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Seeing and Touching

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Illuminer (2001)

Physical contact is central to many of Steve McQueen’s works. The senses of touch and sight overlap and intersect. In Charlotte, the camera focuses on an eye that is being approached by a finger. The eye in close-up appears extremely fragile and threatened by the finger’s touch. The sensitivity of this sense organ calls to mind less gentle treatments of the female eye in such films as Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), in which an eyeball is apparently slit by a razor, or Vito Acconci’s video, Pryings (1971), of a performance in which a woman’s eye is violently pried open. In Charlotte, tenderness and violence lie very close together. The film image, suffused in red, implies eroticism and intimacy, yet also harassment and aggression.


«The eye is the only part of the body
that is all about the inside
as such. Like an open wound.»

The interaction of seeing and touching in Charlotte makes manifest the groping nature of the gaze. Since the seeing eye is simultaneously seen (or touched), it can be read as a symbol of the camera eye, conjuring the idea of seeing in the cinema. The gaze takes different, opposing directions in Illuminer as well: the TV image illuminates the person watching it and enables us to watch him watching television, but the fact that we can see anything at all is, in turn, indebted to the filming camera. The autofocus of the digital camera is foiled by the “dark room” in the hotel, repeatedly plunging the space into diffuse darkness. The shadows are even deeper in Western Deep. The descent into the depths is like intruding into a body; the fleeting impressions that appear in the light of the helmet lamps resemble endoscopic images as if showing fragments of the earth’s intestines, where miners struggle under relentlessly harsh conditions. The radiant promise of triumphant globalization, which goes hand in glove with gold mining, is extinguished in the darkness of the earth’s innards. McQueen’s filmed fragments on the belated consequences of colonialism and racism deconstruct the supposedly objective and objectifying language of the documentary film. The artist delineates a disturbing situation that slithers into a zone beyond visibility and representation.

A merciless frankness, in contrast, attaches to the point of view in the two feature films Hunger and Shame. In both films, the protagonist (played by Michael Fassbender) suffers a physical martyrdom that is almost unbearable to watch. Hunger presents an inside view of Maze Prison near Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the IRA activist Bobby Sands was incarcerated and died in 1981 during a hunger strike. Here, touch and contact flip over into violence. We are pierced to the core by the immediacy of the unvarnished scenes and the brutality of the conflict between prisoners and guards. Shame, on the other hand, describes the life of a person imprisoned in his own body, whose sexual instincts rob him of willpower and freedom of action.



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