by Greg Londe
Before visiting the Chicago Art Institute’s recent exhibition of the video works of English artist Steve McQueen, I had only seen his two feature films and his 1997 short Deadpan, in which the artist reenacts, from every conceivable angle, Buster Keaton’s famous stunt from Steamboat Bill Jr. In Deadpan, McQueen announces and performs his fascination with the stoic renunciation of catastrophe, standing motionless as the world tumbles down around him.
For the short film Western Deep, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (in their first collaboration, before working together on both Hunger and Shame) descended into the infernal darkness of South Africa’s perilous TauTona mine, one of the world’s deepest active gold mines. For long minutes we sit in near total darkness, the gallery room resounding with the clangor of the industrial elevator as it sinks 3.5 kilometers beneath the earth’s surface, slivers of yellow light giving glimpses of iron grating and the glistening necks of cramped miners. We will only see the workers’ faces clearly when they are lined up for physical inspection, deadpan before their own perpetual risk of collapse. The resonant title suggests that we are moving into the very heart of darkness of the western world (leagues more harrowing than James Cameron’s documentary plunge into the ocean’s depths in the following year’s Ghosts of the Abyss).
Western Deep heralds the first third of Hunger, McQueen’s movie about the 1981 no-wash protests and hunger strikes in Belfast’s Maze Prison, in its images of mandatory regimented exercise, its percussive claustrophobia, and its documentation of the continuity of confinement across colonial and post-colonial geographies. But without a Bobby Sands to gather such anonymous, collective endurance into an embodiment of resistant will, Western Deep refuses catharsis and charismatic political performance: after the video, a brief lights-up allows new visitors to shuffle in, before the routine labor begins again and again.
Viewed as part of the Chicago Art Institute’s exhibition, Steve McQueen, 21 Oct. 2012–6 Jan. 2013.