Brutal demand for change: Steve McQueen’s Grenfell Tower film at the Serpentine

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Why show us inside the ruins of Grenfell Tower?

Late in the evening, on 14 June 2017, a refrigerator caught light in a flat on the fourth floor of the London high-rise.

The fire tore through the 24-storey building on the Lancaster West Estate in Kensington. Within a few hours, 72 people had died as a result of the blaze; hundreds more were left injured, traumatised and bereaved.

On 18 December 2017, the British artist Steve McQueen, who was born nearby in a comparable housing estate, strapped himself into a helicopter which rose and flew low above London until it reached Grenfell Tower. There, it began to closely circle the now gutted building, often flying treacherously close.

The resulting 24-minute film, Grenfell (2019), shows us, in one unedited shot, the footage McQueen shot that day. In it we glimpse, for the first time, the interiors of what is now essentially a pyre, as Grenfell Tower remains the final resting place for many of those who died that night.

Over the next month, Grenfell will play on loop at the Serpentine South gallery in London’s Hyde Park—just a short walk from the location of the tower.

The film plays without words or music. Instead we watch what McQueen caught on camera as his helicopter made its way over the city. It’s a beautiful winter’s day, the light soft and shadows long over London. We drift over the affluent suburbs; birdsong is audible, a patchwork of trees and homes below. As we approach the centre, so the din becomes more insistent. Beyond the whir of the helicopter’s blades, we can hear traffic and sirens, the rumble of trains over tracks, the roar of planes above. The city continues to ceaselessly move.

The tower, suddenly, becomes visible. The sound of London stops as we begin to orbit, veering closely and then further away from the shell of the building.

By presenting the footage in such a way, without voiceover, cuts, narrative, stylisation or first-person testimony, McQueen asks us to focus on what is still evident, the parts of the building that survived the fire.

Shafts of light angle through the tower and illuminate the rooms inside. You find yourself asking: was that once someone’s kitchen? Was that a dining room? A bedroom? Bags full of unseen material are stacked. Furniture appears to be visible. A bath is briefly seen. The sight of such things recalls the harrowing testimonials the public inquiry into Grenfell heard, like the bereaved son who spoke lovingly of his mother and brother after their bodies were found “fused together” in their bathroom.

We see bunches of masked figures in forensic suits as they sift through the debris; a reminder that the building remains an active crime scene.

We see, at the bottom of the building, the still surviving white cladding—polyethylene-filled aluminium composite panels that were added to the tower’s exterior during a renovation. The cladding burnt like sulphur, spreading the flames, allowing the building to become engulfed. The camera focuses on the bubbled, charred panels lining the upper half of the building.

Grenfell, then, asks big questions about the politics of architecture. On 3 July 2017, the building was described in the UK House of Commons as, literally, “a poverty trap”. The building was a 67.3-metre-tall cuboid that contained 120 flats; the Metropolitan Police reported that 350 people called the tower home on the night of the fire. Beyond the combustible cladding, the building did not comply with a litany of safety regulations. A web of around 20 seperate companies were involved in ensuring the building was safe, the inquiry has heard. McQueen’s film captures how design and space are direct expressions of class and power.

In a statement written for the exhibition and issued by the Serpentine, McQueen describes the fire as an act “of deliberate neglect”.

Steve McQueen © Photo James Stopforth

This is personal for McQueen, who has walked those hallways. He writes of visiting a friend and her newborn child when they lived in the tower in the mid-1990s. “I remember the views from the window and thinking I had never been up this high in London before,” McQueen writes. “The viewpoint was amazing.”

Shortly after McQueen shot the footage, the building was encased in white hoardings, its interiors hidden from view. Green hearts were painted alongside the phrase: “Forever In Our Hearts”. Grenfell has remained in this state of obscured limbo ever since.

“I feared, once the tower was covered up, it would only be a matter of time before it faded from the public’s memory,” McQueen writes. “In fact, I imagine there were people who were counting on that being the case.”

And therein lies the crux. The public inquiry into the Grenfell fire was launched in 15 August 2017. Since then, 400 days of evidence has been heard. But the inquiry’s full findings have not yet been made available to the public, more than five years later. No charges have been issued.

As a hermetic piece of art, Grenfell is as good as anything McQueen has ever created. And it exists in an evolving canon.

In 2009, in a film called Static, McQueen charted a helicopter to fly around the Statue of Liberty in New York. He focused his camera on the blemishes of such a national symbol; the pigeon droppings, the rust, cracks and water marks. Static is a fairly obvious act of iconoclasm—McQueen was making a representational statue appear vulnerable, uncared for and at threat. The piece was centre stage at his Tate Modern retrospective in 2020.

A year later, in July 2021, McQueen released his three-part documentary series Uprising, which explored a fire at a house party in New Cross, London, in 1981, which killed 13 people. The documentary, while a virtuoso example of the form, was in many respects a conventional BBC formulation—a combination of archival footage and a mosaic of survivor testimony.

Here, McQueen has combined the two sensibilities—his acute social consciousness with his rigour as a conceptual artist—perhaps more purely than ever before.

Directly after screenings of the film at the Serpentine, visitors are taken into an adjoining room, empty but for the names of each victim of the fire. After the Serpentine, the artwork will enter the collections of the Tate and the Museum of London, where it will live on.

But Grenfell is not just an elegy. It is a request. McQueen is asking us to assume the mantle of remembrance for Grenfell Tower. Galvanised by this brutal, brilliant artwork, we must now work out out how to collectively understand this horrifying event; to grieve, to learn and then to change.

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