metropolis m

Photo by Richard Ivey ©. Steve McQueen, Grenfell, 2019 (still), courtesy the artist

A vast expanse sprays the screen like a helicopter fighting a wildfire. The frame becomes a stream of water, our vision following as it dissipates across the city. Steve McQueen opens Grenfell with his signature singular shot: panning the capital, giving us an Icarian view of London.

On this day, London exists in quiet confidence and gentle beauty. We move towards the unknown, accompanied by an indistinguishable soundscape of the metropolis below. London is deafening in its silence. There is power and potential here. The aerial view prompts confusion: collectively, the audience tries to distinguish:

Where are we going?

Which route will we take to this known destruction?

Outlines of architectural relics can be seen below, some familiar and others obstructed. As we move along the city’s body, we scale through the arteries of cul-de-sacs, parks and tarmac veins that hold traffic and circulate across the capital.

This is England: this is London.

We navigate past Wembley Stadium from the perspective of an automated bird; it flies ‘counterclockwise to the sun’ —the screen floods with the sound of air, silence, and atmosphere.[1] The sky is sedated: there are no distinct clouds, only streaks appearing as webs of light.

And there, amongst the browns, bricks, and verdant landscape, we pan towards a carcass of a building: Grenfell. As we approach for closer inspection, all noise falls away. The surrounding trees are barren. McQueen begins to spin. We witness an odyssey into tragedy: we know the ‘ghost’ confronting us.[2]

Calcified blocks of carbon frame the building: silver, slate, and black. Coagulated concrete, cinders, and flickers of red rust mark each floor, with the spine of the building framed by fire engine red metal doors, a sign for caution and safety. Cellophane and scaffolding hold in place the memory of this place.

The red scratchings on Grenfell look like scabs peeled away and left raw. Columns of debris are stacked like hay bales in each room, a memory of the lives that once occupied each space. Corroded cladding is everywhere, resembling the root of a decayed tree trunk.

In contrast, the perimeter of the building is stapled with metal clasps, jutting out for something to hold onto, to lock into. The building, too, is trying to make sense of its departed self.

Grenfell is a tribute to the ‘loss of seventy-two irreplaceable human beings because of the fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017.’[3] An avoidable tragedy, McQueen has created a memorial to honour the lives lived and lost.

McQueen’s experience with Grenfell Tower began in the early nineties when he visited a friend who had just had their first child. She was Italian, and her partner was Algerian. They ‘went to art school together, and I wanted to see this new beginning. I remember the views from the window and thinking I had never been up this high in London before. The viewpoint was amazing.’[4]

McQueen returns to this view three decades later and places us beyond it. From his first visit to celebrate life, he returns decades later to take cognisance of life while mourning deaths.

On hearing about the fire, McQueen was compelled to react, ‘I was in pain like many other people witnessing a tragedy that simply did not have to happen yet did due to deliberate neglect. The question for me then was, how do I engage with this tragedy?’[5]

When we arrive at Grenfell, McQueen begins a series of rotations. Each turn is an attempt to rationalise and comprehend the disaster.

How many times do you need to see to remember?

How many times do you need to see not to forget?

The distinction is necessary. While remembering is passive, McQueen implores us to be deliberate as we watch. McQueen speaks of fearing ‘once the tower was covered up it would only be a matter of time before it faded from the public memory.’[6] He wants to relate Grenfell to us as fact, not just memory. Each turn is a rationalisation of the disaster. He positions Grenfell in our memory, simultaneously giving perspective while making sense of it.

How close do you need to get to tragedy to understand it, to comprehend it?

The views are dizzying and expansive. Sometimes it feels like we are watching a virtual simulation of a horrific disaster better suited to the digital than the hyper-real.

A tragedy of this scale is often seen in disaster simulations, with models placed in precarious situations to predict what could happen. In the instance of Grenfell, despite the stark warnings, nothing was done to avoid it. There was no test model. What happens when you avoid the omens, do not prepare for the tragedy through recommendations or simulations, witness the damage, and remain silent? What happens when you transgress all these levels of accountability and caution? What does this say of our humanity?

Does seeing devastation repeatedly abstract it? If the body forgets to protect itself from trauma, do 12 counter clockwise rotations in twenty-four minutes undo the failure to recall? The explicitness of the damage is confronting; it feels as if the only way it can be related is to talk about it as a virtual rendition. Digitalising it removes the visceral, removes the texture. On-screen, the trauma becomes beautiful and palpable, a salve to process the texture of the pain.

The twelve revolutions around this skeleton give a glimpse into the neighbouring blocks, a stark reminder that many families, neighbours, and witnesses must live with this ghost, trapped in a permeant wake. Does each rotation reflect ‘the passing of months, marking time, years now, since a lack of policy change’?[7]

Even the neighbouring church is cradled by scaffolding as if to imply divine intervention could not protect Grenfell from damnation.

It is undeniable that this work will stay with everyone who’s witnessed it. You can measure the impact by the silence in the room, amplified by the only audible distraction as I write this:  my pen scratching against paper. Everyone is enthralled and appalled. Occasionally, a whisper passes, a murmur to remind us there is too much sorrow to speak of it with full body voice:

How did we let this happen? How did we become complicit?

How do you look at tragedy: from a distance or in focus?

There is no sound. We descend:

Blackout. White screen.

Silence is what you find when Grenfell is allowed to speak for itself.

In memory of those who lived:

Abdeslam Sebbar

Ali Yawar Jafari

Denis Murphy

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Jeremiah Deen

Zainab Deen

Steven Power


Joe (Joseph) Daniels

Husna Begum

Kamru Miah

Mohammed Hamid

Mohammed Hanif

Rabeya Begum

Khadija Khaloufi

Vincent Chiejina

Fatemeh Afrasehabi

Sakineh Afrasehabi

Isaac Paulos

Hamid Kani

Berkti Haftom

Biruk Haftom

Yahya Hashim

Yaqub Hashim

Fatima Choucair

Mierna Choucair

Nadia Choucair

Sirria Choucair

Zainab Choucair

Bassem Choucair

Anthony (Tony) Disson

Mariem Elgwahry

Eslah Elgwahry

Raymond (Moses) Bernard

Gloria Trevisan

Gary Maunders

Deborah (Debbie) Lamprell

Ernie Vital

Marjorie Vital

Maria Del-Pilar Burton

Amal Ahmedin

Amaya Tuccu-Ahmedin

Amna Mahmud Idris

Mohamednur Tuccu

Victoria King

Jessica Urbano

Farah Hamdan Belkadi

Leena Belkadi

Malak Belkadi

Omar Belkadi

Abdulaziz El-Wahabi

Faouzia El-Wahabi

Mehdi El-Wahabi

Nur Huda El Wahabi

Yasin El Wahabi

Logan Gomes

Hashim Kedir

Nura Jemal

Marco Gottardi

Fethia Hassan

Hania Hassan

Rania Ibrahim

Hesham Rahman

Mohamed (Saber) Amied Neda

Abufras Ibrahim

Isra Ibrahim

Fathia Ali Ahmed Elsanosi

Alexandra Atala

Mary Mendy

Khadija Saye

Ligaya Moore

Firdaws Hashim

I remember a poem in Caleb Femi’s Poor (2020). Femi speaks of ‘in the present, every time I write grief on my phone it auto-corrects and asks if I mean Grenfell, have I written Grenfell enough times it has registered it as a familiar word or is this how collective mourning works?’.[8] The horror is a reality; we cannot unsee it. Femi’s conflation of grief with Grenfell stresses how this trauma will perennially be imprinted on the minds of many who witnessed it.

McQueen’s question to himself haunts me, ‘how do I engage with this tragedy?’ while his tribute offers an answer: by letting it speak for itself. The audience files out silently to reckon with death, with disaster. Engaging is to look, relook, and remember. Engaging is to interrogate, listen, create space, and contemplate.

There is no need for allusions; the entire image is clear. McQueen locks down the camera and wants you to feel unsettled. He offers no relief:

‘I always wanted to tell stories; I never tried to do anything friendly because I just wanted to tell some kind of truth about what I was doing; that was my criteria…The whole idea of holding shots is about real-time… for the audience to engage with something at that moment, you obliterate the frame so we are present with that image then and there, then and now, in real-time. I wanted to be present with the audience; it shows you how relevant and powerful it is still [cinema]…film can be a starting point for a conversation; it’s that powerful.’[9]

The last time McQueen ‘obliterates the screen with such visual effect’ can be seen in Static (2009): a digital projection of a 35mm film shot from a helicopter circling the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, set against the backdrops of New York City and New Jersey. The piece is marked by unease and uncertainty. Static (2009) showcases and scrutinises the statue, defamiliarising one of the most iconic symbols of the United States through an intimate, agitated gaze at its surfaces.[10]

In response to Gilroy’s commentary that ‘time itself has become a weapon favoured by the powerful’, McQueen takes back silence and democratises it, making it a tool for the marginalised.[11] Time is no longer insidious but reframed to amplify the silence, a weapon detonated to clear space for confrontation. Silence becomes a tool, a theme, a subject; it provokes reflection. In wanting to resist the forgetting of Grenfell, McQueen uses silence as a repository to confront all thoughts.

Photo by Richard Ivey ©. Steve McQueen, Grenfell, 2019 (still), courtesy the artist

By screening Grenfell at Serpentine, the gallery transforms into a site for exploration, resolution, and a gesture to absolution. The concerted efforts of the civic curatorial team, namely Amal Khalaf, Elizabeth Graham and Layla Gatens, who worked with Grenfell community organisations, shaped the visitor experience, with considerations for the bereaved and survivors at the forefront.

Private community viewings took place before the artwork opened on 7 April.

During the private viewing hours for survivors and those bereaved, there was onsite support from Hestia, an organisation that provided therapeutic support in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The Visitor Experience team received trauma-informed training led by NHS Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Services, in addition to being trained as certified Mental Health First Aiders. A quiet space was made available throughout the presentation for anyone needing to step out, if necessary.

Whilst reckoning with what the legacy of Grenfell and McQueen’s tribute will lead to, a clear consequence is how a gallery can reconfigure, host, and witness grief.

Serpentine gives hope on how a gallery can translate its cultural power into care.

It reminds us that even amidst the density of death, sensitivity can give birth to ‘hope [as] a thing with feathers’ that files counter clockwise to twelve rotations around tragedy.[12]

Serpentine Gallery in London presents Grenfell by Steve McQueen at Serpentine South from Friday 7 April to Wednesday 10 May 2023.


[1] A reflection shared during a conversation with Bridget Peacock

[2] Definition given by British rapper and activist, Lowkey

[3] Paul Gilroy, Never Again Grenfell, Steve McQueen exhibition guide (Serpentine Galleries,2023), pp. 6 – 13.

[4] Steve McQueen, Opening Statement, Steve McQueen exhibition guide (Serpentine Galleries,2023), pp.2-3.

[5] McQueen, p3.

[6] McQueen, p3.

[7] Another consideration proposed by Bridget Peacock

[8], Excerpts from Journal Entries, 2017

[9] Obliterating the Frame: Steve McQueen on Art and Film,


[11] Gilroy, p8.

[12] Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permissions of the publishers and Trustees of Amherst College.


Bianca A. Manu

is an award-winning British-Ghanaian curator, author and journalist who specialises in modern & contemporary African art and photography. Published journalism includes the Guardian, BBC, Sky News, Red Bull Music, NAATAL and CNN. Manu features in the international bestseller Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg, Penguin Random House, 2014).

Recente artikelen