Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen isn’t interested in politics. He doesn’t want to be an activist or a muckraker — he wants to make art.
The British director, now based in Amsterdam, gives the keynote address today at Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s two-day symposium titled “Making the Change They Want to See,” with events examining artists’ role in public life and art’s ability to shape and reflect societal change.
“What’s interesting about art is it’s not politics and it’s not the media — its another aspect,” the “12 Years a Slave” director said in an interview Monday. “It’s another (way) into the subject matter, and I think that’s why I’m here. The arts today are very vital to engagement, and it gives another perspective on the subject, whatever it is. It’s very healthy rather than just having these immediate interpretations of everything.”
Curated by Anne Pasternak, artistic director of the nonprofit Creative Time, the symposium will include speakers such as the Danish artists’ group Superflex, Cuban installation artist Tania Brugera, artist and policy advocate Laurie Jo Reynolds and American conceptual artist Mel Chin. New York Times art critic Holland Carter delivers the symposium’s closing remarks Thursday afternoon.
McQueen said he was overwhelmed by and proud of the dialogue that “12 Years a Slave” started about ongoing global slavery and America’s ugly past since its premiere in August 2013 at the Telluride Film Festival.
“To have that amount of awareness through a movie, it just shows you what art can actually do if you go a long way,” he said. “And perceptions of slavery in America, it was the elephant in the room. People criticized us, saying, ‘How can you show these images?’ But if you’re making a movie about slavery, you’re making a movie about slavery and what occurs.”
Earlier this year, McQueen won the Academy Award for best director for “12 Years a Slave,” which also won for best picture. It was his third feature film, following 2008s “Hunger,” which chronicled a 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison, and 2011s “Shame,” the story of a sex addict in contemporary New York. His subjects in all three of his features are somewhat taboo topics and societal issues that have been, as he put it, “hiding in plain sight.”
He compared his exploration of sex addiction in “Shame” to Billy Wilder’s groundbreaking 1945 film on alcoholism, “The Lost Weekend,” — bringing a prevalent but little-discussed topic into the light and sparking conversation about it.
“I’m interested in the truth, and it’s that simple,” he said. “It’s not as if I’m trying to dig something out of the ground and say, ‘See!’”
Earlier this year, McQueen screened “12 Years a Slave” at the United Nations and spoke there about human trafficking’s ongoing practice around the world. In his best picture acceptance speech, he dedicated the award to the 21 million people estimated to be enslaved on Earth today. Yet, he said, he is not interested in becoming an activist, and his work can effect more change than he can as a speaker or public figure.
“With ‘12 Years a Slave,’ it did more damage talking about contemporary slavery than anything else today,” he said. “It showed the importance of what art can actually do. So I felt privileged to talk to the secretary-general and the U.N. about contemporary slavery.”
Before he turned to feature films, McQueen was an acclaimed artist whose film-installation work earned him the 1999 Turner Prize — Britain’s most prestigious award for artists younger than 50. Early films included “Static,” a seven-minute film, shot from a helicopter circling the Statue of Liberty, and “Drumroll,” which was displayed on three screens and made by attaching cameras to an oil drum and rolling it down a New York City street.
“Feature films are like the novel, and art is like poetry,” he said. “You’re doing the same things, but you’re doing them differently. The art, like poetry, is more abstract, and the movie is more linear storytelling. Everyone knows stories; all of us are sophisticated storytellers, but not everyone is steeped in the world of contemporary art, like poetry.”
McQueen was appointed as an official war artist by the British Imperial War Museum in 2003 and embedded with British troops in Iraq in that capacity. The resulting work, “Queen and Country,” is a cabinet containing a series of postage sheets with the faces of 160 men and women killed in the war on the stamps. The project led to a debate in parliament over whether the Royal Mail should allow the stamps into circulation, which it didn’t. He has called the project the most difficult of his career.
“I was dealing with the loved ones of those who had died and this regime that was ridiculous with the Royal Mail and being in-theater in Iraq,” he said. “It was hard, looking back on it. It was quite intense.”
McQueen is now developing a pilot for a television HBO series, which he said will start shooting in the fall.
“It’s like ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’” he said. “I wanted to make a piece like that — about the 1 percent and also about the underclass.”
Of the challenges of small-screen storytelling, he added, “The only problem with television for me, and I’m trying to deal with it now, is it’s less operatic.”
The symposium brings McQueen to the Roaring Fork Valley for the first time. He spent four days here before the proceedings at Anderson Ranch. Of the ranch and its constant hum of art-making, he said, “Everyone’s busy, they’re beavers here, cutting wood and photographing and making videos and so forth.”
He called the Telluride Film Festival his favorite in the world and compared its spirit to that of the Anderson Ranch artists’ symposium.
“It has the vibe of what is happening here,” he said. “People are talking about ideas, and things actually happen.”