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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Year 3 by Steve McQueen

    In November 2019 a series of cheery, large scale school photographs appeared on billboards on platforms at tube and train stations and on high streets across London over a two-week period. A New Direction, a Creative Education Not for Profit Organisation, helped coordinate the project, engaging with 1504 primary schools London-wide, and Art Angel who organised the public art aspect of Year 3 project, an installation of school photographs by artist Steve McQueen.

    The exhibition is on display at Tate Britain until January 2021. The installation consists of 3,128 school photographs featuring 76,146 children, which is 70% of all Year 3 pupils. Year 3 is one of the largest portraits of citizenship ever undertaken in London. Steve McQueen discussed the project with James Lingwood of Art Angel (an organisation that develops creative projects) in an interview available on the website.

    McQueen said the idea for Year 3 has been germinating for twenty years. It was triggered after looking back at his own Primary school photographs and a specific photo reminded him of a school trip to Tate Britain aged eight. McQueen, from a Grenadian background, was dyslexic and his school years were troubled. His visit to the Tate might have changed the course of his life, introducing him to art.

    He was asked why he decided to focus on Year 3 over any other school year? He said that Year 3 between the ages of seven-eight is a milestone year when a child becomes more aware of the world beyond their immediate family. It’s also when societal forces like privilege and inequality begin to take effect, based on race, gender and class.

    James Lingwood pointed out the Year 3 project signals a departure for McQueen. Normally in his work as an artist and film director (12 Years a Slave), McQueen shapes and develops a project in line with his vision. In Year 3 he is working with a classic, pre-conceived school photograph format. The students are standing or sitting straight up in rows beside their teachers.

    In reply McQueen said within the familiar school photograph format there is also a variable and unrecognizable element: the individual child. Year 3 depicts both the present and the future. He said most visitors to the installation at first seemed to be elated and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the project, followed by a sense of anxiousness about what lies ahead for the children.

    He was also drawn to the public art aspect of the project as well as how people engaged with the work when it was interwoven with their everyday environment. Like street art, the Year 3 billboards inspired interesting reactions.  

    Most importantly, McQueen wanted the children to feel included in this epic project. A New Direction arranged for each school to visit Tate Britain for the children to see their picture displayed up on the gallery walls. He hoped the experience would be enriching and fill them with confidence. It might create new opportunities for them.

    For the rest of us viewing the installation may bring back memories of our own school photographs. Looking across the panels of photographs Year 3 is a celebration of the diversity across London’s primary schools.  

    There are variations from one picture to the next by way of class size and the number of teachers assigned to each class grouping. The pictures do not have labels to protect the identity of the children. Some of the children are dressed in casual clothes. Most of them are wearing a school uniform. Overall, the differences in the pictures are a matter of detail.

    McQueen was asked if he would take Year 3 on a tour of England? He said he would be happy to photograph Year 3 in Birmingham or in Manchester when schools resume and it is safe to do so after Covid-19.

    Finally, he thought the project’s popularity had overtaken its resonance as an artwork. Year 3 is an important and dynamic snapshot of London. It taps into the zeitgeist in terms of the current discussions into race and social inequality while referring to the past, present and future, offset by an underlying sense of positivity and hope for a more equitable future for the children.





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