature films. Not only do his shots resemble moving paintings, but he often audaciously ignores Hollywood’s iron-clad cinematic rules. Hunger, for example, contains a 17-minute shot, and at one point in 12 Years a Slave, the main character looks directly into the camera, creating one of the most overpowering and penetrating moments in recent film history. McQueen also disregards the laws of traditional narrative. He is masterful at building and sustaining wordless suspense without offering the relief of resolution. His films make an indelible impression on audiences for that reason.

McQueen has shown himself to be an excellent director in his video works as well. He not only directs what we see, but also how we see it. His perfectionism is renowned in the art world. He orchestrates the setting in which his videos are projected down to the last detail, from the colour of the carpeting to the precise dimensions of the projection room. He is concerned with more than the eye and the ear alone; he knows that viewing his videos is a total physical experience involving the entire body and all the senses.

In the light installation Blues Before Sunrise (2012), McQueen even transforms the everyday reality of Amsterdam’s Vondelpark into a tableau vivant. A minor intervention — the streetlamps in the park emit blue light instead of white — has a maximum impact: the park and its visitors combine to become a mysterious work of art. An endless number of possible narratives arise in which Vondelpark is transformed into a crime scene, the Twilight Zone, a three-dimensional painting — none of which is confirmed or denied by the work itself. Once again, McQueen builds suspense without offering resolution. As a result, the work haunts those who experience it for a long time, like a ghostly afterimage.

McQueen also directs the way in which his work is acquired by museums. He is not a prolific artist and can afford to be selective. He is one of the few artists whose work even the most prestigious museums in the world consider it an honour to possess. It is unlikely that McQueen will ever be accused of overkill. In that way too, he always keeps his fans in suspense and yearning for more.

McQueen and the Netherlands

Finally, the jury would like to emphasise McQueen’s contribution to enriching the artistic climate of the Netherlands. Although McQueen operates in a highly international network and is in demand worldwide, he frequently chooses to exhibit his work in the Netherlands. He also makes important contributions behind the scenes. For example, he was an inspired guest tutor at De Ateliers and put both students and colleagues to the test as a Curatorial Programme tutor at De Appel Arts Centre.

It is an honour that a major artist like Steve McQueen has chosen to live and work in Amsterdam, and that he uses his outstanding artistry to enrich and enliven the cultural climate of the Netherlands.

The prize jury consisted of Ernst Hirsch Ballin (chair), Irma Boom, Claudia de Breij, Ann Demeester and Stephan Sanders.