In 2008 the Turner Prize-Winning artist Steve McQueen produced the artwork Queen & Country. Having been commissioned in 2003 by the Imperial War Museum to create a piece commemorating those who lost their lives in the Iraq War, McQueen finally came up with his exhibit. Queen and Country consists of a sheet of 150 postage stamps dedicated to each person who lost their life in Iraq. The stamps show a single portrait photograph of each of the fallen, and are housed in a large wooden casing that somewhat resembles a coffin.
McQueen’s project raises some intriguing questions about art and memorial, as well as the medium of photography itself. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes discusses the “studium” and the “punctum” of the photograph. The studium is informed by the cultural connotations we bring to the photograph. Having close-up portraits of the fallen in uniform allows for the immediate connection of the photograph to war, its traditions and the somewhat naïve innocence of a smiling new recruit. The punctum of McQueen’s art, something which rises out of the photograph to ‘pierce’ you, is the sheer personal sadness of the smiling faces and an underlying sense of guilt that weshould not be seeing these photos.
Barthes identifies a situation we have all been in: “Show your photographs to someone – he will immediately show you his.” There is something personal and possessive about a photograph. By putting individual portraits into the domain of an art gallery they become public property, but the base layer of personal connection is never lost. Viewing the stamps leaves you viewing somebody’s child, the pain repeated 150 times over.
At its core, McQueen’s work is a memorial. Like a typical war monument, it lists the dead one by one, only using pictures rather than words to engrave their character into our minds. Barthes identified that, “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once.” Using the medium of photography to craft his visual memorial allows McQueen to ruminate on the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life as a soldier. The photographs show one single moment that can never be recaptured, but it is a moment that has now been made to symbolise an entire life and its tragic end.
I cannot discuss McQueen’s work merely in the terms of photography; the decision to present the photographs as stamps is crucial to its status as a memorial. McQueen wanted Royal Mail to issue the stamps for general use, highlighting the line between them as a functional tribute and a work of art. Take away the glass casing and the Imperial War Museum gallery space and you have a series of single photographs in remembrance of the dead. Some would question whether a postage stamp is even art, highlighting that McQueen’s project is a memorial first and an artwork second. If Royal Mail had allowed McQueen to circulate the stamps to the public, it would have more accurately fulfilled Queen and Country’s role as an artistic tribute. The concrete war memorial exists to be publicly accessible, yet remain intensely personal to the families of those lost. McQueen’s postage stamps, banal in their usage but adorned with an ephemeral smile unique to that person, is a visual extension of this practice.