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Filmmaker Steve McQueen opens exhibit at the Art Institute

Steve McQueen's short film 'Girls Tricky' portrays London-based trip-hop musician Tricky.

Steve McQueen's short film "Girls Tricky" portrays the London-based trip-hop musician Tricky.

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“Steve mcqueen” exhibit

◆ Opens Sunday through Jan. 6, 2013; opening preview and reception on Friday

◆ Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.

◆ (312) 443-3600; www.artic.edureception on Friday oct 19

◆ Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.

◆ (312) 443-3600;

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Updated: November 19, 2012 1:38PM

Anyone who’s viewed a scene filmed by director/artist Steve McQueen — be it Carrie Mulligan crooning “New York, New York” in “Shame” or the distressingly grimy Irish prison in “Hunger” — knows how important place is to the artist. So it is no mistake that, on Sunday, Chicago is the first city to mount a large-scale survey of the British filmmaker’s work.

“Chicago is very important to me,” says McQueen, e-mailing from Amsterdam, a city he adopted in order to avoid his native London’s intense focus on celebrity. “Chicago has always been a place of encouragement and inspiration.”

McQueen has become known for his films, clinching Cannes’ 2008 Caméra d’Or for “Hunger,” about a prison hunger strike, and in 2011 releasing “Shame,” a bleak story of sex addiction. The Turner Prize-winning artist’s films often explore political themes and push the boundaries of visual storytelling.

He found enthusiastic collaborators in Chicago early in his art career. In 1996, the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted one of McQueen’s first solo shows. At a 1999 Art Institute of Chicago lecture, the artist connected with James Rondeau, the museum’s Dittmer Chair and Curator of Contemporary Art. “[From] the moment I met him we’ve been arguing about art and we still fence today,” jokes McQueen. Today, the museum owns more of the artist’s work than any other U.S. institution.

This week, a survey of 14 films created by McQueen over the last 20 years opens at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is also notable that the exhibit will be in Regenstein Hall, which is nearly 20,000 square feet.

“We’ve blown the whole space open,” says curator Rondeau.

Eschewing chronology, the exhibit uses what Rondeau calls a “choose-your-own-path approach.” Some projected videos coexist in open space. Others, like “Western Deep,” a 2002 film on a South African gold mine, are more cinematic — screening on the half-hour in a closed room.

The McQueen installation also includes a rarely exhibited photo of a swimmer warming up and “Queen and Country,” postage stamps memorializing Iraq soldiers.

Short films include “Deadpan,” a 1997 video that recreates a Buster Keaton scene where a house topples over the actor — in this case, played by the director himself. The earliest film, “Bear,” is a 10-minute ambiguous fight scene that McQueen filmed while a college student.

Notably, the exhibit marks McQueen’s return to the museum from commercial cinema — a return some artists never make. “We’re seeing the way he can have this fluid exchange between the world of fine arts and commercial cinema,” Rondeau says.

The exhibition’s one new work, “End Credits,” features declassified FBI files — a full 3,000 pages—on blacklisted 1930s African-American entertainer Paul Robeson. The looping six-hour video runs out of synch with a 15-hour soundtrack. “Whenever you return it won’t be same experience twice,” Rondeau says.

McQueen still plans to release forthcoming full-length narrative films, including “12 Years a Slave” in 2013. About working in two genres, McQueen says, “I’ve never felt the two practices to be different. I don’t feel I have to change or mold myself in order to work in either medium.”

With this survey, he doesn’t have to: On Friday, the Art Institute screens his feature-length films — moving cinema into the museum.

Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.

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