The son of working-class immigrants from Trinidad and Grenada, McQueen studied painting at London’s Chelsea College of Art and Design, then film at Goldsmiths College. Later he spent three miserable months at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts film program before quitting because of its emphasis on technique over substance. “It was bulls---,” he says. “A lot of rich kids with no talent.”
James Rondeau, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, recalls meeting McQueen a few years after his stint at NYU. “We immediately got into a disagreement,” says Rondeau, who later organized a solo show for McQueen at the Art Institute. “But it was the best kind of disagreement—a really challenging and open and freewheeling conversation. I thought, I’ve really got to be on my toes. That’s still true 15 years later.”
Although McQueen came of age around the same time as fellow Goldsmiths grads Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood, he kept himself removed from the hype-happy YBAs (Young British Artists), both socially and intellectually. Everyone remembers Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the messy mattress installation that helped get Emin shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize, but few recall that it was McQueen who actually won the award that year. In one of his works for the Turner exhibit, he re-created the Buster Keaton stunt in which a house collapses around him.
McQueen has also gone his own way in a very literal sense, having left London for Amsterdam in 1996 after falling in love with a Dutch woman. “I didn’t know anyone here, and that’s always good,” he says. (The couple still live in Amsterdam with their young daughter.) Meanwhile, McQueen’s avoidance of the art-world hustle has left him relatively immune to the vicissitudes of the marketplace: His work, owned almost exclusively by museums and dedicated collectors, never turns up at auction. Asked about the shaky state of today’s art market, McQueen says coolly, “I don’t give a s---. I don’t care. If I was thinking about money when I was making something, I possibly wouldn’t make it.”
Hunger is destined to bring McQueen his widest audience by far. The artist, who cowrote the film with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, says the story has its roots in his memories of news reports of Sands’s self-starvation at the notorious Maze prison, near Belfast; he recalls watching the BBC evening news as an 11-year-old and seeing a photo of Sands with a number underneath his name, indicating how many days he’d been fasting. “The whole idea that someone stops eating in order to be heard was very strange,” he says. “They have no food going in, but they’re getting louder.”