At a time when nationalism has become a dirty word, the Venice Biennale is an enigma. Contemporary art isn't parcelled out by country any more; the starting point of Tate Britain's recent cult show, Altermodern, was that there is no such thing as a Japanese (or Mexican, or American) artist these days, no French curators. Art, like terrorism and swine flu, is supranational. Visit Venice's Giardini, though – the site of the city's odd-years-on cultural Olympiad – and you'll find the art of Japan in the Japanese Pavilion, curating from France in the French. On a small hummock, and looking like the Edwardian tearoom it once was, is the British Pavilion, its resident artist chosen by the British Council. Here, as you'd expect, is British art, represented this year by Steve McQueen.
I suppose there have been less likely British artists than McQueen, although none springs instantly to mind. It isn't that he has lived in Amsterdam with his Dutch partner and daughter for the past 12 years, nor that his parents were born in the West Indies. (So, come to that, were mine.) It isn't even that McQueen has always been the YBA Who Didn't – didn't hog the headlines, puke in public or make schlock art. (The thing most people remember about his winning the Turner Prize in 1999 is Tracey Emin's bed.) It is that McQueen's art – or at least his best, best-known and most recent art – seems to take issue with the whole idea of Britishness, with knee-jerk assumptions of what that word might mean.
McQueen's first feature film, Hunger (2008) – he was known before it as a lens-based artist rather than as a movie-maker – focuses on the last days of Bobby Sands, the Irish republican who in 1981 starved himself to death in the Maze Prison under Margaret Thatcher's Government. The standing ovation and Camera d'Or prize that Hunger won at last year's Cannes Film Festival may have marked a proud moment in British cultural history, but the story told by the film did not. Nor, arguably, does that of Queen and Country, an as-yet-unfinished work of which McQueen is fiercely proud.
McQueen, 39, is a powerfully built man, easy to imagine going to war. He did, briefly, in 2003, when he spent a week in Basra as an official Ministry of Defence artist, an experience that gave him the idea for Queen and Country. Broadly, this aims to commemorate each of the 179 British Forces personnel killed in the Iraq conflict with their own postage stamp, juxtaposing an image of the dead soldier chosen by their family, with the head – present on all British stamps – of Her Majesty the Queen.
Prototypes of these mini-works have already been shown at the Imperial War Museum and in Manchester, and have met with widespread public acclaim – an Art Fund poll suggests three-quarters of us would be happy to see McQueen's art-stamps turned into real ones by the Royal Mail. The soldiers' families have, for the most part, also been in favour – "Right now, I think we have 153 yesses," says McQueen. Even the Prime Minister has apparently endorsed the stamps. ("I met Gordon Brown at a garden party last summer and he said he'd get his guys on it. I had a letter from him recently saying that he'd be getting back to me as soon as he can.")
So why are we not licking the backs of what might yet become the most widely disseminated British artwork ever? You sense something very like anger as McQueen considers this question. "I can't think why the project would be controversial," he says at last, his voice even. "The fact of the matter is, we sent people to war and they died in that war. I'm just visualising their memory. I can't see any reason not to, unless you're ashamed of them." He pauses, then goes on. "There've been servicemen before whose faces have appeared on postage stamps – you go back to Monty or whoever. This is just an updated version of that. I mean, go figure. It's that simple."
Ah, but not quite. Like dulce et decorum est, the phrase "Queen and country" is a trope – a form of words so overused as to have lost its meaning. McQueen is famous for not liking to talk about his work – getting this interview has taken months of nagging and string-pulling – and you can see why. At heart, Queen and Country is about the failure of language, the way words can be used to hide things rather than reveal them. To metaphorise young men as dying in their monarch's name is one thing. To see that monarch's head with theirs is quite another.
Like McQueen himself, Queen and Country seems admirably straightforward when it is, potentially, anything but. "There's nothing ambiguous about the project," the artist says, eyes unblinking behind outsized glasses. "Everyone can get involved in it, if they're posting letters or getting a letter, not mediated through the TV or the internet or the media, but through the everyday. It's dispersed, available to anyone – not some bronze sculpture in a city somewhere where only a few people can see it. And that's only fair. It's Queen and country, after all, and we are the country. We are all involved." So why is the Royal Mail dragging its feet over the project? McQueen fixes me with a full-stop stare. "You'd have to ask them."
Now here's the thing. Before I met him in the yards-of-books library of this overdesigned Soho hotel, I'd imagined McQueen to be an overtly political artist, a bit of an agitpropist. What I find instead is an artist I suspect of being covertly political, but refuses to admit it. I can quite see why this should be – were McQueen to say, "Actually, I want my stamps to indict the kind of class-ridden society in which unelected heads of state send young men off to die," it is highly unlikely that those stamps would ever be made – but the performance is so compelling I begin to wonder if I've been wrong all along. So, too, with McQueen's line on Hunger.
If Queen and Country feels subversive, Hunger is downright seditious. McQueen's rationale for wanting to make the film was that the IRA hunger strikes were "the most important event in British history in the past 30 years, bar none – much more so than the miners' strike or anything else I can think of. The fact that 10 men starved to death in a British prison cell... that's pretty massive." McQueen recalls, as an 11-year-old boy, seeing Bobby Sands' face on the TV ' news night after night, the growing days of his hunger strike displayed at the bottom of the screen. "I asked my mother and father what was going on, and they told me," McQueen says. "At that age, it was very difficult to understand – someone who gave up eating food in order to be heard." He stops for a second. "Twenty-seven years later, that story was still baffling me, and I really needed to go and look at it visually. It was like the whole thing had never happened – the 25th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death, there was nothing in the papers, or hardly anything." Then, out of the blue, McQueen chuckles and says, "Making a film about an important part of British history – it's normal, right?"
Well, yes, although Hunger isn't exactly The Bridge Over the River Kwai. McQueen's film may have missed the 25th anniversary of Sands' death, but its making did coincide with reports of human-rights abuses in US military jails in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, of waterboarding and other mental and physical tortures. For many, the UK's involvement in American-led conflicts made us complicit in those abuses. Bringing out Hunger in 2008 seemed to suggest that brutality is an endemic part of the British temperament rather than just an occasional slip.
It is clear, though, that McQueen is not about to board this political bandwagon either, or not in public. He denies that Hunger took sides politically, pointing out that he had no idea when he sat down to write the dialogue of the harrowing, 18-minute debate between Bobby Sands and his Catholic priest, which of the two men would come out on top. Like everything else in the film, this scene was based on first-hand accounts – "A priest we knew and a couple of others we talked to," McQueen says – although it is a re-creation rather than a re-enactment. He also insists that any resemblance on the part of Sands to any Messiah living or dead was purely unintentional. "You get a skinny white guy dying – a naked skinny white guy – and people are going to say: Jesus Christ," McQueen guffaws. "It's pretty lazy, but it's unavoidable. I mean, how many Westerns, how many gangster movies, have been about sacrifice? Is Jimmy Cagney Christ in Angels with Dirty Faces? Come on."
McQueen has said that he would have liked the dialogue for Hunger to have been written by Samuel Beckett, although it is of Tom Stoppard's dictum – "No symbolism admitted and none denied" – that the artist himself most reminds me. Of his various film-based artworks, my favourite is a five-minute piece, shot in 16mm in 2004 and entitled Charlotte. This consists of a close-up of a human eye, filmed in red and menaced by a finger. The finger edges towards the eye, poking its unblinking lid again and again and then withdrawing. Eventually, unwatchably, the finger touches the iris: it is like Un Chien Andalou (in which Luis Buñuel cuts Simone Mareuil's eye with a razor), only worse. What you will not know, unless you have extraordinary lid-recognition skills, is that the iris in question belongs to Charlotte Rampling; the finger is McQueen's. "It was a very intimate thing, very close," he says. "I actually felt a shock when I touched Charlotte's eye – I mean, a real electric shock, like from a plug. It was weird."
The other shocking thing about Charlotte is that the eye, saggy and puckered, looks like a vagina, the finger like a stiffy. You don't have to have to have been mainlining on Freud to see this, yet McQueen himself appears bemused – even mildly appalled – at the idea. ("People said her eye looked like a... vagina," he says, shaking his head. "A vagina." Well, yes.) Male flesh, too, comes in for inspection in his work, most memorably in Cold Breath (2000) and Bear (1993). The first is a black-and-white close-up of McQueen rubbing his nipples, although, as with Charlotte, the film's unusual scale means that it takes some time to see what is going on. Bear features the 23-year-old McQueen wrestling nude with another naked man, the pair casting each other glances that could be aggressive, or seductive, or both. (It was long assumed because of this work that McQueen was gay. He isn't.) Isn't there something, well, erotic going on here?
McQueen ponders the question, falls silent, frowns. Then, grudgingly, he says, "Two nude guys having a fight, it could be sexual, could be gay, could be straight. Could be very sexual. But is it?" He pauses. "That last paragraph of Ulysses says it all for me – is it sexual pleasure Joyce is writing about, or is it something else? With Bear, it's a question of two guys of equal strength fighting, of friction, two stones making a fire. Cold Breath was also about friction, in that sense." And those lingering shots of Michael Fassbender's etiolated but beautiful flesh in Hunger? McQueen looks at me as though I might be slightly deranged. "Michael's fantastic," he says, eventually and evenly. "He's got a Tarantino movie now, he's going to be a big star. Every word that comes out of his mouth is genius. I'm happy for him."
And then I see that Steve McQueen is really very British after all, that he is morbidly discreet and even-handed, that he cannot abide pretension. He is not about to open up on his private life – "Does he wear socks, Doesn't he wear socks, all that kind of shit." (He does.) Nor will he confirm rumours of a feature film about the late Nigerian musician-cum- phenomenon, Fela Kuti. ("Who told you that?" he grunts, alarmed. I change the subject.) As to the work he has made for Venice, he won't – can't – go there either, other than to say that it is new: Biennale installations are traditionally kept secret until opening day. Does the idea of being sold to the world as a British artist in a British Pavilion bother him? Of being seen to be part of a system that sends young men to die in wars, starves them in prisons? Before I've finished the question, McQueen is giving his answer: "It's unavoidable. You're chosen to represent your country, and whether you like it or don't like it, you do it." It is a very British thing to say.
The Venice Biennale runs from 7 June. The Art Fund is leading the campaign for McQueen's stamps to be issued. A petition can be found at www.artfund.org/queenandcountry