Steve McQueen, Queen and Country (2003-08)


In terms of medium, Steve McQueen is in unusual territory with his celebrated philatelical artwork Queen and Country. Just don’t expect to see any of this piece come through your letterbox.

179 sheets of stamps now occupy a large filing cabinet at Imperial War Museum North. Visitors can pull out trays and encounter, one by one, British soldiers who departed this world in Iraq.

The scale of the work is both intimate (stamp-sized) and endlessly reverberating (each stamp has been printed up as a sheet of around a hundred).

The other head in each perforated frame is of course Elizabeth II, in regal profile. And by this juxtaposition you realise that McQueen has, for some, brought the war too close to home.

A glance at recent themes used by the Royal Mail is edifying. In 2013 so far we have had Football Heroes, Classic Locomotives and Andy Murray Wimbledon Champion.

We have also had a run of Great Britons, but none were actually killed on their way to assume this status. And surely, who the Royal Mail commemorate is a matter for public debate.

Yet beyond debate is the national pride whipped up on Remembrance Day or, rather, Week. Unlike these stamps, the dread occasion appears to validate and glorify our various illegal wars.

Given all the poppy wearing and flag waving, there is surely a double standard in the decision to exclude named and pictured servicemen and women from circulation in the public realm.

Stamp issue may seem a marginal sphere of activity. But if nothing else, the images on our covers shape or at least reinforce our sense of national identity.

If you don’t think this matters, consider the recent campaign to put Jane Austen on a £10 note and the subsequent vitriol of the backlash against instigator Caroline Criado-Perez.

And take a moment to consider passport design. At the moment British subjects, when called upon to brandish their little red books, are treated to oak leaves, owls and freshwater fish.

Another exhibit up North, the Jeremy Deller production at Manchester City Gallery, did leave me wondering why urban or industrial Britain finds so little representation on our passports.

There are no doubt good reasons for all these decisions and who are we to doubt their wisdom . . . But stamps and passports are vital parts of our social fabric, in other words: a battlefield.

Queen and Country can be seen in Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War at Imperial War Museum North until February 23 2014.

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