Steve McQueen’s Dialogues with the Image of Precarious Life

Steve McQueen’s Dialogues with the Image of Precarious Life

Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.

Susan Sontag1

In her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag tackled the issue of whether, in our media saturated world, we no longer know how to respond empathetically to images of the suffering of others: ‘The image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence’.2 Whilst her thoughts on the photograph may well apply to its use and circulation in the media, it is uncertain whether they account for the function of the photographic image in the aesthetic priorities of artistic practices – the aesthetic understood here as giving form to sensuous experience, which is qualitatively different to the transmission of information, or prescribed ‘meaning’. Nonetheless, Sontag opened an important debate on the affectivity of the image in a media landscape in which images of atrocities have become both normalised and instrumentalised.

Given that Steve McQueen has now accumulated a body of work – including his feature films, Hunger (2008), Shame (2010) and 12 Years A Slave (2013) – that confronts us with the ‘pain of others’, often in ‘shocking’ ways, it seems apposite to think about the extent to which the artist’s work is an exploration of, not what the image ‘means’, but what it does. In McQueen’s work, the dialogical relation between image and viewer has high priority; but the question posed by Sontag (and later by Judith Butler) remains: can this relation enable a shift in the viewer’s perception of the world away from interpretations promulgated by the interests of power. The trajectory of thought to be pursued is that, if McQueen’s early work experiments with what the image can (and cannot) do – the im/possibility of the image – his later work explores what he can do with it in terms of its affective capacity to raise questions about lived realities.

Sontag’s claim is that, unlike a text, which tells an intelligible ‘story’, the photographic image, whilst producing an affect in the viewer, does not offer ‘understanding’: ‘indexical’ but nonetheless unmoored from referentiality, the photograph requires an explanatory support.3 Several caveats need to be made here. Firstly, as Judith Butler points out, ‘it does not make sense… that the photograph cannot by itself offer an interpretation’ since (and as those of us who have worked within the ‘postcolonial’ discourses of race and representation well know) its entire mechanism of production manipulates the framing devices through which something is included or excluded, seen or unseen, such that the photograph itself is a ‘structuring scene of interpretation’ that draws its conventions from the prevailing social milieu.4 Moreover, one ‘textualises’ the image just as one ‘images’ a text, and neither has any prior claim to ‘truth’.

Secondly, the thought that images are deficient in conveying ‘understanding’ is highly contentious when considering visual art practices, because it assumes ‘understanding’ to be a linguistic effect, eliding those pathways to apprehension that can be generated through non-linguistic sensory mechanisms, which would include not only the visual and the aural, but the gestural, olfactory, textural, tactile, and so forth. So although the imposition of already prescribed ‘meaning’ is not the role of art, it is not devoid of ‘sense’. In speaking of the tyranny of the signifier in language, which he calls ‘stuck in the question, “What does it mean?”’, Gilles Deleuze notes that ‘the only question is how anything works, with its intensities, flows, processes, partial objects – none of which mean anything.’5 Given that ‘intensities’ and ’flows’ characterise the ‘sense’ of art, one might suggest that art ‘works’ to mobilise the inherent indeterminacy of language, to interrupt the signifying chain and to disarticulate prescribed meanings, potentially opening up new pathways of thought. As in the Deleuzian universe, what matters is the relation and its affects, not the subject or object.

This issue is particularly pertinent when regarding McQueen’s art practice, in which textual mediation is reduced to a minimum, in so far as ‘explanatory’ narrative is either absent, or at best alluded to in the work’s title; and, despite its undeniable sociopolitical commitment, and whilst manipulating documentary codes, is devoid of the didacticism inherent in the conventions of documentary representation. Indeed, much of the artist’s early work challenges the tendency of representation to centre the viewer’s gaze; what it offers instead is an oblique and fractured vision, one that decentres the viewer as ‘subject of knowledge’, encouraging us to engage with both the framing devices by which the image comes into being and its contents. In Catch (1997), Drumroll (1998) and Prey (1999), for instance, the camera is released from the body and visual control of the artist, effectively uncoupling the conventional correspondence between the cameraperson’s and the viewer’s perspective. Illuminer (2002), Western Deep (2002), and Pursuit (2005) explore the extent to which what we see of the image is conditioned by the light-sensitive limitations of the camera, where, in also impairing our vision, we are compelled to rely more on our other senses. In other works, beginning with Exodus (1992/97) and elegantly followed through in Illuminer, Girls Tricky (2001), 7th Nov. (2001), Caribs’ Leap (2002) and Western Deep, an improvisatory strategy is employed whose outcome is unpredictable. This does not mean that image sequences cannot tell a story – those of Western Deep and Caribs’ Leap clearly do; but that where meaning isn’t prescribed, it is the responsibility of the viewer to negotiate it.

Moreover, it is by now a commonplace for writers to point out that McQueen’s staging of visual and sound images in both his films and art works produces a violent assault on our senses: the scale of the image and its frequent encroachment into ‘our’ space, or alternatively, as with Pursuit, or Blues Before Sunrise (2012), our envelopment in the space created by the image; the rhythmic alternations of sound and silence; the abrupt contrasts between light and darkness; and attenuated shots and ‘narrative’ strategies that eschew the logic of orthodox montage.6 By these strategies McQueen refuses to let us slip into the comfortable role of passive spectator – his images assail us with the force of a certain intimacy; they demand our undivided attention, as if insisting on closing the distance between the image and the viewer. Hence, if, following Sontag, McQueen’s images haunt us it is because they possess a visceral force or intensity that ‘touches’ us.7 This force relates to what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the image’s ‘distinction’: the image is not simply a representation of a thing, a surface effect; it is ‘distinct’, something set apart, carved out from an indefinite ground – ‘a manifestation of presence, not as appearance, but as exhibiting, as bringing to light and setting forth’.8 It is an intensity that insists on proximity even as it remains at a distance, a force that both draws us into the image even as we draw it into ourselves.

For Nancy, the exemplary model is the ‘portrait’ (of which the human face is but one example): ‘a portrait touches, or else it is only an identification photograph, a descriptive record, not an image. What touches is something that is borne of the surface out of an intimacy.’9 Where the ‘portrait’ crops up in McQueen’s work (which it frequently does), it is anything but an ‘identification photograph’; it is an image that solicits an unconditional response. One can think, for example, of the vulnerability of the subject conveyed in 7th Nov. and Girls Tricky; the weary, withdrawn face of the miner that closes Western Deep; the pathos of the dead horse in Running Thunder (2007); the as-yet-unimagined death haunting the portraits of soldiers in Queen and Country (2007); and Solomon’s anguish in 12 Years A Slave as he struggles to retain his humanity against the forces that seek to ruin it. For Nancy also, the image is outside language, ‘since in itself it is the assembling of a sense without signification. The image suspends the course of the world and of meaning… there is a sense that is non-signifying but not insignificant, a sense that is as certain as its force (form).’10 One might say that this force is amplified by the very violence of a McQueen image.

If an exploration of the image and its affective relation to the viewer is one distinctive facet of McQueen’s practice, another is his choice of scenarios, where formal relations are increasingly deployed to ‘bring to light’ and provoke an apprehension of the lived realities of ‘others’ whose connections to our own are not always apparent. At this level, images are haunting for different reasons, for the way they carry the traces of prior images: they emerge from an already existing interpretative set of visual codes and meanings that have their own lineages and histories. It may prove difficult to isolate either texts or images from the cultural discourses in which they are imbricated, which is not to say that they can be reduced to them, but, rather, that the aesthetic regard offers a space of re-articulation. In a sense, therefore, McQueen’s attention to the affective relation between viewer and image creates the conditions for a re-articulation of the neutralised and sanitised images of the world regulated by western media and political discourses, which impose limits on what can be said and shown in the public sphere. McQueen himself had experience of this when, appointed as war artist to Iraq by the Imperial War Museum, he found himself in the same frustrating position as ‘embedded journalists’, directed only to those perspectives on the conflict that the military authorities deemed ‘suitable’ for publication. His response to this experience is encapsulated in Queen and Country and Running Thunder. Queen and Country presents a series of commemorative postage stamps of smiling studio portraits of British military personnel killed in action and donated by the bereaved families, which McQueen designed for public use but which the authorities prohibited from circulation. Running Thunder is a modest looped film depicting a dead and seemingly abandoned racehorse. It functions as a substitute for the fallen military dead that in the West is also a prohibited image (whilst triumphalist images of the dead enemy ‘other’ are widely circulated). What resonates between these two works is empathy for that grievable loss absent from official nationalist rhetoric, whereby certain lives are dismissed as expendable.

Nationalism and its darker consequences is a thread that weaves through Queen and Country, Running Thunder, Hunger and Giardini (2009) without overtly announcing itself as such. Whereas the Irish nationalist struggle for autonomy from British neo/colonialism is what motivates the mise-en-scène in Hunger, it is only on reflection that Giardini emerges as a rather more opaque rendering of a nationalist theme. Something about the film indeed haunted me, but it was shocking to realise that it recalled the sequences in Alain Renais’ short film Nuit et Brouillard (1955) where the camera scans the abandoned sites of the Nazi extermination camps. On the face of it, Giardini is a ‘portrait’ of the main site of the Venice Biennale during its winter closure. It presents a dual-screen projection of fixed camera footage of various perspectives on the site, shot largely in grey, foggy daylight and at night. Long shots of the shuttered national pavilions and deserted avenues are intercut with close-ups of piles of rubbish and nature’s permanent residents (plants and insects) that usually go unremarked. But into this scenario the artist has introduced two heterogeneous elements that do not ‘belong’: a pack of emaciated greyhounds,11 which scavenge the empty site by day, and the watchful faces of young men, one an African, who may also be the figures seen ‘cruising’ in the shadows by night. The resonance with Nuit et Brouillard, however, plunges Giardini into a much darker place than if it were solely an elliptical commentary on the febrile nature of the main event in the international art calendar. On reflection, therefore, Giardini discloses the paradox of the Biennale, whose nationalist premise would seem anachronistic in the age of globalisation and multiethnic nation-states were xenophobic nationalism not again on the rise. Hence, the distant sounds of what may be a football match segue into a fascist rally; and the tolling church bells sound a deathly warning note. As TJ Demos in his insightful analysis of Giardini points out, as ’intruders’, the foraging greyhounds and the young gay and ethnic men stand for those excluded from dominant constructions of national identity,12 the most pathological expression of which led to the death camps.13 The sense of exclusion and life’s precariousness conveyed in these works therefore renders them companions to McQueen’s visual interrogations of an unjust capitalist system that exploits the labour of the world’s poor to supply raw materials to rich nations, from the abjection of miners in the South African gold mine in Western Deep and the dirt-poor Congolese men manually digging for coltan in Gravesend (2007), to the abominations of plantation slavery in 12 Years A Slave.

Dominant forms of representation can and must be disrupted for something about the precariousness of life to be apprehended.

Judith Butler14

The fusion in McQueen’s work between the affectivity of the image and the scenarios depicted cuts to a much deeper interrogation of human relations, in which xenophobic nationalism and racist exploitation are but the symptoms. This excavation concerns what Judith Butler analyses as our capacity to apprehend the precariousness of life, the denial of which in others ‘different’ to oneself leads to their dehumanization and consequently an indifference and even acquiescence to violence against them: ‘…specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living.’15

The fundamental premise is that, far from being autonomous, the human self’s sense of itself is formed from the outset in and through relations with others. Catch provides a simple early demonstration. The ‘portraits’ of McQueen and his sister that punctuate the movement of the thrown camera are formed from the place of arrival not departure – it is the ‘other’ that establishes the image, but it emerges in relation to the de-framing, turbulent flow of illegibility generated by the ‘unmanned’ flight of the camera. Whilst Butler is speaking in the context of recent US-generated wars, her comments apply equally to the violence of colonial power and contemporary forms of exploitation, which reduce the other to the base survival that Solomon in 12 Years A Slave seeks to avoid (‘I don’t want to survive’, he says, ‘I want to live.’) Butler notes that our interdependency on others, who inescapably form part of our intricate network of socioeconomic and political relations, indicates that precariousness is an inherent and shared condition of life. Solomon discovers this when he is forcibly removed from one socioeconomic network to another from which he had thought himself immune. To fail to apprehend the precariousness, vulnerability and grievability of the lives of others is to deface them: if certain lives, according to particular discourses and operations of power, do not count as human, then they are not considered at all, they cannot be humanized, they are expendable, vulnerable to unchecked violence and excluded from the apparatuses that sustain life. ‘An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as life at all.’16

This disclosure of precarious life is implied in much of McQueen’s more recent work. We see it in those art works that circulate around exploited labour; in the reduction of the other to expendable object in the sacrifice to political expediency of hunger strikers in Hunger, and in Brandon’s objectification of women to satisfy his sexual appetite (alongside his denial of his sister’s emotional needs) in Shame. But it is in interrogating slavery that the precariousness of life in McQueen’s work is forcefully foregrounded.

One might begin with Lynching Tree (2013), which is presented as a fairly large transparency. It is ‘just an image’ of a tree standing in a leafy glade – a ‘live oak’ indigenous to the southern US – luminous, but initially of indeterminate meaning. It is the caption that provokes the ‘shock’, aligning the image with its narrative complement, 12 Years A Slave, revealing that its context is more than what first appears.17 This ‘more than’, absent from the image itself but appearing as an invisible stain, was reframed by Kanye West, who had permission from McQueen to incorporate the image as a backdrop to his performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards,18 which included track samples from Nina Simone’s cover of Billie’s Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, itself a highly disturbing allusion to lynched victims. However, perhaps the moment in 12 Years A Slave that effectively complements Lynching Tree is not the film’s restaging of lynching, but the shot of the Capitol from the Washington slave pen, embodying those American constitutional rights that are now unavailable to the kidnapped Solomon.19 His identity as an educated black freeman entitled to full citizens’ rights is brutally withdrawn, exposing the frailty of identity when suddenly bereft of its familiar support structures, a crisis eloquently described by Frantz Fanon as descent into ‘crushing objecthood’.20

Solomon’s predicament in 12 Years A Slave compels us to revisit an earlier work by McQueen, Portrait as an Escapologist (2006). It was installed as a grid of 150 black and white identical photographs, depicting the artist dressed in ‘respectable’ attire – simple white shirt, dark trousers and ‘city’ shoes – but with his neck, hands and feet immobilised with shackles. The figure’s provocative stance recalls Andy Warhol’s silkscreen repetitions of Elvis Presley – especially the silver version Elvis 11 Times (1962) showing Presley posed in stereotypical cowboy gear pointing his revolver.21 In Portrait as an Escapologist the figure likewise seems rather defiant, and in any case the title assures us that he intends to free himself; but from what? Perhaps from the disabling stereotypes of black subjectivity, compounded by the allusion to Presley.22

At the very least, one can speculate that Portrait as an Escapologist oscillates between two images articulated around power and disempowerment: the myth of American freedom embodied by the white Hollywood cowboy, and the reality of American un-freedom, embodied by the black slave, for whose descendants the past has not ceased to exert its poisonous effects. Moreover, one cannot fail to see Portrait as an Escapologist without also recalling the shocking images of tortured and shackled ‘detainees’ in Abu Ghraib, which had become notorious by the mid-2000s, not least for the glee and absence of moral consciousness with which the perpetrators, including the photographer, posed the shots.23 In abdicating their ethical responsibility towards others, those who condone brutality against others diminish their own humanity, as illustrated by the actions of both Epps and Ford in 12 Years A Slave. Among the most radical insights of the film, which clarifies how slavery was ‘justified’ (aside from the self-righteous hypocrisy of Christian apologists), and which also gives the film contemporary relevance, is how the commodification of human beings as possessing value in debt exchange were central to a government-licensed economic and legalised capitalist system. If Ford rushed to cut down the lynched Solomon, it is less for humanitarian reasons than because a slave of his calibre was a valuable asset. If Solomon could be freed it was because his enslavement was proven to be illegal, whereas his fellow slaves remained the legal ‘property’ of the plantation owner, and therefore did not ‘count’ as human beings.

Sometimes it takes a shocking image to bring to light our interdependency with others, where apprehension of the fragility of one’s own life may open a pathway to empathy and compassion for the pain of others (although, of course, it risks having the opposite effect through naked self-preservation!) McQueen’s work has morphed from an interrogation of the affectivity of the image in its dialogue with the viewer to something like an aesthetics of outrage: an image that turns on itself and what it is capable of in turning a blind eye towards injustice through those regulatory mechanisms of the media that deny the lives of others. McQueen’s images strive to do something else, to set in motion the intensity of the image, drawing to and from itself a sense of the other, and to which we are compelled to respond as responsibility. As Butler insists, ‘…it is only by challenging the dominant media that certain kinds of lives may become visible or knowable in their precariousness. It is not only or exclusively the visual apprehension of a life that forms a necessary precondition for an understanding of the precariousness of life. Another life is taken through all the senses, if it is taken in at all’.24 In McQueen’s work we detect a profound discontent with the limitations of the art system as a site from which to challenge the prescriptions of dominant media. It comes as no surprise that he should seek to apply his radical aesthetic strategies to the context of mainstream cinema, which provides access to a broader audience and a more culturally inclusive debate, although this compounds the risk of failure (that 12 Years A Slave has generated a veritable storm of debate suggests that it has done exactly what McQueen intended).

In conclusion, I offer a passage from Mikhail Bakhtin – who also sought to characterise an ethical relationship between self and others – which is suggestive of the trajectory of McQueen’s work: ‘To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his whole body in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium.’25

Essay commissioned by Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Steve McQueen’, April 26 – August 17, 2014.

1 Susan Sontag Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Penguin Books, 2003, p 80.

2 Ibid, p 20.

3 It should be noted that in her later essay, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, following the public circulation of and response to the torture photographs of Abu Ghraib, Sontag was compelled to say ‘Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words.’ Sontag,, accessed 09-02-2014

4 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London and New York: Verso, 2009, pp 66-67.

5 Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p 22.

6 For an in-depth analysis of McQueen’s filmic strategies, see Okwui Enwezor, ‘From Screen to Space’, in Steve McQueen Works, Schaulager Basel, 2012, pp 20-35.

7 As Okwui Enwezor noted in an early essay, the work is ‘haptic’ rather than optical. In Steve McQueen, London: Institute of Contemporary Art and Zurich Kunsthalle, 1999, pp 37-50.

8 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005, p 22.

9 Ibid, pp 4-5.

10 Ibid, pp 10-11.

11 The greyhound was a favoured companion in paintings of the aristocracy, and also, apparently for Nazi officers in Nuit et Brouillard’s archival clips; the flip side is that McQueen’s are ‘rescue’ dogs, and relate to the film Hunger. Like the racehorse, born and bred into animal slavery to serve sport and gambling, the dogs are often destroyed when they have outlived their economic usefulness.

12 TJ Demos, ‘Giardini: A Fairytale’, in Steve McQueen: Giardini Notebook, catalogue for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, London: British Council, 2009.

13 We should recall that imperial Germany tested out genocidal policies it was later to use in Europe on the Herero and Namaqua peoples in what is now Namibia during the first decade of the 20th century. Kenya was successful in its appeal for reparation for atrocities carried out by British colonial authorities; Caricom is currently seeking recognition for the consequences of slavery in the Anglo Caribbean islands.

14 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London and New York: Verso, 2006, p xviii.

15 Judith Butler, Frames of War, p 1.

16 See Judith Butler, Precarious Life, pp, 33-35; and Frames of War, p 38.

17 This tree has the added ‘distinction’ of reputedly sheltering the bodies of lynched victims.

18 Other notable collaborations between McQueen and musicians are the filming of Girls Tricky with the trip-hop musician; and the live performance in 2003 when the opera singer Jessye Norman and jazz trumpeter Mike Lovatt, provided amplitude to the experience of guilt, pain and redemption narrated in 7th Nov.

19 The relevant clause in the Declaration of Independence, 1776, is: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ That African Americans were excluded means they were not regarded as fully human.

20 Frantz Fanon, ‘The Fact of Blackness’ in Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, London and Sydney: Pluto Press, pp 109-140.

21 Warhol’s image derives from a still of Flaming Star (1960), directed by Don Siegel. The film cast Presley as a ‘mixed-blood’ white/Kiowa, who experiences a crisis of identity and loyalty when the two groups descend into hostilities. The film emerged during the Civil Rights Movement, but before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation.

22 Controversy remains over whether Presley (born a ‘dirt-poor’ Southerner and therefore familiar with the milieu of his African Americans neighbours) made black music palatable to white America at the expense of black musicians, thereby depriving them of their cultural identities and economic livelihoods.

23 It has frequently been noted that the Abu Ghraib photographs bear uncomfortable correspondence with the photographs and postcards from the post-Abolition Jim Crow era depicting the victims of extrajudicial lynching mobs, and the crowds that assembled to participate in these spectacles of unconscionable brutality. See James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America’, 2000-2005: As the late Gode Davis said, ‘Lynching was done to people who were expendable. The lynching [mob] is as American as apple pie.’ Gode Davis, American Lynching: A strange and Bitter Fruit, documentary, 2003:, Accessed 19.02.2014

24 Judith Butler, Frames of War, p 51.

25 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, edited and trans. by Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p 293.