In December 2017, six months after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire that took with it 72 lives while destroying countless others, the artist Steve McQueen boarded a helicopter equipped with his camera. He filmed ‘Grenfell’ – a single-take 24-minute scene of the charred building, burnt to its bare bones. McQueen was adamant to capture the tower before the local authority covered it up.
This powerful film opens with an aerial view of suburban, leafy west London, the camera moving deliberately towards the tower block to the sound of the circling blades and city soundscape below. On approaching the tower block, the film falls absolutely silent as the helicopter circles and hovers around the building.
McQueen’s steady gaze takes the viewer in and out of the building, occasionally lingering on a blackened, broken window, a discarded object, trash bags, and forensic teams in PPE. Recalling Hitchcock’s seminal scene in the ‘North by Northwest’, the silence only helps magnify the sense of absolute terror and (in this case) absolute grief.
The Grenfell fire should never have happened. It was due to the cheap combustible cladding (banned in Europe) that was installed on the social housing high-rise only a year earlier. And the building had inadequate fire extinguishers and sprinklers.
In a powerful essay ‘Never Again Grenfell’ Paul Gilroy, author and scholar of race, culture and nationalism, writes:
‘To me, Steve McQueen’s work suggests that there is much to gain in confronting the meanings of the damaged structure and making the shock of our painful contact with it instructive. Opening ourselves humbly to that possibility can be accomplished without betraying the tower’s plural traumas or the political complexity of this moment in which closure is not an option. We cannot understand Grenfell unless we keep the reality of this building firmly in mind.’
On the day I went to the ‘Grenfell’ preview screening at the Serpentine, the collective expression was solum; most of us had cried. McQueen’s lens is spellbinding. It makes us meditate in that moment on the memory never to be forgotten.
The film is being screened until until 10 May, after which the work will be placed in the care of the Tate Gallery and the Museum of London ’s collections.