As long as there have been moving pictures, there have been artists using the form in their practice. Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Dali, Andy Warhol and Matthew Barney are some of the standout names, but in truth many of the most influential artists of the 20th century at one point or another used film or video in their work. In recent times, these works have often been discussed in the context of their “sculptural” qualities – a term which provides a frame of reference for film within the traditional plastic arts and also one appropriate to the three dimensional qualities of filmic images. It was not always this way. As Benjamin H.D. Buchloch notes in his discussion of that titan of American art, Richard Serra, the early champions of cinema saw film as a medium which could trahnsform art itself:
“The truly revolutionary film artists of the period, such as Les Kuleshov and Dziga Vertov, saw the purpose and promise of the new medium not primarily in aesthetic, let alone in sculptural terms, but in its potential as an enlightening instrument in educating the political awareness of the masses, and this, in turn, led them to see the cinematographic capacity for documenting reproduction of processes taking place in a real space-time continuum as the essentially characteristic new possibilities of film within the context of a generally transformed conception of art.” Steve McQueen, an English artist, has been making films since 1994. It was the film Prey which was displayed at the Tate when he won the Turner prize in 1999. It would seem oxymoronic then that McQueen walked away from Cannes this year with an award for best new director, for Hunger his portrait of the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s. The truth is, however, that “art” films and mainstream cinema have become so divorced, that a film aimed at the general population is an entirely different animal from any film, even award winning ones, projected in an art museum or gallery. Reviewing McQueen’s career to date, it is possible to trace a development which, in hindsight, makes his move to a full scale cinematic format seem inevitable. A graduate of Chelsea, Goldsmiths and the Tisch School of Arts in New York in 1994, his star was in the ascendancy when he picked up the prestigious ICA Futures award in 1996. To complement his Turner, he was awarded an OBE in 2002 cementing his position as part of both the cultural and indeed political establishment. McQueen has represented Britain twice at Documenta art show in Kassel. Achieving all this before he was thirty five years of age, McQueen may have been wondering what was left to achieve.
Since the early experimental work of Catch in 1994, where the artist tosses a running video camera back and forth between himself and his sister, his work has become increasingly sophisticated. Alongside Catch, the 16mm film Just above my head investigates the relationship between the representation of physical activity, the framing of subject matter and its presentation – all fundamental questions of the cinematic form.
1999’s Prey depicts a tape recorder ascending to the sky attached to a white balloon. A soundtrack of tap dancing feet plays directly from the tape recorder and as the balloon ascends the sound becomes increasingly distant. The piece seems to make sense in the context of another of McQueens works from 2002 , Once upon a time, where he projects a series of 116 images which were sent into space aboard the Voyager II spacecraft in the 1970s. Intended for discovery by alien species, the mission’s payload included audio recordings of a phenomenon known as glassolalia, or speaking in tongues. McQueen’s 1999 Prey seems to reflect this mission, with his own message for the heavens and its own equally indecipherable soundtrack.
By 2002 McQueen had produced two works which seem to indicate a movement to more documenatary form and subject matter. In the South African mines McQueen shot Western Deep, a meditation on the black workers and their conditions of work in a notoriously cruel environment. Carrib’s Leap, shot in Grenada – where McQueen’s family come from – depicts falling bodies to represent the suicides of the indigenous people when faced with capture by the invading colonial French.
In turning his hand to mainstream commercial cinema, McQueen attempts to transform art in a political manner, and cinema moves closer to the ambitions of its pioneers. In the light of his continued success at the forefront of British and international art and as a young black man with an OBE, Steve McQueen’s choice of Bobby Sands hunger strike as filmic subject seems a sublimely inspired choice. The critics agree. Alongside his Camera D’or from Cannes, the film has picked up the Sydney Film Festival prize and the press award at the Toronto Film Festival. Hunger is in cinemas from 31 October.