This text was first published in The Critic. Steve McQueen’s film Grenfell is on at the Serpentine Galleries until 10 May 2023.
In December 2017, the artist and film director Steve McQueen sent an aerial drone across West London. From a couple of hundred feet in the air, the drone’s camera recorded the peaceful procession of cars in leafy suburbs before swooping over to denser neighbourhoods. No sooner did the scene begin to look recognisably like London, than the lens clashed with the burnt wreck of Grenfell Tower, the scene of Britain’s most disastrous post-war fire which caused 72 deaths. The drone then circled the building multiple times, sweeping it up and down, gazing into its charred interiors, and catching recovery workers clad in white overalls. It did so in silence for twenty minutes, then retreated.
Shortly after McQueen shot the film, Grenfell was obscured from public view by protective scaffolding and white tarpaulin. The tower was marked for deconstruction but six years after the fire, this work has not yet started. How does the community mourn when the object of their grief is at once present and invisible? How do the survivors reconcile to the event when instead of a cenotaph, they face a plastic shroud that barely hides their horrors?
In absence of an official memorial, McQueen’s film Grenfell poses the tower as a monument of itself dedicated to those who perished in it. Watching it, the mind at first refuses to believe that the object rendered on screen is the same tower from media reports that London watched in real-time as the fire raged. Its charred concrete is too rich in texture, the high-contrast shadows in the winter sunset too majestic, and the drone’s circulation too dizzying. This Grenfell Tower is too real because the images carry the kind of detail we have come to associate with computer-generated virtuality rather than documentary film. Whenever a piece of debris in the shot innocently flutters in the wind, it throws the scene further into doubt because accepting the reality of a single element would immediately bring to the surface the gruesome authenticity of the entire edifice and its history.
Faced with all this, one would be excused for instinctively covering their eyes. Yet, the deadpan nature of the image encourages unflinching attention to every detail. This hyperreal view of Grenfell should not be so paradoxical, but few would have been able to study the tower this intimately since the accident. McQueen’s film is the first public opportunity to encounter the ruin as both a scene of tragedy and as an aesthetic object. It is at once a one-to-one model of the tower and an abstract representation of it. It is a vision of hell, and it is uncomfortably beautiful. Is Grenfell, therefore, a piece of evidence from which we may derive truth, or a work of art which could bring solace?
McQueen waited over five years before releasing his film during which the quest for truth made some strides. Many thousands of people walked in dozens of silent marches keeping vigil for the victims. Groups of survivors, their neighbours, and communities have campaigned for retribution. Demands for justice came from the street, civil society organisations, and even from Parliament. The six-year public inquiry held over 300 hearings and received more than 1600 witness statements. 320,000 documents were examined. If there was evidence to be uncovered and a voice to be heard, they have surely already been uncovered and heard.
But justice can be slow. The inquiry is yet to publish its final report. Criminal proceedings relating to charges of corporate manslaughter may not reach court until 2025. The survivors’ demands have become entwined with the political domino of the ‘cladding crisis’ in which Grenfell was only the starting tile. And if, as the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied, then the years since the fire are proof that the state’s institutions lack the resources, if not the will to deliver on their moral obligations. This failing exists because there is a considerable gap between the ideal of justice to which a society aspires and the legal performance that it is prepared to accept as its fulfilment. For the hundreds of people most closely affected by the Grenfell fire, the law cannot offer sufficient consolation because the violence of the event was too great to be encompassed by rational administrative means.
The legal theorist Frans-Willem Korsten suggests that this deficit of justice must be addressed aesthetically. Indeed, sometimes justice literally turns to performance: barristers, for example, wear wigs in court in part to compensate for their lack of authority over anything but words. The decorum of the public inquiry, likewise, is an act which encourages the communal suspension of disbelief. But art can also frustrate this arrangement by rendering visible its incongruities or by simply reminding everyone that the quest for justice can be woefully compromised or forever partial. Korsten cites the example of the Dutch memorial for the passengers of flight MH17 shot down over Eastern Ukraine in 2014 whose function is to offer closure to the victims’ relatives as much as, in his words, to annoy those who would maintain that justice has been served.
McQueen’s Grenfell is also both cathartic and an itchy wig. Judging by the sombre mood of the audience and the boxes of tissues placed in the auditorium, the art gallery is as good a staging for the expression of excess emotions as the theatre was for Aristotle who first conceptualised art’s role as a social safety pressure valve. In a secular society where collective rituals are on the decline, this exhibition is the kind of communal ‘letting go’ we are sorely missing. If art can rediscover its cathartic function again, it will find no shortage of shared traumas to deal with.
But the Serpentine Galleries are more likely to attract the affluent middle classes than the families of those who perished in the fire. Neither is represented in the film. So who is purging which emotions? McQueen’s long association with North Kensington is well-known but the tears of some other visitors are worth examining for traces of third-party loss, shame, guilt, and helplessness. There is nothing callous in these feelings, of course, but together they point to the inherently deceitful nature of art which Plato, to whom Aristotle’s Poetics was a response, saw as a reason to banish poetry from public life.
Grenfell is unsettling also because it does not voice an explicit political demand. McQueen no doubt supports the survivors’ campaigns, but this isn’t a ‘something must be done’ film and there is no hashtag one would file all these emotions under. The work doesn’t even pretend to help us to ‘make sense’ of the tragedy because there is no sense to be found in the fire. Instead, it is an opportunity to gaze intently at the beautiful ruins until they fuse reason and dreams, as Korsten put it, and until one no longer sees only death in them.
Image: Steve McQueen, Grenfell, 2019 (still), courtesy the artist