The Great Hunger – (Re)Visions of Aesthetics and Politics in Irish Republicanism.
Landscape Conference, Paris, November 25th 2010
The Great Hunger: (Re)Visions of Aesthetics and Politics in Irish Republicanism.
My paper focuses on two recent treatments of Irish Republicanism and explores artistic strategies in visual art. Two distinct landscapes bookend this paper, Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger and David Farrell’s photographic work, Innocent Landscapes. Each employs a certain mythic register, summoning up rich iconic relationships to these different sites. I will begin with an examination of Hunger to expand on these themes.
A Film in 3 Acts
Hunger is a cinematic re-enactment of the 1981 Hunger Strikes and is principally a portrait of the icon of this protest, Bobby Sands. The film is structured rigidly in three separate acts, of shifting tempos and approaches.
The first act of the film follows a new Republican inmate’s journey into this harsh prison system. It shifts between still observation and graphic violent attacks by the prison regime on young naked prisoners, set alongside the sheer visceral intensity of the prison cells and living conditions. However the cycle of violence reveals the underlying sympathies of the film’s narrative and proposes to distinguish between the institutional and redemptive forms of brutality. In a key scene, a close up of a prison officer washing his bloodied hands is repeated twice and follows on the second occasion, a severe beating of the Bobby Sands character. A shift occurs as the sympathy, like the blood, begins to dissolve away.
The violent attacks on the Republican prisoners is followed directly by another critical scene, outside of the prison, where a lone Republican gunman kills the same prison officer seen earlier while he visits his mother in a nursing home.
The callousness of this assassination is tempered by the volume of violence dished out by the riot prison officers against the prisoners in the preceding scenes. This editing sequence clearly establishes a legitimatisation of revolutionary violence over state force. Although Hunger’s murder scene is clearly reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s Elephant, this echo functions very differently as it shares only a formal relationship.
The second act of the film consists of a radical shift in rhythm and visual approach, as the camera remains static for an uninterrupted 18-minute take; this has rightly placed Hunger in film history for this virtuoso scene.
The scene unfolds a robust and combative conversation from either side of the ideological fissure between the physical force Republican tradition and constitutional Nationalism, as represented by the only two developed ‘real’ characters in the film: Bobby Sands and Father Denis McFaul, aka Denis the Menace.
The stillness of this central act is followed by the third act where we encounter Sands in a silent, emaciated state, dressed in striped pyjamas. His frail frame, zombie-like gaunt expression has an immediate, striking presence and is reminiscent of much iconic imagery. Bobby Sands has now been transformed into an existential prisoner and through the decline of his own body he gradually loses the umbilical life connection to the physical world, encased and trapped in a muted, exhausting nightmare. The emphasis on the body’s mutation into corpse is intensified in this final phase, as his physical body becomes the total locus of the resistance. The realism of the scene is compounded by the actor (Michael Fassbender) losing weight for this role.
Much of Hunger’s impact is created through the film’s meditating and contemplating of the subterranean prison space. This selection of forensic detail is nightmarish and utterly immersive. There is a fixation with point of view throughout the film, as the gaze is passed like a baton from anonymous prisoners to the protagonist, Bobby Sands, as we follow his descent from violence to an altered state and eventual transcendent death. This ghost train journey is deeply emotive as we face our own screen mortality through Sands’s mutation.
McQueen has described his intention for Hunger as:
I want to show what it was like to see, hear, smell and touch in the H-Block in 1981. What I want to convey is something you cannot find in books and archives: the ordinary and extraordinary, of life in this prison.
(De Abaitua, M., 2009, p. 6)
This aesthetic assault is, for many, the film’s most remarkable feature, however McQueen’s remark on archival resources suggests a certain shortcoming with the film’s historical interpretation. Hunger tends to serve the myth of Bobby Sands and the 1981 Hunger Strikers rather than penetrate this miasma.
The only available archival visual representation exists in the World in Action TV program titled The H-Block Fuse, transmitted on the 24th November 1980. This blindspot of archival material is intriguing as it gives permission for artistic intervention and interpretation in the absence of documents; no real evidential basis here hints at Hunger’s unstable foundation. The film is not an accurate re-enactment but an approximation, fictionalising and heavily dependant on living witnesses for a stamp of authenticity.
However, traumatic memory and testimony have been proven untrustworthy chroniclers of the past; memory is an unreliable narrator.
Art critic, Goldsmiths academic and native of Belfast, Maria Fusco, reviewed Hunger in Art Monthly in October 2008 as:
The weakness of Hunger, in my view, is that within the temporal space of the film, we are introduced to Sands’s (and by implication other hunger strikers’) motivation as personal rather than political.
While it is understandable that Hunger cannot hope to represent the complexity of this period in Northern Ireland’s history, this lack of the Political is a basic problem because it advertently plays down the national and international significance of the hunger strikers’ actions, in the same way as the British-coined term ‘The Troubles’ does, when in other times and countries what happened in Belfast, Derry, and surrounding areas would have been called A War.
(Fusco, M. Art Monthly, Oct 2008)
Although the film graphically renders the prison conflict, it does little to provoke more meticulous readings. Rather it consigns the 1981 Hunger Strike to a stirring and at times sentimental sensory experience, interlaced within a recognisable historical narrative. Once the viewer becomes accustomed to the visceral effect of the film, little insight is given into Sands or the underlying structures of this distinctive prison conflict.
The visual methods of Hunger indulge in religious connotation and art metaphor. In one extraordinary scene, a bloodied sheet fills the screen, as a compassionate prison orderly cleans it, and this is obviously highly suggestive of the Turin Shroud. In another scene, Sands in the final days of his hunger strike attempts to get out of a bath but stoically falls. On this occasion an unsympathetic prison orderly (we learn from a Loyalist paramilitary background) carries Sands’s frail body in his arms along the corridor, in an employment of the Pieta motif.
The Abject and the Envy
What has attracted Steve McQueen to this subject area and has he diminished a political dimension of this prison struggle? Some of the answers can be examined through the artistic compulsion towards the Abject state. McQueen has described how Sands’s image, through the TV portal, interrupted the secure familial home:
I remember as an 11 year-old seeing Bobby Sands on BBC news every night. There was a number underneath his image, and I thought that was his age, but I noticed that each night the number increased, and I realised that wasn’t his age, it was the number of days he had gone without food. To an 11 year old, the idea of someone who in order to be heard was not eating left an impression on me. I don’t know why this image stayed with me, but it is a very strong memory.
McQueen’s response to this Irish Republican protest is arguably beyond any tacit recognition of political concerns. Rather his artistic practice endeavours to disturb normative values and falls under the spell of the Abject subject or state; that is the troubled or the poisoned. Abjection is the condition where set meanings collapse; hence its attraction for artists whose artistic sublimation is projected, in McQueen’s case onto the Irish Republican prisoners.
This allure is evident in Hunger, which reveals a fascination, bordering on fetishism, rather than any ambition for political analysis of this troubled history. In interviews McQueen has spoken of Sands’s hunger strike protest as a childlike act and the film represents the Republican prisoners as actual artists themselves; practically non-verbal or inarticulate but physically expressive and using their own faeces.
British artist Richard Hamilton was similarly drawn to this in a painting of the Republican ‘Dirty Protests’ created in response to the World in Action TV program mentioned earlier. In his catalogue note to accompany the joint exhibition, A Cellular Maze, in 1983 with Rita Donagh, Hamilton wrote:
It was a strange image of human dignity in the midst of self-created squalor and it was endowed with a mythic power most often associated with art. I was able to deal with the dirty protest in a very ambivalent way. It was a work of art that they were doing; smearing excrement on the walls is a kind of gestural art of 20th century fine artists. Its like a parable in society however deprived he is the will to [make] art is there. Each cell is marked with the graphic personality of its inhabitants….It isn’t difficult to discern the megalithic spirals of Newgrange inscribed there, nor the Gaelic convolutions of the book of Kells remote from the wall paintings of Long Kesh.
(Hamilton. R., 2003, Tate Magazine, Issue 4)
Such interpretations locate the Irish Republican prisoners in a mythic framework, even at the core of the Irish cultural renaissance. Arguably they are transformed into performance-painter artists, affecting and shifting public consciousness. The Citizen is a life-sized double panel painting in a metal frame. In the second panel, a level of expressive abstraction takes hold as the brown spiral pattern populates and extends across from the right panel.
A similar reading of the Republican prison protest is evident in McQueen’s film, in the scene where a prison officer cleans a cell. He encounters a spiral pattern on the wall and is moved to take off his protective visor, as if to respectfully behold some ancient monument. This scene elevates the status of these scatological doodles and, like Hamilton, acknowledges something beyond straightforward politics.
The abstract brown pattern in The Citizen is grounded by the protester’s proud authorship of his own representational shit, that is his artwork. This gaze is in fact an envy or kinship between protester and artist acknowledged by Hamilton. The political referent became supplanted by an aesthetic one and finally immortalised in a pseudo-religious version of political history as these acts fused the body with the body politic. With this scatological transformation the political prisoners achieve what some artists aspire towards, that is the reordering of perception or consciousness.
In a sense, McQueen and Hamilton have been drawn to the H-Blocks as an exceptionally charged installation space, the potent mise-en-scène and colour palette of the surface walls and floors, populated by naked young male bodies as a tragic death drama unfolds.
Hunger is a fusion of what already existed in both Republican prisoners’ memory, archival TV glimpses inside the H.M. Maze prison and Hamilton’s painting. However Hunger’s synthesis reduces the potential meaning of the 1981 Hunger Strike to an aesthetic event rather than an antagonistic rupture of history.
For the uninitiated or unaware of the 1981 Hunger Strikes, Hunger has a shocking and violent impact through its precise aesthetic formula. The acumen of the film’s audio-visual tour de force demonstrates McQueen’s distinctive artistic ability but it also draws attention to the weakness of this approach in relation to such historical subjects. Furthermore this political-light turn dovetails with Republicanism’s own simplified wish full-fulfilment and positions the 1980s Republican prison protesters as mythic martyrs as the complex becomes an abridged assimilation of the past.
Fintan O’Toole reviewed Hunger in the Irish Times as:
On the level of politics, it is utterly naive to think that you can both plug into the hunger strikes as an aesthetic event and give them a neutral political treatment.
(O’Toole, Irish Times, 2008. p.19)
To the conservative public majority, who formerly may not have tolerated such political themes, they no longer feel the bigger picture surrounding this event as challenging to contemporary hegemony. Viewed from the shoreline, the anti-colonial Irish Republican ‘armed struggle’ that occasionally degraded into sectarian violence, has become reduced to a myth-like narrative.
The spectacle in Hunger becomes part of a historical compendium of Irish Republicanism’s martyrdom tragedy that is a romantic self-deception. McQueen’s artistic strategy reveals much about the function of aesthetics in politically anchored art. Hunger uses an uncomplicated template to understand the 1981 Hunger Striker’s sacrifice and such uber-aesthetics tend to remove any useful political index and facilitates an abstraction of the prisoner’s protest.
Although David Farrell’s well-known landmark photographic project, Innocent Landscapes, appears to trade on similar Republican territory; this time in a fusion with symbolic notions of the Irish rural idyll, the artist’s hand turns and inverts many of these assumptions. This strategy is in sharp contrast to McQueen as Farrell resists the easy, intense option. Rather he adopts a choreographic stance with the founding legacy of Republicanism’s myths, combining the rural picturesque and a certain Catholic gaze from south of the Irish Border. These connotations and motifs are contained within the photographic images and have been particularly well-formed through the book design that vertically compresses these sedimentary layers as the process of reading re-enacts the act of excavation itself. This descent into Irish Republicanism, through this visual archaeological format, isolates past political fossils of Republican violence. Farrell makes authentic our presence at this evidential search procedure by extending the medium outwards as a visual poetic form of witnessing in a sinister world of signs.
This is predicated by the absence of the bodies of those murdered clandestinely by the IRA. A sense of confusion prevails as the police search is confounded, as is a certain documentary photographic aftermath approach. Innocent Landscapes creates a profoundly moving vision that destabilizes the myth of Irish Republicanism rather than reaffirming it. This comes about through Farrell’s own visual ability and deep sensibility towards the terrain and subject, a suspicious investigator of the hidden residue of excessive violence. A dark shadow is cast over the Irish Republican psyche as we witness, on one level the investigation process and contemplate the sheer envelopment of history entombed in this silent landscape.
Initially David Farrell’s Innocent Landscapes can appear to be under a similar romantic spell as Hunger. However, such certainty is misleading as the landscape mutates into the uncanny, revealing a hidden residue that is Irish Republican violence. Myth aids the cultural construction of Republicanism’s ideology and justification of its use of violence. These artworks plug into real events that carry their own burdens in a circuit of meaning between act, myth and cultural imagination. However, Farrell’s work is distinct due to its ambition to make visible what was unseen, unheard and unspoken by inverting myth.
The aesthetics of Innocent Landscapes are political, its photographs of little or nothing downplay the significance of the camera framing. This vision points to an open wound, releasing the bog’s meaning. Farrell’s identification of the relationship between photography and the bog overlaps with cultural theory and poetry. Terry Eagleton has written:
The bog reveals the past as still present, with artefacts caught in a kind of living death.
(Eagleton, T., An Ideology, 1991, p. 32).
Such a hiatus interweaves the photographic process and memory with the motif of the bog landscape. Furthermore Farrell’s understanding of the role of myth, that is vital to maintain such a cultural imagination of an uncomplicated version of past can be also evidenced in Seamus Heaney’s poem Tollund Man. In Innocent Landscapes the pre-modern and the post-modern coexist and as Heaney reveals through the bog motif are deep-rooted in tribal channels:
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
One of the most pertinent images in Innocent Landscapes shows a side view detail of bog soil with traces of cutting tools imprinted on it, sculpting the moist brown earth. The aesthetic beauty of the image is offset by the latent metaphor that suggests an ancient, oral storytelling connection to the land, evident in Gaelic place names, and the scar of colonialism. However, what disrupts this sense of victimhood, often associated with Irishness, is the realisation that Irishmen committed this horror on other Irishmen, on free sovereign Irish territory; an independent land founded on the mythic sacrifice of earlier Republican heroes and carried out by their contemporary incumbents. This landscape is tarnished and exists in silent denial of what it has witnessed and the lyrical pastoralism is set against the dark stains of sectarian murder.
David Farrell’s sequel work to Innocent Landscapes, Revisits, Discovery and a Renewed Search is hosted on the Source Magazine website in the form of a blog commentary on his regular return visits to the search locations. Images are posted almost weekly and record a second phase of searches by the authorities in a glacial process of unearthing memory and topography. Farrell’s commitment to the subject is clear in this continuation and his on-going collaboration with families and search teams and in his efforts to actively involve the audience.
In this new blog platform, image and text take on an additional role as discursive documents on the website. Such approaches open up the possibility of art to initiate active thought and positions this work on an axis between speaker and spectator.
Hunger and Innocent Landscapes raise the issue of the commodification of history and questions art’s treatment of political subjects. Surely the role of a critical thinking artist is to disrupt rather than perpetuate simplified readings of martyrs and assassins and probe deeper into such violent conflicts. The artistic enterprise should be to stimulate and resist not serve the pleasure principle of the image. Formal led treatments of history thereby lack content and fail to unhinge precarious myths. Brecht’s Epic Theatre served the instructive function to shatter the seductive illusion of the stage and audience passivity. Hunger, in contrast, is positioned to maintain a sense of photographic aura, amplifying affect of the spectacle to passivify the audience and sustain what Jacques Ranciere calls in his essay The Emancipated Spectator the ‘Logic of Stultification’.
Innocent Landscapes through its form and content, has become a valuable testimony and space to unravel the difficult business of art and politics, thereby establishing a sensible marker in a sea of contested meanings, perhaps even a point of truth. As David Farrell has commented on the Source blog:
My involvement with these sites and the people said to be buried there was not a completely futile artistic gesture of protest in that my photographs would exist as a monument of sorts, an act of remembrance in the face of voracious nature, human forgetfulness and the folly of memory.
(Source blog 20/10/09).