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_shift review: Steve McQueen’s Year 3 unveiled at Tate Britain

Award-winning director Steve McQueen unveiled Year 3, an ambitious photographic portrait collection of children from the nation's capital

The subjects of Steve McQueen’s new project are somewhat surprising with their delightful grins of children. Awkward, shy and giggling faces line the walls of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, all navigating the same questions; who’s the tallest? The shortest? The loudest? Who will be the first to lose a tooth?

McQueen partnered with Tate Britain and the production company Artangel, as well as the non-profit A New Direction, to produce artwork depicting two-thirds of all of London’s seven-to-eight-year-olds. The work maps a landmark year of personal development through a simple class photograph.

Little Ealing Primary School courtesy of Tate Britain and Steve McQueen

Clarrie Wallis, the Tate’s senior curator of contemporary British art, said in a press release: “Drawing in thousands of 7-and 8-years olds, their schools and families, Steve McQueen has created a genuinely inspiring artwork. It conveys a powerful sense of London as it is now, as reflected through the portraits of over 76,000 children who live here and who will go on to shape its future.”

Over 76,000 Year 3 pupils across 33 London Boroughs were arranged in rows on cramped wooden benches and neatly turned out for the photographs, most likely by fretting mothers and teachers. They’ve been corralled like sheep in a pen for photos that are both nostalgic and hopeful.

The exhibition, combining both the past and future, places the viewer directly in front of the grandeur of floor-to-ceiling portraiture. Walking through Tate Britain, the sheer scale and magnificence of the exhibition, coupled with the emotional power of the photographs, creates a spectacle to behold. The children are precisely arranged and preened in uniforms of various colours – red, blue, green, purple – with their teachers centered in an uneven symmetry. Looking at the vast expanse of echoing, familiar faces, grinning and uniform, how can we not feel utter joy?

This exhibition focuses a fundamental year of childhood, encapsulating the children’s growth as they begin to find a place in the shifting social structures of society. Through the photos, you can sense their developing confidence as they begin a life out of reach of their immediate family.

Jim Beck, communications officer at A New Direction said: “Year 3 will give these children the chance to be seen, and to see themselves in a major new artwork at one of the nation’s largest galleries. We hope it will make them proud of who they are and inspire them to go on to do great things. Who knows – maybe this exhibition will give us the next rising stars of the art world!” 

The illusion, however, is broken when the eye is drawn to the detail in each photograph; the crooked tie, the half-closed eyes, the fumbling of where to place elbows as one more child is told to squeeze into the second row. The boy in a pearl-white football shirt, elbows, arms and hands in a nervous hold or the playful grin of the class clown in the back. After all, the art is in the details.

Tyssen Primary School courtesy of Tate Britain and Steve McQueen

Though you may desperately try to take in every face, it is easy to miss a grin, held in laughter or a child standing slightly out of line. But these invisible faces are not to be forgotten when viewed in detail. A magnifying glass with wheels can be used to see even the most out of reach of photographs: the red-uniformed child, whose nervous hands reach for his ankle, or the small boy, in a baby pink uniform, with a mischievous grin, as he looks past the lens.

From classes of just five children to classes of thirty, the participating classes ranging from state, independent, pupil referral units, faith and home-educated children, will all visit Tate Britain to see their faces grace the walls of a national gallery. Some of these children may never have set foot in an art gallery.

None of the images are captioned. Perhaps a vital element, no child will be categorized by their area or school, creating hope that any child can achieve success, no matter their background. The differences between each gymnasium, sports hall, classroom, assembly hall and choice of uniform may be clear, but McQueen’s focus is on what really matters: the children. The still image, represents an undying optimism and rejection of social bias.

The whirlwind of childhood, however, is not confined to the walls of the Tate. Across the city, 600 billboards feature a selection of the images. Not only is the exhibition free, but the photographs are free of the boundaries of the gallery. A celebration of diversity and the fierce self-expression of our future and hopes.

James Lingwood, co-director of Artangel, said in a press release: “Year 3 is a resounding expression of Artangel’s belief that art can be anywhere. It’s a celebration of children and a question to the rest of us – what kind of future are we making for them?”

Year 3 class photograph courtesy of Tate Britain and Steve McQueen

McQueen has embedded an important artistic legacy that excludes none, in an era when arts education is under-funded and under threat. It is this underlying message that is so alluring.

Jim Beck, Communications Officer at A  New Direction said, “A New Direction works with creative teachers across London, so we know first-hand how tough things currently are for schools across the board. Unfortunately, when funding is so stretched, the creative subjects are often the first to go in favour of the more traditional subjects. However,  the creative industries in this country are thriving, and now contribute more to the economy than agriculture or construction. This is why engagement in the arts must be protected and encouraged, and this is why projects such as Year 3 are so vital.”

These children, brimming with curiosity and innocence, include the next generation of artists. Perhaps the boy in pink will win a Turner Prize or the girl squeezed onto the second row is a future Oscar winner. These class photos, the antithesis of traditional art, hold vast possibilities of their own. These children will never need to worry about not being represented as they gaze at their smiling faces on the wall of a national museum.

McQueen’s Year 3 has given a gift to a generation.

Year 3 is showing at Tate Britain until May 3 2020.

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