Steve McQueen was made a knight in the 2020 honours list, and this is just the kind of public-spirited artwork suitable for such a high national honour. (Though I can’t help thinking LS Lowry’s approach of turning down such Royal-approved baubles, all the way up to refusing the Companion of Honour twice, is a much cooler artistic statement.)
For this exhibition, specially-trained Tate teams have photographed a total of 76,000 of London’s Year 3 schoolchildren and teachers in the traditional class photo format. These pictures have taken over the entire massive Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain - with photos all the way up the walls. Each participating school is told by the gallery where exactly their photo is; if it’s too high, assistants have special large magnifiers on wheels to help viewers of all heights get a closer look.
Why? “There’s an urgency to reflect on who we are and our future,” McQueen said. “To have a visual reflection on the people who make this city work. I think it’s important and in some ways urgent.”
The signs of utility, making it work, rather than beauty in these photos are deeply poignant. I found the tightly-repeating sets of shabby parquet floors and knackered wall bars, dioramas, and, especially, the gym benches on which so many children and teachers perched - nostalgia-inducing and moving.
I thought of one boy in particular, head resting trustingly on his teacher’s shoulder. The massive diversity of faces. And, with my increasingly crotchety age, above all, I saw what Philip Larkin once termed “the strength and pain / of being young”; these young Londoners beam and glower at the Tate photographers, and at us, unmarked by life, with its short grey winter days.
All that from some class photos! Give that man the Companion of Honour. I’m sure he will, quite rightly, accept it.
Steve McQueen: Year 3 is at Tate Britain (London). November 12 2019 - May 03 2020