December 16, 2019
The Turner-prize winning artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker, Steve McQueen, is not one to hold back when it comes to exploring ‘what it means to be human’. He produces provocative work of time and place and has been extremely influential for artists, filmmakers and screenwriters over the last 25 years.
I visited his latest, large-scale art exhibition, ‘Year 3’, at the Tate Britain to view one of the most ambitious portraits of citizenship ever undertaken in the UK!
Steve McQueen wanted to explore the traditional school photograph after being inspired by his own 1977 class photo and personal trajectory of life. This exhibition encapsulates 3,128 photographs of 76,000 seven-to-eight year olds who are all in their prime time of education.
In 2018, McQueen invited every single Year 3 pupil in London to take part in the exhibition and have a team of Tate photographers capture students from a mixture of schools, including state primaries, independent, faith and special schools, as well as pupil referral units and home-educated pupils.
Along with this huge project occupying Tate Britain, some photographs are also being displayed on 600 billboards across the streets, tube and train stations around the capital for onlookers to reflect on the images without being in an art environment.
‘My hope is that through the billboards millions of Londoners can reflect on the past, the present and the future. Not only of themselves but of their city.’ – Steve McQueen.
As you walk into the Tate, you are confronted with a sea of uncaptioned photographs covering a total of 22 vast walls from floor to ceiling. The sheer scale of the exhibition creates an immediate shock factor. Initially, I felt as if there was a contrast between what appears to be standard school photographs and the beautiful surrounding architecture and space they were being held in. However, as you delve deeper into the meaning behind the images, it gives the exhibition a powerful purpose.
The portraits are all uniform shots of children and their teachers sitting on the thin wooden benches that we remember from our childhood. The format and layout of the photographs are almost identical, perfectly positioned on the walls, yet what sets them apart are the children themselves. Their faces represent their personalities clear as day, with beaming smiles or timid and awkward body language. There is always that one child who is not quite ready for the photo, mouth half open. Moments of excitement, anxiety and hope shine through.
Steve McQueen has captured a milestone in a child’s development with those who live in London and will go on to shape its future. He deems that there is ‘an urgency to reflect on who we are and our future…to have a visual reflection on the people who make this city work’.
As Shakespeare wrote, ‘what is the city but the people?’ Therefore, Year 3 offers us a glimpse of London’s future – ‘a hopeful portrait of a generation to come’.
McQueen believes that art can change people’s lives and so this exhibition is especially important for the younger generation. Every child should have the opportunity to express themselves and their creativity through art.
The children who have taken part are able to visit their portraits in the Duveen Galleries with their schools, encouraging children who may have never even left their borough to find themselves in a national museum. A special magnifying glass is also provided to view the higher rows of photographs. McQueen states,
‘I want kids to be involved in art. It is the starting point to something bigger’. Who knows, they might turn out to be the next generation of artists!
As McQueen and the curator want children to fall in love with the Tate, affordable sandwiches will now become a permanent feature at the gallery along with a play area and adventurous workshops, enticing children and families to visit more often.
We are in an age overloaded by pictures, yet the school photograph remains a poignant record of the journey from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. The world is constantly changing with an ebb and flow of people and it is sometimes our intersection with others that we take for granted. Who we meet, leave behind or stay friends with, all of these people help to shape our futures and guide us in life’s direction.
I love how Year 3 highlights our connections to each other as humans and also to London. It will hopefully be inspirational for children and broaden their curiosity in the art world, but most of all, give them a sense of identity, belonging and unity.
If you would like to visit Year 3, the exhibition is running at the Tate Britain until Sunday 3rd May 2020.