Steve McQueen – Tate Britain – 12th November - 3rd May 2019
Review by Catherine Grant
"THE GALLERY IS FULL OF CHILDREN!" proclaims a large noticeboard at the entrance to Tate Britain. The rest of the notice proceeds to inform more mature visitors that the Tate is ‘excited’ to welcome many school groups to the usually quiet Duveen Gallery as they visit their class portraits that cover the walls. ‘Excited’ seems to be a way of communicating to adults that children will be heard as well as seen in this large-scale photographic installation.
This notice was the first indication that this project is participatory, as well as documentary: the capital letters reading almost as a comedic warning to the viewer. When I had read about Steve McQueen’s collaboration with numerous photographers and educators to photograph Year 3 children (who are 7-8 years old) in primary schools across London, I expected to find an interesting social document of the vibrant diversity of the city. As a series of over three thousand portraits depicting 76,146 pupils seated in various school halls and classrooms, it is a documentary project on an epic scale. However, it has also been a huge outreach project, working with creative education specialists A New Direction. A team of photographers visited two thirds of London’s primary schools, engaging children in a series of workshops as well as taking their portraits, with a range of educational resources for teachers that use photography to explore issues of identity and belonging.
The thought and seriousness of this engagement was also present whilst I was in the installation. I arrived early on a weekday morning, and was almost alone with the huge rows of school portraits. Soon, however, school groups began to enter the space, with the repeated moment of exclamation as they found the portraits of their own classes. This was followed by the children being encouraged to shout into the gallery "I AM HERE, YOU ARE HERE, WE ARE HERE!" Written down, this seems like a small thing to make a bunch of kids shout. When heard in the space of the Duveen Gallery, particularly after hearing it a number of times, it felt special, an invitation to these children to feel part of the Tate Britain, and to perform their own sense of community in a public space.
This movement between the semi-public space of a school classroom and the public space of the gallery was continued in billboards that were put up for the first week of the exhibition around London. Working with Artangel, this public artwork was low-key as well as wide-ranging. The only identifier on the individual school portraits used for the billboards was the hashtag #Year3project. Even so, coming across these group portraits at odd points across London gave a moment of pause, the traditional format of children and teachers on benches, or crosslegged on the floor jarring against the glossy, jaunty style of billboard advertisements. It made me think about the ways in which primary schools are part of the fabric of the city, but rarely register unless you are a parent, a series of institutions that house and educate a huge number of children across wide-ranging communities.
The subtitle of this project is A Portrait of London. Steve McQueen has said that his intentions in making this project are not political, and that it is about optimism, focusing on a time when children are full of possibility, unhindered by race, class and gender, whilst just starting to understand the differences they each inhabit. There is an intense sense of celebration in the work, with the sheer amount of hopefulness and openness in the children’s expressions captured in the austere grids of small 8 x 10 framed portraits. However, looking at these portraits in 2019, to read them without a political backdrop feels almost impossible. The diversity of children in regards to religion, ethnicity, ability, class and privilege is both a celebration of London and a warning of rising inequalities and intolerance that will make many of their lives harder than those of their parents. Looking at these portraits, I felt a sense of mourning on both a local and global scale. The schools that have allowed these children to feel happy and hopeful continue to lose resources, a process which over the last couple of decades have made teachers’ lives almost intolerable. These cuts are matched by the wider consequences of austerity, the slow squeeze that means many children live in unstable and impoverished conditions. On a global scale, these children will grow up in a world that is politically volatile and unable to resolve the climate crisis that is already impacting unevenly across populations.
I was unprepared for the way this installation would make me reflect on broader issues around what is means for these children to be citizens of London now. I had thought the subtitle A Portrait of London and the description of it as a group portrait of citizenship was overblown press release fodder. However, the deceptively simple format of the school class photo, framed in unassuming light wood and carefully curated in a grid that runs the entire length and breadth of the Duveen Gallery has a powerful impact. The repetitive backdrops of gym bars, display boards and school hall stages took me back to my own school as well as thinking about these ones in the present. Sitting quietly with these portraits as groups of children chattered, drew and wrote all around me, full of excitement that they were on the walls of this national gallery, was an experience that marked Year 3 as a project that subtly pushes at the possibilities of documentary photography, used here a tool for participation, social documentation and grand artmaking.