Going on a Bear Hunt
Awardee of the Michael O'Pray Prize 2022 Dan Guthrie tries to imagine the experience of Steve McQueen's elusive artwork Bear.
I have yet to see Steve McQueen’s 1993 breakout work Bear and I doubt I will for some time. McQueen made the ten-minute silent film during his final year at Goldsmiths and it was the first of his film works to be shown publicly as part of the exhibition ‘Acting Out: The Body in Video, Then and Now’ curated by MA students at the Royal College of Art in 1994. The work has since travelled widely as part of various solo and group shows, both nationally and internationally, but the last time it was shown in the UK was in the 2017 Arts Council Collection exhibition ‘Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity’which opened at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery and toured to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Unlike his cinematic oeuvre which is widely available on streaming platforms, Bear and the rest of McQueen’s gallery pieces are not available to view online, making it particularly hard to write and talk about a work that is still cited as being a key part of the moving-image canon. So rather than attempting to critique something I haven’t seen, I’m instead going to look for any documentation that I can find of the work, to see if through researching I might replicate the experience of viewing it in person.
The obvious place to start is the internet. A cursory search brings up an array of film stills and installation shots that populate the websites of institutions that have either shown the work or have an edition of it in their collection. These pictures are certainly evocative of how Bear would unfold, but as still images they remain merely eye-catching snapshots that were probably selected for their marketing appeal. Photographic documentation is unsurprisingly better suited to non-time based media, with further improvements being made – including a growing number of high-resolution scans of classical paintings becoming available online. Yet if you scroll further down on a Google search for Bear, you might find something that more closely resembles the film.
On a long inactive Tumblr page, a set of sepia tinged gifs show McQueen and co-star Vernon Douglas eyeing the camera up, being eyed-up by the camera, eyeing each other up, and tussling with each other. We see bodies move in a way that seems formally similar to descriptions of Bear but these gifs have been ripped from a preview copy of McQueen’s work and rearranged to play on second-long loops in grid formation, disrupting the editing rhythms of the single-channel work. This time, the motivation behind the selection isn’t marketing but kinship, the selected shots probably chosen to appeal to users on the site, many of them queer, who search by thematic tags to reblog and self-curate their own aesthetically driven digital archives.
Maybe if I went deeper than a surface-level skimming then I would find an intact preview copy somewhere on the internet, but I doubt McQueen would approve. In an essay for the catalogue accompanying McQueen’s 2020 Tate Modern retrospective, which largely focused on pieces made after Bear, Solveig Nelson notes that the work circulated ‘as an unauthorised VHS in queer cultures’ after its initial release. This tradition seems to have continued into the present day, with journalist E. Alex Jung bringing up the fact in an interview for Vulture magazine in 2019 the fact that he watched a bootleg at a friend’s house; in response, McQueen bluntly says ‘where the fuck did you see that?’, presumably because his gallerists are quick to strike down any recordings that are uploaded online. But if there is a link buried somewhere, and I know that there probably is, I’m not going out of my way to look for it: Bear was not designed to be viewed on a laptop, alone.
McQueen’s installation instructions explicitly state that the projection of the film must fill an entire wall. In the Baltic’s free-to-access art reference library, I chanced upon a catalogue of McQueen’s work that included an essay by Okwui Enwezor which held more specific information: the screening room must be seven-metres long, four-metres wide and three-metres high, with the other walls painted black and the floor ‘polished to a reflective gloss’. Expanding on these architectural decisions in an un-paywalled Art Monthly interview from 1996, McQueen says he wanted to ‘put people into a situation where they’re sensitive to themselves watching the piece’, with the visuals towering over spectators and the omission of sound making them aware of their ‘own breathing’, and as a result, their presence in the space.
These conscious choices make clear to me that Bear is as much about what’s on the screen as it is about the dynamics between those in the room watching it, so instead of focusing on trying to track down the film, I decided to expand my search to include the way that the whole installation has been documented. Many of the critical texts on Bear that I was able to read without institutional access centred on rigorous descriptions of the visuals, such as Sophie Howarth’s 2001 writeup for Tate’s collection listing which talks about ‘disorientating camerawork’, ‘interlocked bodies’ and ‘optical language[s] of flirtation and threat’, but they didn’t really give the whole-room picture I was after, so I began to look beyond the world of art writing in search of more embodied perspectives.
Wade through the witty one-liners for Bear on the diaristic review site Letterboxd and you will find one five-star rating from user ‘GhiLeaii’ who remembers seeing the work in the late 1990s at MOCA in Los Angeles. They recall the feelings of self-hatred, self-love and ‘the struggle of identity and brotherhood’ that they took away from viewing experience, unlike their ‘white acquaintance’. In Paul Mendez’s debut novel Rainbow Milk, his protagonist, Jesse, sees Bear on display in the Tate soon after moving to London with the hope of exploring his queerness away from his upbringing in Birmingham’s Jehovah’s Witness community; the work for him is ‘the first time he had ever seen two naked black men physically engaged’, and he is mesmerised and aroused by the dynamics at play, while being equally aware of others watching him in the space – ‘white women in particular’ – and the sense of unease that brings.
Both of these accounts add another dimension to my understanding of the work that has been largely absent so far: the subjectivities of black men as conscious spectators of the film. That is not to say that objectivity isn’t important, but rather that emotive works such as Bear are never experienced in a vacuum, so it is perhaps essential that we might enrich our understanding of such works through describing direct experience and relations.
But, even if there were in-person opportunities to see these rarely screened moving-image works, not everybody could access them. If a London institution were to show Bear – as the city is a hub for moving-image activity – then the cheapest route from where I live would cost me at least £18.30, £15 for a National Express day return to Victoria Coach Station (only available Tuesday to Thursday with a Coachcard), with a further £1.85 for TfL buses from the coach station to the gallery and back. If I wanted to board an hourly train that takes 90-minutes to get to London, rather than the coach which takes three hours, it would cost me £33.10 for two Super Off Peak Advance singles with a Railcard discount. Whichever mode of transport I opt for, adding on the costs of food, drink and most possibly an exhibition ticket, plus the eventual exhaustion that comes with trying to cram in as much art sightseeing as possible in order to justify a day trip, means that it is asking a lot to spend so much time, money and energy on trying to see one specific work.
Of course, any journey that involves travelling further than London would likely bring additional transportation and potential accommodation costs, and other barriers such as caring commitments, access needs and availability might prohibit anyone from setting out on such a trip. Against these mounting costs and in order to help those who are unable to engage with them in-person, we need to improve the way we document rarely screened works. I’ve been using Bear as an example of the wider problem surrounding artists’ films, and I understand the reluctance and refusal of artists such as McQueen to make their work freely viewable, but how can artists, curators and writers working with the moving image, particularly those operating outside educational and institutional structures, begin to engage with inaccessible works?
Attempts to change this situation have recently been demonstrated by slow emergency siren, ongoing; a collaboration between LUX and Sarah Hayden’s Voices in the Gallery project which centred on making Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs ‘more and differently accessible’. Elaine Lillian Joseph was commissioned as part of the project to write and perform an augmented audio description for the film. In the introduction to her script Joseph announces the rejection of ‘neutrality’ in her approach; instead she sets out to affirm her subjectivity as a black woman whose maternal side of the family settled and grew up in Handsworth, and she goes on to describe the work as ‘an attempt to inhabit the unflinching, political world’ of the film.
Along with captions made by the disabled-led experimental film and art collective, Care-fuffle Working Group, Joseph’s audio description is available to hear and read in large-print online, allowing a wide variety of audiences to get to know another hard-to-see film and potentially begin to realise a version of it inside their heads. Producing these resources and making them widely available could be a way towards improving and enhancing moving image documentation. I would be intrigued to hear how an audio describer would approach a work such as Bear.
Returning to the range of documentation that I have managed to collate on McQueen’s film – from official still images, and bootleg gifs to objective descriptions and subjective perspectives – I have come as close as I can to replicating the viewing experience without actually seeing the work. I can certainly picture how it might feel to walk into a black box and spend time with the bodies on the screen, alongside the encounters with other possible bodies watching in the space. But, despite all this, I still feel I’m lacking a genuine emotional connection. Until Bear is shown in the UK again – hopefully not too far away in time or space – I’ll have to make do with the fragments I have found.
Dan Guthrie is an artist-filmmaker, film programmer and writer based in Stroud, and an awardee in the Film and Video Umbrella and Art Monthly Michael O’Pray Prize 2022.
The Michael O’Pray Prize is a Film and Video Umbrella initiative in partnership with Art Monthly, supported by University of East London and Arts Council England.
2022 Selection Panel
Terry Bailey, Senior Lecturer, Programme leader, Creative and Professional Writing, University of East London
Steven Bode, Director, FVU
Ellen Mara de Wachter, Writer on Arts and Culture
Chris McCormack, Associate Editor, Art Monthly
Tai Shani, Artist
Image: Steve McQueen, 'Bear', 1993, film stills.