The New Blood Diamonds: Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen’s new film shows at the Renaissance Society

When you walk into the gallery, it is completely dark. This is the kind of pitch black that makes you think you’re about to run into a brick wall or a monster. The sounds that come blasting across the room do nothing to center you. And what are you looking at? Where are you? The film being cast on the large screen in the gallery is “Gravesend,” but you won’t necessarily know what it is you’re seeing. The problems with filmic art are difficult to overcome–oftentimes, in museums, one walks into a dark room behind a lousy curtain and watches about twenty seconds of something a little bizarre before shrugging, shaking one’s head, and leaving. But “Gravesend,” like much of the cutting-edge art presented at the Renaissance Society, is a little bit different.

Let’s do a review. Do you remember Joseph Conrad’s slim but heavy packing novella, “Heart of Darkness”? It’s read widely in high school English classes across the nation for a number of reasons. And it’s been remade a lot, mostly because its themes are so historically relevant–and horrifyingly sinister. The very very Spark Notes version of “Heart of Darkness” is that when left to certain devices (namely trade and the colonial impulse) men can become something other than themselves. Unsurprising, then, that the main visual trope in the book is darkness.

This brings us to “Gravesend,” currently showing at the Renaissance Society (on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall). “Gravesend” is by a (relatively) young British artist named Steve McQueen, and is inspired in part by Conrad’s novella. McQueen works primarily with film, and his work is often focused on the globally relevant matters of our time. For instance, McQueen has filmed in Baghdad and Africa, as well as Britain and New York. He caused a stir in Britain last year when he was named the recipient of the Turner Prize, which is, in a media- and art-hungry country, a truly intense affair. Yet “Gravesend” shows very little of the flash associated with the contemporary art world. It is a tightly shot and technically constructed, seventeen-minute long film.

The primary subject of the film is the mineral coltan, which is used in the batteries for cell phones and other contemporary electronics–a valuable mineral, and in somewhat high demand. Eighty percent of the world’s reserves of coltan can be found in the Congo, where McQueen shot much of the film. Among other things, the highly valuable reserves of coltan in the Congo have helped cause the wars that have rocked the country for years.

McQueen’s film opens with shots of a coltan processing plant–but unless you’re incredibly tech savvy, you won’t recognize the machinery, or any of the process. The imagery in the plant is futuristic, precise, and somewhat mysterious. Though the process is intricate, it is also alien and disjointed. After the processing shots, we are transported to the actual coltan mine, where faceless men work to chip away at a deep, growing hole in the ground.

The film is broken by an extended animated shot that sees a black trickle growling with static and growing in the screen, as the camera flips and follows it upwards. Though the imagery is different, the sinister mood remains. After the black river washes out the frame, the audience is presented with an extended close-up of an actual river, full of stones. The most striking shot of the film is this prolonged stare, in which the river and the minerals that are being washed in it take on a bizarre anthropomorphic quality. It is unclear what we are seeing–a human face, buried by rocks, or just water rushing over a streambed? Though this kind of division may seem absurd, it’s the core of the film. There is something happening that is unclear and strange, but sinister, and caught up mysteriously with men and what they do. Though the film moves from machine to man, there is no question that neither can be understood.

And of course, when the films fades into black and begins its loop again, there is the shock of familiarity. But by this time, your eyes have adjusted to the darkness in the gallery, and you can see your limbs and the eyes of the people who are watching as well. This kind of adjustment happens naturally in the darkness, but the film still obscures. Sometimes, you can be afraid of something without really knowing what it is.

“Gravesend,” Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave, Cobb Hall Fourth Floor. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, 12pm-5pm; closed Monday. (773)702-8670. www.renaissancesociety.org

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