Hunger for Intimacy

Sometimes curation is nothing more than serendipity and sometimes serendipity bears all the hallmarks of curation. This month in Melbourne, the stars have aligned and the fortunate populous has the opportunity to see an exhibition (Intimacy) and a film (Hunger) that in their symbiosis would make a truly excellent day-night double bill.

The provenance of filmmakers is like a timeline of cultural influence: they came from the ranks of theatre, then they cut their teeth in television, lately it’s been the turn of MTV darlings, but now it’s all about video artists. Hunger is the first feature film by the Turner Prize-winning video artist Steve McQueen. And if his debut is any indication, cinema’s pantheon might have to make room for a second coming of that legendary name. Hunger is terrifying, intelligent and thrillingly well-made. It charts the violence and suffering of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the chill corridors of the Maze prison as IRA inmates stage passive protests against their gaolers. The issue at stake for the prisoners is their status. Having fought for their self-determination, they now protest at being labelled criminals instead of political prisoners. Inside and out, it is a matter of identity and dignity. In the name of these abstract notions, the prisoners deny themselves the concrete material of human rights: clothing, hygiene and, eventually, food.

The first half of the film is a largely wordless mapping of the prison terrain. Motifs are established, repeated and transmuted, like the building of a visual symphony that ends with an inevitable but nevertheless breathtaking cymbal crash. Given his background, McQueen’s acute cinematographic sensibility in all this is hardly surprising, but what is remarkable is the deftness of the rhythms and the unflinching sweep of the narrative. It is not relentlessly harrowing, there are moments of inspired pause for something peculiar or idiosyncratic-a fly at a window, the tears of a young officer, or op art in faeces-but it never loses its momentum either. In the wake of this horizontal march of violence, comes a scene of extraordinary dialectical depth and clarity, a 20 minute scene with only one cut and no more movement than is required to smoke a cigarette to its death. Hunger‘s first act is so redolent with determined action and the pain of ingrained hatred that the characters take on a mythological scale. This second act, a conversation between a terrorist and his priest, serves as the counterpunch of psychology.

Meanwhile, in Southbank, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) has an exhibition entitled Intimacy. Included in the collection is a Steve McQueen video work that amuses itself with the sculptural posturing of African wrestlers but, for me, the most intimate of works and the most inspiring is right at the end, tucked behind a warning for those not yet 18-a slideshow by the American photographer Nan Goldin. These photographs of couples at their most private moments were themselves not new to me, but this display of them, complete with the satisfying whack of the projector and the theonostalgialogical soundtrack by Björk was completely mesmerising. Sophie Calle and Louise Bourgeois (still kicking at age 96) occupy the rooms preceding Goldin’s and don’t neglect Jesper Just’s hilarious ode to Roy Orbison.

Hunger opened November 6. Intimacy runs until November 30 (admission is free).