Steve McQueen unveils long-awaited Sunshine State at Film Festival Rotterdam
Among a busy programme of features and shorts, Rotterdam’s annual film festival returns with a powerful, dual-screened presentation from the famed artist and filmmaker.
- Ayla Angelos
- 31 January 2023
“An artwork is an artwork,” proclaimed filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen during a talk following the launch of Sunshine State, a project commissioned for the 52nd edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) as part of its art direction programme. Delayed last year due to Covid and premiered in Milan at Pirelli HangarBicocca, the film has made a triumphant arrival in Rotterdam. And, now open to the public, it’s clear to see that Sunshine State is far more than an artwork.
Presented in collaboration with Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen and on view until 12 February, the site-specific film is located on the fifth floor of the Depot – an art storage building that’s occupied by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s entire art collection. It’s split across two screens and tells a story that his father told him before he passed away. “The platform is a true story of what happened to my father,” he said, “and the story was one of the last things he told me before he died.”
Offering context around his latest project, McQueen explains that his father was “a migrant worker going from the West Indies to America to pick oranges. What happened to his colleagues there was huge.” The film details how they were killed after an incident at a bar in Florida (also known as the Sunshine State). Having fled the scene, his father hid in a ditch nearby. A “riffing” voice over spoken by McQueen outlines this narrative, first told in full and then repeated over and over until fragmented – a technique that can be likened to automatic writing, where the words are used as a tool and subconscious thought is the driver. “It’s the same story but you hear it differently,” McQueen said. The film conclusively ends on the final phrase, “hold me tight”, which references the words his father uttered to him before his death. “It’s a chant I suppose, a mantra.”
Within Sunshine State, McQueen has canvased footage from The Jazz Singer (1927), a film featuring singer Al Jolson who performs in blackface. Alongside additional imagery of the sun – burning fiercely in a stark, vibrant orange – the otherwise monochromatic imagery from The Jazz Singer is paired with post-production that depicts the idea of “erasure”, McQueen shared. To further illicit this narrative, the film is seen split into two: a negative and a positive on either side of the screen. On one side, you have faces being erased – disappearing in real time on screen – while the other side shows faces becoming visible. “What I didn’t want was to present any reference to a blackface,” said McQueen, who uses the effect of “erasure” instead, while still referencing the film’s history. “He’s either erasing himself for making himself appear. Appear, erase. Appear, erase. I needed two screens to do that.”
McQueen’s Sunshine State is a powerful reminder of the enduring systemic racism experienced in Florida and across the world – just a couple of days ago, Tyre Nichols was the latest victim of police brutality in America, which McQueen emphasised in the talk. McQueen’s work is one of many other pieces shown at IFFR with a political angle, such as What the Soil Remembers – a film directed by The Ammodo Tiger Short Award winner José Cardoso that recounts the traumatic experiences of a community uprooted during the Apartheid regime. Other highlights to look out for across the programme include Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale; a retrospective of Hungarian director Judit Elek; Harshad Nalawade’s film about Indian youth, titled Follower; and A Primeira Idade, a Midsommar-in-style debut film from Portuguese director Alexander David. More information can be found on the IFFR website here.
Steve McQueen: Sunshine State, 2022. HD video, sound. 30 min 1 sec, continuous projection. Installation view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2022 © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, Marian Goodman Gallery and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo: Agostino Osio. A Commission for International Film Festival Rotterdam 2022. Footage from The Jazz Singer courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.