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Issue 117

Flesh Becomes Words

Steve McQueen’s first feature film reveals an artist increasingly interested in the relationship between language and the body

BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Features | 09 SEP 08

Hunger, 2008, production still. Courtesy: Pathé Distribution / Blast First

Maud Ellmann’s remarkable meditation on the phenomenon of self-starvation The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment (1993) hinges on an unlikely comparison between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger strike of 1981, which sought to regain political status for Republican prisoners, and the plot of Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa, published in 1748, whose heroine starves herself to death in response to her rape.1 Despite the incongruousness of the comparison, one of the striking similarities between 20th-century historical fact and 18th-century literary fiction is the strange complicity between starvation and loquacity. Given the difficulty of smuggling messages from the inmates of the Maze prison to the external Republican leadership of the day – these ‘comms’ were written in minuscule on cigarette papers and transported in bodily orifices – one might have expected such communications to be concise and largely confined to organizational urgencies. Yet these texts were, in fact, quite garrulous.2 As Ellmann notes, the hunger strikers’ arguments seemed to increase and multiply ‘as furiously as their bodies decomposed’. Likewise, the exhausting prolixity of Clarissa, often cited as the longest novel in the English language (it runs to over a million words), is the result of its heroine’s self-appointed task of ‘turning flesh back into words’. In both instances, as Ellmann puts it, ‘It is as if the bodies of the starvers dwindle as their texts expand, as if they were devoured by their prose.’

This nexus between flesh and word, between corporeality and textuality, is one to which Steve McQueen seems increasingly drawn in recent years. It is an intriguing development in the work of an artist whose early films abjured language, voice and sound altogether – an artist, moreover, whose attitude to language to this day involves an odd blend of fascination and distrust. The series of short black and white 16mm films, including Bear (1993), Five Easy Pieces (1995), Just above My Head, (1996), Deadpan and Catch (both 1997), which first brought McQueen to prominence and ultimately earned him the 1999 Turner Prize, were all notably silent. In hindsight it seems both appropriate and telling that the first of his films to introduce sound into the equation was titled Drumroll (1998). Comprising footage of an oil drum being rolled noisily down the busy streets of midtown Manhattan, Drumroll was shot by three video cameras attached to the drum, one filming through each end and a third through a hole in its side. McQueen’s previous films had all featured, to varying degrees, the powerful physical presence of the artist himself, even if this was not explicitly signalled as such. In Drumroll, which is presented as a triptych, this authorial presence is relegated to the margins, in the form of glimpsed reflections and occasional noises off. It is as though the mute facticity of the artist’s body was ceding something to the complication of his chosen visual medium by the addition of sound. Sound has become increasingly central to McQueen’s work ever since then, as exemplified, for instance, by the infernal noises that feature so prominently in Western Deep (2002), a film that offers glimpses of the physical hardships endured by workers in the depths of a South African gold mine, reputedly the deepest mine in the world. This is sound that registers in the gut before it reaches the ear and is subsequently parsed by the brain: sound in its phenomenal rather than its systemic, which is to say linguistic, aspect. It is sound like this that forms the slowly swelling crescendo accompanying the opening credits of McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger (2008). We gradually become aware of an initially puzzling, faraway din, which is eventually revealed (or confirmed) by the film’s first scene as the deafening percussion of bin lids being clattered in protest on the streets of 1980s’ Northern Ireland.

Hunger, which won an International Federation of Critics Awards and the Camera d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is an account of the last months in the life of Bobby Sands, the leader of the hunger strike and its most iconic figure. Sands was the first of the strikers to die, on 5 May 1981, aged 27, after 66 days without food, and less than a month after he had been elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. An active member of the IRA, he was sentenced in 1977 to 14 years’ imprisonment for the possession of firearms. In prison he became a writer. While his writing is more notable for what W.B. Yeats would have called its ‘passionate conviction’ than for any conventional literary qualities, a posthumous trust was set up nonetheless to publish, promote and keep in print his various poems and prose writings.3 That said, we may assume that it was the man of deeds rather than the man of words who first attracted the attention of McQueen, who once stated: ‘Words are shit, because they put you somewhere else. I’m trying to catch the things that are in between.’4 Hunger, which was co-written by McQueen and the Irish playwright/film-maker Enda Walsh, incidentally provides this typically provocative pronouncement with a kind of retrospective resonance, as the first half of the film focuses on the so-called ‘dirty protest’ that preceded the hunger strike, during which the prisoners’ demands were, in effect, articulated symbolically in the form of excrement smeared on the walls of their cells. McQueen’s preferred mode of address is overwhelmingly visceral rather than verbal. The film’s relentless visual focus on various breaches of bodily integrity, on festering wounds and open sores, on the exchange of packages between disparate orifices, and on the excretion of urine, faeces, vomit and blood, is complemented by a soundtrack that favours long silences punctuated by sudden, cacophonous irruptions of noise. Hunger might be said to mount a sustained assault on the body and on language alike. Yet it also includes two crucial passages of exceptional verbal eloquence, which are noteworthy both in the specific context of this film and in the broader context of the work as a whole.

Language, like the body, tends to be presented by McQueen in extremis, pressed to its limits, if not beyond them: whether that be in terms of performativity (for example, Girls Tricky, 2001, or 7th November, 2002) or intelligibility (for instance, Illuminer, 2001, or Once upon a Time, 2002). The complex relationship between word and image, which has become such a crucial, if generally under-appreciated, aspect of McQueen’s work in recent years, was most explicitly highlighted in his exhibition ‘Speaking in Tongues’ (2003) at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, which brought together the four works just cited. Girls Tricky is a 14-minute colour video projection with sound, shot in a recording studio. At the core of the film is an explosive verbal performance by the well-known trip-hop singer, whose lyrical skills are complemented by a muscular physical presence, his tattooed body bared to the waist. Yet Tricky’s consummate virtuosity is subtly undermined by the shaky camera and the noises off, the mumbling and waiting, the false starts and stops, the apologies and complaints to the sound engineer and, finally, the explicit indication that this track will have to be rehearsed and recorded again. 7th November is a 24-minute slide projection whose sole visual is a close-up image of the shaved and prominently scarred head of a supine young man. On the accompanying soundtrack McQueen’s cousin Marcus tells the harrowing story of how he accidentally shot and killed his own brother. Vivid in the telling, his heartbreaking tale bears the hallmark of a born storyteller. Both of these works pair virtuoso verbal skills with images of imposing physicality. In contrast, language and the body are presented at the brink of dissipation in Illuminer, and somewhere beyond it in Once upon a Time. Illuminer is a 15-minute colour video projection with sound, shot in a darkened hotel room in which the only light is that emanating from the television set on which the camera is evidently perched. Our eyes strain to discern the dark figure of the artist lying on the hotel bed, while the French-language TV news report proves equally hard on the ear and virtually impossible to comprehend. Once upon a Time is a projected sequence of 116 slide-based colour images with an integrated soundtrack, entirely based on found material, which is 70 minutes long. As simple in its conception as it is complex in its import, Once upon a Time is an inspired product of McQueen’s unique combination of instinct and method. The images presented are those chosen by NASA to provide a visual précis of life on earth, for the potential edification of aliens who might happen upon the space probe Voyager, while the soundtrack is made up of a series of recorded performances of ‘glossolalia’. These are examples of a phenomenon found in many cultures, often in a heightened religious context, in which a speaker produces fluent, speech-like utterances, which generally conform to the phonological structure of her or his native tongue but are entirely unintelligible. Despite the inter-planetary aspirations and ambitious chronological sweep of its image bank, Once upon a Time ultimately undermines rather than illustrates the complexity of our species’ physical existence on earth; and fascinating though its soundtrack may be, it effectively devalues the linguistic ability that is our most defining characteristic. Bare human life on this planet is splintered into a dubious, and far from disinterested, collection of snapshots and diagrams, as natural language simultaneously sheds its refined semantics and is reduced to the level of gibberish.

For much of Hunger language is presented as oppressive or ineffectual, depending on who is doing the talking, be it the disembodied radio-broadcast voice of an intransigent Margaret Thatcher or a sympathetic but world-weary Republican priest whose arguments against the hunger strike inevitably prove futile. More often than not, speech is subordinated to sound. Brute noise repeatedly overcomes articulated language, from the film’s opening scene of Republican women loudly clattering bin lids in protest and lamentation, through scenes of prison brutality in which prisoners’ cries are muted by the ritualistic banging of truncheons on riot shields, to the closing scenes in the prison hospital when a muffled soundtrack indicates Sands’ loss of hearing owing to his body’s privations. While politics and religion may be what brought these prisoners here in the first place, the confessional codes of nationalism and Catholicism no longer have much currency. In the intimate space of the shared prison cell one prisoner responds with blank incomprehension to another’s attempt to communicate in Gaelic, the lingua franca of Irish Republicanism. At communal Sunday Mass a priest’s platitudes go unheeded by the restless, chattering inmates. The Holy Bible is referred to as a convenient source of cigarette paper: even the word of God is destined to go up in smoke. As already indicated, there are two notable exceptions to this general derogation of language. One is a scene in which a prison medic launches into a relentless, clinical account of the starving body’s gradual disintegration. This extensive prognosis is initially addressed to Sands’ distressed parents and continues in voice-over as we are presented with the gruesome visual evidence of a body wasting away. It is as though flesh were becoming words before the viewer’s eyes, much in the manner suggested by Ellmann. The other scene in which language is ostensibly given its due, only to be ultimately disavowed, is the unexpectedly protracted encounter staged between Sands and a sympathetic priest, Father Dominic Moran (played by Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham, respectively). In the course of this heated conversation, over 20 minutes long and shot almost entirely in one take, Sands, the man of words, comes into his own as he argues the case in favour of the forthcoming hunger strike. The paradox of his vehement eloquence, however, is that it serves an argument against the efficacy of language, in the form of a refusal to negotiate with the authorities. Further talk is futile, according to Sands, and when words fail us we must fall back on more fundamental, if potentially fatal, resources.

‘The body as site of political warfare is becoming a more familiar phenomenon. It is the final act of desperation. Your own body is your last resource for protest. One uses what one has, rightly or wrongly.’5 If McQueen’s quoted comments on the ethics of the Republican protest are understandably circumspect, his thoughts on its pragmatics are consistent with the tenor of previous work. (It is worth noting in this context that Queen & Country, 2007, McQueen’s proposal, as a commissioned war artist, that the Royal Mail issue an official set of stamps commemorating those who gave their lives for their country in the Iraq conflict, featuring images chosen by the deceased’s relatives, is explicitly characterised by the artist as ‘neither pro-war or anti-war’.6 ) He has, after all, broached this subject before, albeit obliquely. Carib’s Leap (2002) comprises two simultaneous looped projections in one of which the camera is focused on a dazzling sky through which ghostly figures intermittently fall in a series of slow-motion dissolves. Paired with languorous footage of daily life on the shores of contemporary Grenada, the slowly twisting and flailing bodies, which drift into the frame from various angles at unexpected intervals, register the intense corporeal exhilaration of a voluntary leap from a great height. But Carib’s Leap also echoes a particular moment in the bloody history of Caribbean colonialism when, facing a final, brutal defeat by the French in 1652, a small number of Grenadan Caribs, cornered on the northern end of the island, chose to throw themselves off a cliff into the sea rather than be captured. This attempt to convey in purely visual terms (the footage is silent) some fundamental, visceral sense of the human body in extremis contrasts significantly in tone with Hunger’s quietly excruciating representation of the fatal act of self-starvation. Yet they are both inflected by the politics of post-colonialism while sharing an underlying aspiration somehow to transcend politics. McQueen’s avowed aim in Hunger was ‘to show what it was like to see, feel, hear, smell and touch in the Maze at this time’. This ambition to convey the widest possible range of multi-sensorial data within the constraints of an audio-visual medium is revealing. (The judicious elision of ‘taste’ in the statement just quoted is understandable under the circumstances.) McQueen once noted that, of all the senses, to him smell was paramount.7 Other senses, however, are foregrounded in other works. He admits, for instance, that his short film Charlotte (2004), which features wince-inducing, tightly framed footage of the face of the actress Charlotte Rampling as the artist’s finger gently brushes against her open eye, was inspired by a basic curiosity as to what it might be like to touch another person’s eyeball.

McQueen is not unusual in choosing to present his films – those that preceded his first cinema-distributed feature, that is – in meticulously arranged installations designed to heighten the viewer’s awareness of her or his own physical embodiment. He has, however, been unusually successful in maximizing the visceral or haptic quality of the act of viewing a film whose narrative aspect, however exiguous, fractured, opaque or recursive, retains some potential for absorbing the viewer, and by doing so effectively lulling the senses – those very senses that are such a primary concern of his practice. (We may contrast this with immersive, phenomenologically oriented installations whose filmic element is more or less abstract, and so more conducive to a self-reflexive awareness on the viewer’s part of the very act of viewing.) As already argued, it is precisely this visceral quality that has, in McQueen’s work over the past few years, been literally amplified by the masterly deployment of an element he originally avoided, which is to say sound, frequently in its most primitive and pre-linguistic form.

Maud Ellmann, The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment, Virago Press, London, 1993 
See David Beresford, Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Hunger Strike, Harper Collins, London, 1987. The excerpted passages quoted in Beresford’s book alone amount to over 30,000 words. 
3 See www.bobbysands.ie 
4 Quoted in Libby Brooks, ‘It’s Good to Keep a Clean Head’, The Guardian, 30 September 2002 
5 Quoted in Afrika Akbar’s report from Cannes for The Independent online, 16 May 2007
7 Quoted in ‘The Bore War’, The Herald Magazine, 11 September 2004 

The Art Fund is running a campaign to persuade Royal Mail to issue Steve McQueen’s stamps. Hunger is released by Pathé Distribution / Blast Films on 31 October 2008.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.