Ten’s To See: ‘Year 3’ by Steve McQueen at Tate Britain
You can hear it before you see it. Echoing through the halls of Tate Britain is the unmistakable babble of excited kids. The high-pitched chatter of small voices talking at the same time travels like an invading wave through a building where silent contemplation is the norm. The Tate has put up a sign at the entrance to warn gallery purists not to expect the usual exhibition experience of hushed appreciation. “Children will be in the gallery between the hours of 10.00 and 20.00” it says.
Like me, they’re here for Steve McQueen’s epic Year 3 project. It took more than 12 months to produce and involved the artist sending a team of Tate photographers into two-thirds of London’s primary schools to take a class portrait of Year 3. State primaries, private schools, faith schools, special-education units and children being home-schooled took part. In all, more than 76,000 seven- and eight-year-olds, including my son Raff, were arranged into formal rows and photographed with their teachers. The 3,128 pictures were then uniformly framed and arranged in a vast installation in the Tate Britain’s soaring, cathedral-like central gallery.
The artist was inspired by his own Year 3 portrait, taken at Little Ealing Primary in 1977. “I used to love that format – and it’s a photo that reflects on that class, the school, and also on society. So a message that can be so local – when moulded with the other photographs – can become global,” he says. The gallery describes it as “a hopeful portrait of a generation to come”, and the stunning diversity of London is plain to see.
As a curtain-raiser for the exhibition, 613 of the class portraits were plastered on billboards around London. These public artworks are in the most unlikely of places. I spot two underneath a dank Victorian railway bridge at Loughborough Junction. I walk past this urban straggle of chicken shops and convenience stores every day, on my way to Brixton Tube, but this morning it’s different. People stop and stare. A man stands in the middle of the busy road to get a photo of the smiling pupils and their teachers. The corner of one poster has been pulled away, as if someone had tried to steal the image.
More of the posters line the entire platform at Pimlico Tube station. Most of the kids are smiling goofy, gappy grins, but some look apprehensive – blown up to this scale, you can see the mistrust in their eyes. One class wears natty blancmange-pink V-necks. There are Muslim girls and Sikh boys, ginger kids and Scandi blondes. There are braids, bowl cuts, Afros, headscarves and pigtails. One girl has coordinated her yellow hair ribbons with her yellow school sweatshirt. I follow a school group out of the station and we all head to the gallery. They travel two by two, in a great snaking line, wearing high-vis vests and carrying their lunches in their backpacks. This is exciting. This is different. This is better than maths. It’s a day to remember.
Up in the gallery, a group of kids in blue sweatshirts swarm over their own portrait, then break away and start looking at the other pictures. “There’s a class with just one kid!” cries a boy as his friends cluster round, curious to see. A huge magnifying glass on wheels enables us to see the pictures displayed high above eye level. The scale of this installation is impressive. It soars from floor to ceiling in a mass of school-uniform colours. But despite the magnitude, you are quickly drawn to individual pictures. I look for my son’s class, but there are thousands of pictures and I can’t find them. Instead, I notice one sassy girl blatantly flouting the dark-blue uniform policy of her school with bright pink socks. Another wears a brilliant white pompom in her Afro. There are class clowns and troublemakers, popular girls and nerds. You can’t tell who is poor but a group of kids dressed in smart blazers and arranged in a Georgian drawing room definitely look rich. There are disabled kids seated on cushions. One boy sits cross-legged with his head in his hands, unable to look at the camera. Was he having a bad day or a bad life? In a room full of pictures, each image represents a real person and a real future. It’s hard not to feel moved by all that youthful possibility.
Putting London’s seven- and eight-year-olds on the walls of a national art institution is a radical act. It gives the kids a confidence boost – yes, you are worthy of hanging in a gallery next to kings and queens and masterpieces – but McQueen believes it also has the potential to totally change their perspective. Year 3 is considered a milestone year in a child’s development and sense of identity, when this age group becomes more conscious of a much bigger world beyond their immediate family. These are kids on the cusp of something, and McQueen wants to unlock that potential. He’s plastered the walls with pictures of children but filled the space with real-life, noisy, cheeky, shy, unruly, overexcited London kids. Go on a weekday morning and see them shine.