The best thing about Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ project is imagining all the gammon-faced, xenophobic, anti-immigration bigots it’s going to get frothing with rage. Because the artist and filmmaker’s project is a brazen, forthright, unapologetic celebration of multi-cultural London.
It’s a simple enough concept: every primary school in London was approached to have its year 3 class photo taken. The results would then be plastered across billboards throughout the city and displayed in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. Seventy percent of the schools said yes, including state, public, faith and special needs institutions.
You’ve probably seen the billboards around town or on your commute, but this is the museum side to the project. It’s not a great visual spectacle – it’s just school photos, hundreds of them, all identically sized and posed. But there are patterns to catch, especially in the endless shades of navy, red, green and grey, the purples and burgundies. It’s a stuttering series of colour-coded reminders of life as a seven-year-old at school, of forgotten PE kits and stinking school dinners, detentions and football with tennis balls.
Seven is a pivotal age, it’s when you start figuring out the world, taking it in and understanding your place in it. McQueen’s project is a portrait of that, of childhood’s slow morph into imminent adolescence. But way more obviously, it's a celebration of this city’s diversity, its vast variety of races, cultures and backgrounds, all played out and glorified on these walls. It’s census as art.
And every day, the kids from these schools are being bussed in to see their faces on the walls of the Tate. Can you imagine how powerful that is? This insanely mixed group of children seeing themselves in a museum, understanding their differences, recognising that they fit in, that this is their city, and no bigot can take that away from them. This art shows us London now, and it shows us London in the future. It’s not isolated, homogenous or insular, it’s wide open, diverse and brilliant.