Steve McQueen Deadpan 1997

  • Not on view

Deadpan is based on the iconic hurricane scene in Buster Keaton’s 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr., in which the title character (played by Keaton) stands in front of a house as its facade, detached by strong winds, collapses around him. In one of the most legendary stunts in silent-film history, Bill is positioned in the exact spot where an open window hits the ground, leaving him unscathed. With Deadpan McQueen has reimagined this scene as a short film, casting himself as Bill. A sequence of shots dissects it from various angles, transforming slapstick into a cinematographic study. By positioning his body in relation to Keaton’s, McQueen implicitly comments on the invisibility of black identity in the early cinema canon. While Keaton quickly scampers away after a comically delayed reaction, McQueen remains in the wreckage, stoic and unfazed by near disaster. As the action relentlessly repeats, the speed at which the house collapses increases.

Deadpan is projected at a monumental scale in a silent, isolated environment with a shiny floor that immerses viewers in the work’s reflection. McQueen has said, “Unlike silent movies, which weren’t really silent because there was always a musical accompaniment in the background, it is real silence. . . . I want to put people into a situation where they’re sensitive to themselves watching the piece.”

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Additional text

Deadpan is inspired by a scene from Buster Keaton's 1928 slapstick film Steamboat Bill, Jr., in which the eponymous character stands in front of a dilapidated house as its facade crashes down around him. Bill's luck and evident naiveté place him in a spot where an open window hits the ground, thus leaving him unscathed amid dust and debris. In McQueen's remake the artist casts himself in the starring role, but unlike Keaton, who is a small man in a large landscape, the artist appears imposing in scale throughout a sequence of shots that capture the same action from different angles. While Keaton bolts from the scene after a comical delayed reaction, McQueen remains standing stoically in the wreckage, unflinching in the face of near disaster.

Gallery label from Contemporary Galleries: 1980-Now, November 17, 2011-February 17, 2014.
16mm film transferred to video (black and white, silent)
4:35 min.
Gift of Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner
Object number
© 2024 Steve McQueen. Used by permission.
Media and Performance

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