London, Mar. 2010 - Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize winner and recipient of the Camera d'Or at Cannes for his film Hunger, continues to campaign for official recognition of the project Queen and Country, a cabinet of commemorative sheets of stamps portraying army personnel lost in the Iraq conflict. ArtSlant's Nicholas James met the artist at the National Portrait Gallery, where Queen and Country has arrived after a nationwide tour of seven years.
Queen and Country commemorates British servicemen and women killed in Iraq. It consists of an oak cabinet containing facsimile postage sheets, each featuring the face of a fallen member of the Armed Forces, chosen by their family. As a work in progress, new additions to the work will be seen at the National Portrait Gallery for the first time, bringing the number now included to 160. The display marks the culmination of a UK wide tour by leading art charity, The Art Fund, which has been campaigning on behalf of Steve McQueen and the families for the images to be issued as official postage stamps by Royal Mail, which they have so far refused to do.
Visitors to the National Portrait Gallery will have the opportunity to add their name to the petition for the stamps which, to date, has almost 22,000 signatories. The display will be open to the public between 20 March and 18 July 2010.
(Queen and Country Postage Stamp Sheet of Lance Corporal Allan Douglas, The Highlanders, Died 30 January 2006, Aged 22)
Nicholas James - I’m with Steve McQueen and we’re talking about Queen and Country. You had six days posting in 2003 as an Official War Artist.
Steve McQueen - Six frustrating days in Iraq. All the more frustrating as that was all they had given me. It was one of those situations; I was in their protection and that is how it was. But what I came away with was the camaraderie of the guys, the troops, and when I got back that was what remained with me.
NJ - Regarding your posting; how front line was it? There is a modern tradition of not risking war artists who are documenting situations.
SMQ - I had to observe the troops, how it affected them, how they dealt with it and so forth. What was interesting; it sometimes takes a war for people to get on with each other. It’s a contradictory situation but it was great.
NJ - What about the civilians, did you have any contact at all?
SMQ - No.
NJ - Were you in a garrison?
SMQ - I was in the airport for six days. It was weird, but that was my limitation.
NJ - What did this trigger in you?
SMQ - Fear. I had nothing. I came with a camera, very little equipment; I came back with nothing. But sometimes it’s not necessarily what’s around you, in terms of what you’re going there for, and it came about in another way. I got home, panicked, frustrated and upset, and afterwards it seemed to emerge. What emerged were the troops: Frank and John and whoever, I thought about that. Back in Amsterdam, where I live, I thought about Van Gogh, his letters to Theo, then about war letters; that was it. Then I did a lot of research at the Imperial War Museum into letters from the front in the first World War and the whole idea of that contact.
What I wanted to do was engage the British public with something that could be disseminated throughout the country, so everyone and anyone can participate in this art project, through the blood stream of the whole country. The project avoids all media sensationalism in the portraits of soldiers; not appearing underneath a headline, but actually as a stamp on an envelope. So when you bend down to pick up the post, before you’ve had breakfast, you engage with it every day. That barrier, that screen is removed from the image and you have an engagement.
NJ - The images of soldiers, were they released by the army for your use?
SMQ - They came from the families. The MOD would not allow photos of the deceased, so with a researcher we got the addresses and we asked the families to please send an image of their loved one. When the photos started to come in, this became for me a collaboration.
NJ - And this led to the crucial idea of the postage stamp.
SMQ - Well it came in a roundabout way, out of necessity. Being stopped by regulations one had to communicate the idea to the public. What I wanted was the public to engage with the images in a real manner. That was the idea of the oak cabinet , where you slide out the drawers. When you pull out a drawer it’s your time, you have the time to engage with that image.
NJ - You used the Royal Mail’s format, the head of the Queen, in facsimile sheets.
SMQ - Yes, and the objective always, from day one, was for real stamps; we just want real stamps for envelopes.
NJ - We know that Iraq’s going on, we know Afghanistan is happening, but we’re blurred in our reaction. Though not the families of the troops.
SMQ - No, not the families. It was interesting to come back from Iraq, to go into a supermarket was weird. I'd walk in the street and it was kind of strange, the distance. It’s happening but only on the TV screens, it’s only happening in the media, it’s not real. Therefore you have to break that line; try to engage the public in a way that’s within their every day experience. That’s what I’m trying to do.
NJ - As in your film Hunger about Bobby Sands, you take on issues of real difficulty. I wonder how you work through that and what effect it has on you?
SMQ - It changes me.
NJ - Working with the families, their anguish, their devastation, has that impacted on you?
SMQ - Yes obviously. I’m just happy we could do this, and I do say we, because it is a collaboration. You give people something to do, you empower them to do something. When you participate in this project you feel you can still do something. You’re not just passive, sitting upset and worrying. I think it’s wonderful the families could participate, collaborate in this project. I think it’s great.
NJ - Is the work continuing to tour from here?
SMQ - I don’t know. We did a nationwide tour, to the National Portrait Gallery where we are now. We’ll see if we have moved on and can go further. It’s a marathon. We’re here and we’ll get there eventually.
NJ - Thank you very much.
SMQ - My pleasure.
ArtSlant would like to thank Steve McQueen for his assistance in making this interview possible and Lizzie Bloom of The Art Fund for coordinating this interview and providing images.
(All images courtesy of the artist)