Hail to McQueen

British artist Steve McQueen makes his debut at the cineplex with the harrowing film Hunger.


The executives at Britain’s Channel 4, which cofinanced Hunger, the first feature film by London-born artist Steve McQueen, had any number of reasons to be worried about its box office prospects. In its sores-and-all depiction of the final weeks of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981, the movie offers up sadistic beatings, excrement-stained prison cells and unstinting close-ups of oozing abscesses and squirming maggots. But the execs were particularly panicky about one scene that depicted two men sitting at a table, talking. The conversation, between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham) who’s challenging his decision to starve himself, goes on for more than 20 minutes. It opens with a single, 17-minute take, a continuous shot with no cuts, close-ups or camera movements—virtually unheard of in a commercial release.

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Hunger.

At an early screening of the film, when the Channel 4 brass saw the scene for the first time, they were “s—ting themselves,” recalls McQueen over a cup of coffee at a hotel bar in Amsterdam. But there was little they could do, since McQueen had avoided shooting any shorter backup takes. “I knew what I was doing,” he says.

Apparently so. Last May McQueen, 39, won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at Cannes, where Hunger’s premiere received a lengthy standing ovation. Reviewers singled out the conversation scene for especially ecstatic praise.

McQueen, a working artist since the early Nineties, is best known for his quietly gut-wrenching film and video pieces, exhibited at such serious galleries as Marian Goodman in New York and Thomas Dane in London. Charlotte (2004) begins with a shot of actress Charlotte Rampling’s right eye; soon a finger—McQueen’s—enters the frame to caress and prod the loose flesh that surrounds it, before touching the eyeball directly. Running Thunder (2007) depicts an elegant but motionless horse lying dead—or asleep?—in a grassy meadow. Nothing really happens, but as the light shifts subtly and the 11-minute film loops back on itself, it makes all sorts of statements about stillness and action, life and death.

Still from Gravesend (2007).

Like his films, McQueen exudes an unlikely combination of supreme confidence and delicate inscrutability. Tall and burly, with a booming voice that carries across the hotel bar, he has a hesitant, choppy way of speaking, leading you to believe he’s sharing only a fraction of his thoughts. But occasionally he’ll blurt out an uncensored, unvarnished truth, perhaps as a calculated reward for what he considers a good question, or perhaps just because he feels like it. (During his first meeting with Rampling to discuss Charlotte, McQueen exclaimed, “Look, I want to touch your face.”)

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.”

A still from Running Thunder (2007).

On the set, the extraordinary strangeness of Sands’s situation came back to life in unexpected ways. Fassbender lost 35 pounds for the role, fasting under medical supervision. And one day McQueen, while filming a scene that shows Sands and other naked prisoners running a gauntlet as guards in riot gear beat them pitilessly, broke down crying. “The actors were really, really being hit with batons,” he explains. “You see the marks on their skin. So on the third or fourth take, I just couldn’t handle it. The fact that it was me who was in control of that violence—it f—ing got me.” He adds, “It’s this whole conundrum of art: You’re trying to make the piece, but at the same time it’s what you have to inflict on these actors. It just looked real, and in fact it was real.”

The many parallels between Hunger and McQueen’s formally controlled yet emotionally untidy art pieces are plain to see. “There are the same tensions between silence and language, motion and stillness,” observes Rondeau. “The same vocabulary of possibilities. And while Steve seems to be taking a dispassionate stance, he’s very quietly advancing sophisticated political thinking about an issue.”

In 2003 McQueen was named one of Britain’s “official war artists” by the Imperial War Museum, and he took off for Basra to do a piece on Iraq. He couldn’t get enough material for a film, due to security restrictions, but had an idea after he returned home, while putting a Van Gogh postage stamp on an envelope. Queen and Country (2007) is a series of stamps depicting the British soldiers killed in the war. “It’s an artwork that everyone can participate in,” he says. “One can send a stamp; one can receive a stamp.” Controversy has surrounded the project since the Ministry of Defense declined McQueen’s request for the addresses of the soldiers’ next of kin (he ultimately hired a researcher to track down the families, most of whom agreed to send photographs of the soldiers). The Royal Mail has also refused to issue the stamps for public use, which was McQueen’s goal all along. The artist is still pressing his case, with growing public support; in the meantime he has exhibited the stamps on large sheets in an oak cabinet with sliding vertical drawers.

Still from 7th November (2007).

This year McQueen will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, though he’s keeping everyone—including his gallerists—pretty much in the dark about the work he plans to show. Is it a video piece? “Maybe,” he says. “Possibly. That’s terrible for you. I’m sorry.” Asked why he can’t reveal more, he says, “Because that’s how I roll,” then bursts out laughing. “I’ve always wanted to say that!”

McQueen, who doesn’t have a studio, says he gets his best ideas when he’s at home, cooking or vacuuming. One activity he doesn’t waste any time on, he says, is hanging out with other artists. If he sees a reason it might be worthwhile to spend his free time with any of his peers, he’s not admitting to it. “That’s like if you’re a butcher, hanging out with other butchers,” McQueen says. “You chop meat this way, and I chop meat that way. What’s there to talk about?”

Photograph of Polaroid portrait: Stan Wan