Steve McQueen has led a seven-year campaign commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the British servicemen and women killed during the war in Iraq with official postage stamps bearing their portraits. Having been on tour at Manchester International Festival, the Imperial War Museum and the Barbican, Queen And Country is currently on view in room 37 of the National Portrait Gallery, where it remains until 18 July. The UK Royal Mail has yet to give the go-ahead to the project.
McQueen’s frustration with his inability to gain proper film footage during his 6 days spent with British troops in 2003 in Basra as official War Photographer led to the development of Queen And Country as the artist’s response to the lack of unmediated documentation. Ever increasing, and now comprised of 160 portraits, supplied by relatives of the deceased, Queen And Country is more than a documentary, it serves as a poignant reminder of Britain’s ongoing participation in conflicts and provokes important questions about national identity, power and choice. The petition, backed by The Art Fund to have the stamps made official holds neither a pro- nor anti-war stance.
Queen And Country is quiet and unassuming but contains subtle references to mortality that cannot be avoided. Each set of unofficial stamps is set in an A1 drawer that slides vertically out of a large, wooden box placed in the middle of the room looking uncomfortably similar to a large, closed casket; each drawer that contains portraits (some do not and are ominously empty) pulls out to reveal a sheet of stamps on either side, but, back-to-back, it is almost impossible to view more than one at a time, demanding an intimate respect from the viewer. Furthermore, its museum-display-cabinet style reminds me of the kind of drawers used to keep rare birds’ eggs in – precious remnants of a life taken early – that make you feel privileged to view its contents, while the postcards to the side of the work inviting the viewer to comment and campaign serve as painful reminders of those that will never be sent nor received.
Set in the tourist trap of the NPG, however, Queen And Country struggles to retain its poignant dignity with the constant stream of people passing through. It was at this point that I began to wonder if there were any families who declined to participate in the project and what might happen to the beauty of its infinite nature should the campaign be successful before the end of the war. Such questions paled into insignificance when I further considered Queen And Country’s intelligence: Its interactive nature means that only those willing, and therefore deserved, participate and the fact that the memorialized are ordered by date of death, rather than rank or age, for example, means each life lost is paid an equal tribute. This, in addition to the mobility and infinite nature of the work, demonstrates a new generation of ‘the monument’.
Queen And Country is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 July.