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March 2009, Steve McQueen: Hunger

 

REVIEW
Steve McQueen: Hunger 
Towards and Economy of Means: On Violence 
 
British artist Steve McQueen recently released his critically acclaimed film Hunger who was awarded a Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. McQueen, who will represent Britain at the 53rd Venice Biennial in 2009, portrays in his debut film, a production commissioned by Channel 4, the last days of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker who was the first to fast to death in a range of enduring protests against British governmentality in Northern Ireland. Hunger shows fragments of a traumatic chapter of recent British history as an odyssey of epic gestures of violence, resistance, and power.

The film is set in the H-blocks of the Maze prison in Belfast in 1981. Bobby Sands is the leader of a group of convicted IRA members who were fighting against the withdrawal of Special Category Status, which the English government had abolished in 1976 and therefore no longer recognised them as political prisoners. The convicted republicans articulated their resistance to the non-political status through visceral actions such as the ‘dirty protests’: as they were prevented from using the hygienic facilities because they refused to wear prison uniforms and went naked except for blankets, they smeared their excrements on their cell’s walls and flooded the prison hallways with their urine. The prisoners’ resistance to state power is answered with cruelty and brutality. The prison officers exercise their power in sessions where they forcibly shore and scrub the prisoners accompanied by the penetrating rhythmical noise of policemen thwacking plastic shields. Recognized as a psycho-mental technique for torture, the sound should scare other prisoners and drown the cries of protest and resistance they roared.
 
The aesthetic of this film is very much determined by the stillness with which McQueen captures these sequences. The camera almost never moves, rather, different angles represent different perspectives and translate the observations of the camera into the atmosphere of the cinema. One of the situations the camera reveals is a young policeman who is supposed to not only bang his plastic shield, but also battering naked prisoners that are trailed through the hallway. He can’t take the situation with its horrifying and disturbing noise and bursts into tears. In another shot nothing is heard or seen apart from the urine laving below the cells’ doors flooding the cold and narrow hallway. What the cameras portray is not a narrative representation of what happened inside and outside of the Maze at the heart of the Northern Irish conflict. The visual compelling images not only translate the situations’ atmosphere into the cinema but much more the claims that are at the heart of this conflict – on both sides.

McQueen’s film spreads its sympathies around, devoting time to the wardens when beating the prisoners, but who also had to clean up their mess in the cells and lived on the outside of the prison with the constant threat of reprisals by the IRA. The distinction between culprit and victim, good and bad, becomes blurred. Their underlying forces of power become apparent, visualized through the highly atmospheric images. This culminates in the 22-minute long conversation shot between Bobby Sands and Father Moran, a priest who he has summoned to announce his planned hunger strike to the world. Shot almost in a single take, the camera remains static showing the two men facing each other across the table. This dialogue in which soon the priest tries to talk Sands out of the strike and accusing him of a misconceived pride and selfishness, reveals the forces of all political belief and bondage, which regardless of the reasons for it and effects of it share a stubbornness that McQueen intensely translates to the audience with the stoic use of the camera and its perspective.
 
The film portrays the body as the last resource for protest with an almost unbearable intensity. The last part of the film is entirely devoted to Bobby Sands hunger strike, of which he died after 66 days. The more his body strength ceases, the more those sunken eyes and haggard face become a powerful tool for resistance against the withdrawal of Special Category Status. The captured violence and power to which Bobby Sands subjects himself in his hunger strike commands an intense commitment by the viewer that is exposed towards a disconcerting resonance within in an extreme economy of means. The body resists its natural desires and therefore the hunger strike embodies a resistance against the current situation as a moment of endurance. A hunger strike is in fact a reverted form of violence, because the violation is solely turned against oneself, or at least one is deeply invested in the act of violence, (i.e. Kamikaze suicide attacks). As Hannah Arendt pointed out, “violence is distinguished by its instrumental character1”. In the case of Bobby Sands it is a means not only to destroy the power of the English governmentality but also a form of resistance that, in turn, led the attention onto the violence with which they were treated. Although Hunger may not clearly articulate a political and moral positioning or focus on ideology or public policy, the film maps out a relationship between power, violence and resistance in which the audience as the observer becomes an extension of the camera. What the film shows in its carefully composed consecutiveness of scenes are the relationships between the prison officers and the imprisoned, the inside and outside of the Maze with its internal and external circuits of communication and information. These relationships follow a structure that is one of dependency, of not only physical but also political and social affiliation that can be instrumentalised. Through the imagery of the film we observe not only the violence with which the prison officers treated the convicted but also how outside of the Maze the IRA resorted to violence against the British. What both have in common was the aim to destroy the power of the other. "Violence," Arendt writes, "can always destroy power. (…) What never can grow out of it is power.” The ambiguity of the film of not clearly articulating a political or moral positioning not at all diminishes its relevance, as some reviews of the film pointed towards it as not being political enough. What the film captures in moments when the voice of Margaret Thatcher emphatically denies the validity of the republican’s cause or status, are the forces of political system that still today try to claim their issues as present and pressing. McQueen counteracts those scenes with silent single shots of Bobby Sands fragile body awaiting its death at the time when he was elected as a representative of the republicans for the British Parliament in 1981. The relationship between power, violence and resistance is one of strategic actions and counteractions.
 
Through the evoked highly emotional atmosphere of the film by means of the meticulous construction of consecutive scenes, McQueen not only exposes the viewer to an economy of means but actually makes a strong political claim. The composition of the film not only reveals systems of power and violence as a means of resistance but goes further and hands over the judgement to the viewer, as the audience becomes the target of McQueens atmospheric observations, not Bobby Sands or the prison. This is in itself a highly political claim as McQueen pointed out in a recent interview: “It’s not about left and right, or right and wrong. It’s more about you and me.” Hunger is an urgent reminder of the function and dysfunctions of this period in British and Irish history, questioning weather the relationships between power, violence and resistance that succumbed this situation wouldn’t still be in place on other levels, with other players in the game, but following the same hidden agendas.
 
[1] Hannah Arendt (1970): On Violence. New York: Harvest. p. 46

 

Wiebke Gronemeyer WM London



Wiebke Gronemeyer is an independent curator and art writer based in London and Hamburg.
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EMAIL: wiebkeg@hotmail.com

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