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Flesh Becomes Words (Steve McQueen)

Article relating to a film, 2008
Published by: Frieze
Year published: 2008
Number of pages: 8

image of Flesh Becomes Words (Steve McQueen)

Substantial 8 page feature on Steve McQueen and his debut feature film, Hunger. Titled Flesh Becomes Words, appeared in Frieze magazine, September 20087, pages 124 - 131 and was written by Caoimhin Mac Giolla Léith. The feature was introduced as, ‘Steve McQueen’s first feature film reveals an artist increasingly interested in the relationship between language and the body’. Profusely illustrated with stills from Hunger, as well as documentation of McQueen’s other work, the text stands as an important introduction to McQueen and his singular practice. Works referenced (and illustrated) included Girls Tricky (2001), Queen and Country (2006), Carib’s Leap/Western Deep (2002), and Charlotte (2004)

From the text:

“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.”

This was a particularly empathetic, nuanced reading of McQueen’s work, written, as mentioned, Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, a critic, curator and Senior Lecturer in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics at University College Dublin, Ireland.

Related people

»  Caoimhin Mac Giolla Léith

Born, 1959 in Dublin, Ireland

»  Sir Steve McQueen OBE, CBE

Born, 1969 in London, UK