At the London gallery of the British artist Steve McQueen, everyone is buzzing. "He's going to Downing Street tonight," says one of the members of staff, her proud voice reverberating around the white walls of the gallery in St James's. McQueen has flown over from his home in Amsterdam and is due to arrive at any moment. The atmosphere is tense, with the sense of anticipation that must precede the arrival of a monarch.
As an artist, Steve McQueen has had a very successful year. It was recently announced that he is to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2009, following on from Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George. He was in Cannes last May for the film festival where he won the Camera d'Or for Hunger, his debut feature film that tackles the death by starvation of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The artwork he made during his time as official war artist in Iraq, Queen and Country, is now on show at the Barbican in London. It consists of sheets of postage stamps, contained within a wooden cabinet, on which are printed the faces of British soldiers killed during the war – it is a simple and moving tribute to the dead.
When McQueen enters the room and shakes my hand, a sense of unease passes up my arm, spreading tension throughout my body. As we greet one another, he does not smile. He is an imposing presence, with sharp suspicious eyes and a manner that is impatient and hurried: he talks fast with little inflection to his voice. He seems pleased to have been selected for Venice: "Obviously it's a great honour, it's one of those situations that happens only once and I fully embrace it." When asked if he has any plans in mind about the work he will make, his response is brusque. "I have a few ideas but nothing I'm going to talk to you about," he says. He is also unwilling to talk about his film Hunger other than to comment, with sarcasm, that Cannes was "nice" and bringing his work to a wider mainstream audience was also "nice".
He wants to discuss Queen and Country, and on this subject he is able to reveal a degree of humanity. He talks about moments when the weight of the subject became almost too much to bear. "The MoD [Ministry of Defence] wouldn't give us addresses of next of kin, so we used a researcher. We wrote to relatives saying what we wanted to do. I was a bit wary. I know grief. I didn't want to upset people. I was sitting on the edge of my bed thinking, blimey, this is up, no one is going to write back. Then slowly but surely all these letters came through the door saying 'thank you very much', 'this is a fantastic idea' and 'we're so happy that you want to recognise our son'. We had a book of letters and images. I remember seeing this book and I had to have a drink. I had to get a bit drunk. You feel the pain, the hurt of so many people. All these young guys who have died: they're 22, 21, 19, 18. But I was up for it," he says.
He has been campaigning for three years now to persuade the Royal Mail to make his artwork into real stamps to commemorate those killed in the war. So far, despite wide public support, the campaign has remained unsuccessful, a situation that clearly frustrates him.
"The insulting thing is, with no disrespect to Sid James or Barbara Windsor, that the Carry On films are now going to be on stamps. These people died for Queen and country so surely they should appear on a stamp as a portrait? They should be visible. I don't understand it," he says.
This evening when he meets Gordon Brown, he is hoping to add impetus to the campaign. "My question to him is to ask if he will come with me to see Queen and Country. If he will give me and the relatives the honour of going to see the exhibit privately then one can have a conversation," he says.
Throughout his career, McQueen has not shied away from more harrowing subjects. Hunger is about a man who starved himself to death for the sake of his political beliefs, which is as difficult a subject to tackle visually as it is politically. Critics wrote of the visceral nature of the film: of blood, pain, excrement and death. Much of the media coverage, however, was concerned with how the narrative resonated with contemporary issues, particularly the war on terror, and whether McQueen's film offered a sympathetic insight into the mind of a suicide bomber.
McQueen refuses to accept that any of his work is exceptionally political, dismissively pointing out that a cup of tea can be political, as can love. It is more about people than politics.
An earlier work from 2001 titled 7th November is a monologue in which McQueen's cousin, Marcus, tells a heartbreaking true story of how he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother. The delivery is spontaneous and articulate; as Marcus talks you can see everything in your mind, in vivid and awful detail. Once you have heard his story, you are unlikely ever to forget it. Despite the tragedy, McQueen remains unsentimental about his motivations for making the piece. "I wanted to record an event that I had heard about and didn't know anything about. For me, it was like hearing a tune; it was like a musician, pressing record and play. What came out of it was miraculous," he says.
What's interesting about McQueen is that without the sensationalism of other artists of his generation, he has still managed to capture the public's imagination. His work is accessible without it becoming dumb.
"It's a question of being involved. Once people can get involved in an artwork and recognise themselves in it, I think that's the main thing. In Queen and Country there are two things: intimacy and a very broad situation," McQueen says.
He is, for the most part, a film-maker. He won the Turner Prize in 1999 with Deadpan, a short black and white film showing a house falling down over the artist who, due to his positioning in line with the empty space of window pane, remained unscathed. The film was praised for its restraint and understanding of the moving image, although McQueen believes that in his work the medium is secondary. "For me it's about the idea and how it manifests itself. What is the best means for it to be represented," he says.
He no longer watches films. He says that he would rather spend his time daydreaming. In fact, he dismisses watching films as "time-wasting". He is equally dismissive of the OBE he was awarded in 2002, saying he only accepted it for the sake of his parents, who were proud of him, and that it doesn't mean anything to him. Maybe this level of smart detachment is clever, but it is also very wearing. After 45 minutes of prickly conversation, I can't get away from him fast enough.
'Queen and Country', Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), to 26 July