When Turner-prize-winning artist Steve McQueen was approached by the Imperial War Museum in 2003 to create an artwork in response to the war in Iraq, he didn’t suffer a moment of hesitation for fear of the subject’s gravity. “I wanted it,” he says firmly in the office of his south London studio as he recalls the occasion. “I wanted it because it was a great commission to have. I wanted the responsibility.”
But that thirst to engage with the hottest political issue of our time was frustrated when he was sent on a six-day tour to Basra, which turned out to be anything but conducive to the creation of art. “When I got there, it was like a magical mystery tour. They led me by the hand. I couldn’t investigate anything. I got back home and I had nothing – what can you do in six days? It was a huge waste of time.”
As the situation in Iraq worsened, McQueen realised he was unlikely
to get the chance to return, and worried about the completion of his commission, until he had an unlikely epiphany.
“I was doing my taxes, and I suddenly had this idea of a stamp. The only people who are allowed to be portrayed on stamps are dead people, or the royal family. And I thought this would be a better way to honour the dead than making some kind of three-dimensional object in London which no one would come and see.”
McQueen’s idea was to make a series of stamps carrying the individual portraits of all the (until then) 110 British people who had died in the war. He took the idea to the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Mail, where it was received with all that special lack of enthusiasm and closing of ranks that the British establishment brings to bear on projects that appear too provocative for comfort.
“They fobbed us off,” says McQueen, with no little passion in his voice. “Allan Leighton [chairman of the Royal Mail] was initially sympathetic, but he saw how powerful this idea could be, and didn’t seem to want to expose
“At the MOD, we had this incredible meeting with about 16,000 people on their side of this long table, and four of us on my side. They were horrified. They said: ‘Why can’t you do landscapes?’ I said: ‘What are you so ashamed of?’”
Far from being discouraged, McQueen went ahead with his plan anyway. Today, his long-awaited work on the Iraq war, “Queen and Country”, will at last see the light of day, in the great hall of Manchester’s Central Library, as a preview to this summer’s inaugural Manchester International Festival. The stamps have been designed and produced, as if for mass manufacture, and placed inside wooden sliders, the way that valuable stamps are conserved in the British Museum.
They even have the Queen’s head on them. I ask McQueen if that is not illegal, and his voice deepens a shade: “So put me in jail.”
It is clear that this piece of work has become something of a crusade for him. I wonder if he has any sympathy for the MOD and the Royal Mail, whose shrinking away from such a project in the middle of a less-than-popular war is surely understandable? “No, no. Not at all. If you are willing enough to
send people to fight and die, you should at least have the decency to honour them.
“What exactly is the problem? It is not an anti-war project. It is honouring the people who have died. I have no sympathy for their position at all. If they are ashamed, let them say it in public.” By now, words are tumbling out of McQueen, almost quicker than he can process them. “If [the Royal Mail] can react quickly enough to commemorate the Ashes series, then an 18-year-old who catches a bullet in his head can be honoured in the same way. I mean, come on. Catching a ball? Leather on willow?” His contempt is palpable.
McQueen, now in his late 30s, came to prominence when he won the Turner prize in 1999, with a series of short films that made no hint of the political provocation to come. Bear documented a brief, ambiguous encounter between two naked men; Deadpan riffed on the famous Buster Keaton sequence when a house collapses all around the passive comedian.
But more recently, the artist has entered more contentious waters. He is currently working on a film about Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican hunger striker, but declines to answer any questions about the project. “I am here to talk about this,” he says single-mindedly of his latest work.
He is determined to see the stamp project through, in the hope that it does receive official endorsement. He says he is sure the public will be supportive and, crucially, he has the blessing of the great majority of the relatives of the dead. “Out of 110 people, we had 98 positive responses, and just four ‘no’s. The rest we couldn’t contact. It was a great surprise. They are the co-authors of the work.”
The relatives were asked to send in their favoured image of the victims. It must have been an emotional process, I suggest. “It was difficult. It was very, very heavy. All those images of people who have died, hand-written letters from girlfriends, wives, parents. It is almost as if it was the first time they had been allowed to speak.”
On Sunday, the work was shown to those same relatives in a private ceremony. McQueen first thought a couple of dozen people would come, but then realised there would be about 100. There is an unmistakable note of catharsis in the air. “These people have not been given a look in. They have not been treated correctly.” He strenuously denies being a political artist, but says that if his artwork is what it takes to right a few wrongs, “then fine, I’m political”.
McQueen, who currently lives in Amsterdam, has thought long and hard about this work. The day after our conversation, he rang me to admonish himself for not having mentioned the “estimated 650,000 Iraqis who have died in this war too. We should reflect on that as well.”
I had asked him what his own views on the war were, but he waved the question away. “It doesn’t matter at all. What I want to focus on is those people who died for Queen and country. That’s it. End of story.”
The stamps, he says, would be a way for the issue to “enter the bloodstream of the country. Something that would hit you over your toast and marmalade. All I am saying is: ‘Look at this.’ It’s very simple.”
‘Queen and Country’ will be on show in the Great Hall, Central Library, Manchester, until July 15