The Body Possessed by Media 2: Hunger’s Dirty Protest; or Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten; or, Bobby Sands, Matthew Barney, Fi Jae Lee, Atrocity Kitsch and Male Anorexia

by on Aug.23, 2010

When I watched Hunger, British artist Steve McQueen’s art movie about Irish dirty-protest-leader/hunger striker Bobby Sands, I freakin’ could not believe how much the Bobby Sands figure (as played by Michael Fassbender) reminded me,visually, of Matthew Barney in the Cremaster cycle. Even for an obviously debased Irish Catholic like me,  this is a sacrilegious thought. How could the body of Saint Bobby Sands twin with the body of an narcissistic anally-fixated bulimic art god?

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

[Wikipedia moment: Bobby Sands is an incredibly interesting (still notorious?) figure—an IRA member who, in various prisons, protested in order that he and his comrades be classified as political prisoners rather than criminals. First they refused to wear prisoner’s uniforms, going naked and/or wearing blankets instead; then they refused to bathe and smeared their prison walls with shit (the ‘dirty protest’); finally they began a hunger strike, of which Sands died. In freakin’ 1981, people. During the hunger strike he was also somehow elected to the British Parliament on the “Anti- H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner’ ticket—H Block referred to the ‘H’ shape of the Maze Prison in which the Hunger strike was taking place]

Sands flummoxed the British government with his blanket protest, dirty protest and hunger strike—these rejections of health and hygiene upended the Foucauldian prerogatives of both the prison regime and the British subjugation of Irish bodies as metonym for their subjugation of Ireland as a plantation, colony, etc. The protests went outside and around the value hierarchies culminating in the whole pure white bodies of Thatcher and the Queen and also activated the immemorial English condemnation of Irish as animals, savages, heathens, etc. The mortification of Sands’s body was also an easy match with Roman Catholic ideas of martyrdom, saints, and the physical mortification of the devout.

Hunger’s Dirty Protest

However , a Wikipedia-informed saint’s-life of Bobby Sands and a movie ‘about’ Bobby Sands are two different things.  What struck me about the movie is how deliciously it indulged in the visual breakdown of Sands’s (Fassbender’s) body—since he’s at least half naked throughout, one can observe he is at first attractively (male-ly) muscled, his cheekbones grow more pronounced; his muscles shrivel; bones appear beneath his skin, bed sores appear—rather than an interiority, it’s as if the body continually has more surfaces to reveal. The whole movie is Sands’s/Fassbender’s body. The flights of birds, the falls of light, the truncheons, the prison structure—all seem to emanate from or return to this body. The much praised mise-en-scene is like a bodily fluid. Sands’s body changes form and hosts other media—it never disappears. It cannot be erased from this movie because it is the movie—the medium through which it progresses.

Bed Sores

The same might be said for Matthew Barney’s oeuvre—his body is the ultimate material, the ‘matrix’ or mother material, through which and from which all the media move and pour. The beads, the vaseline, the flesh that falls away and continually reforms itself in bodies that signal hybrity—of man, animal, god, petroleum product—the tendency of bodies to break down, be consumed or consume themselves so that all physical gestures seem like a species of devourment, defecation or eructation. Gestation and the physical development of sexual differentiation in the womb allegedly provide the underlying structure of the Cremaster cycle, but this is overdetermination is also a kind of oversaturation—the very site of sexual difference inscribed within and shot through with and indeterminate from the continually reconfiguring material of the maternal body… itself indistinguishable from the ‘male’ body of Matthew Barney.

A Cremaster

Hunger and Cremaster link to Fi Jae Lee’s work in that the body is possessed by media but is never obliterated by it despite the violence done to it by media possession (and by becoming a medium). Instead, it multiplies, splits open to reveal new surfaces, digests itself, becomes porous to fluid, breaks down and reforms, extrudes new media and materials. Unlike actual anorexia or bulimia, this logic doesn’t end in death, but makes a zone there in which to continually reconfigure or recapitulate itself.


(Fi Jae Lee, Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten)

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3 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas



    I’m thinking, after nodding to your post, about Cronenberg’s The Fly, in which the technologically grafted body of Seth Brundle (“Brundlefly”) proves tragically unsustainable as a hybrid. While the camera is obsessed with Brundle’s breakdown, the film strikes me as a narrative of mid-80’s male anxiety in the context of AIDS, scientific advancement, women’s unrest within subordinated labor, etc. Nothing like the contemporary PINK body of Barney, in other words, which suffers but survives the bite of Cheetara at the Guggenheim.


  2. Johannes

    Yes, great connection between The Fly and Barney. Now when I try to remember the fly all I can see are Barney-esque body-shots.

  3. megan m.

    i love what you say about Hunger here – when i watched it i was struck by its unusual, somewhat disorienting pacing – in light of your analysis, it seems clear that the temporal logic is motivated by sands’ bodily manifestations, his “hosting” (as you say) of power/subjugation, others’ and his own. even before the film shifts to ‘witness’ (not the best word) his hunger strike, he’s got some festering bruise on his face or other – every scene is his body, there’s almost nothing else IN the movie. really interesting interpretation.