The Finger and the Eye
A conversation between Steve McQueen and Marlene Dumas
M Steve, your film is called ‘Charlotte’. Can one speak of Charlotte Rampling specifically or not really?
S Well, obviously it has a lot to do with the actual person whose eye you see, of course. But then again if you didn’t know who Charlotte Rampling was it wouldn’t matter neither. What is important is that one knows that it is a female’s eye, the eye of a mature woman. That is important.
M I am such a big fan of Charlotte Rampling. I remember when you started working on it, I was very curious. I did not know what you were going to do. You didn’t say what it was going to be.
S It must be similar to you. When you put your paintbrush on the canvas, you don’t know exactly what you are going to do. You have an idea, you have an inkling, but it is only when you’re actually present, in front of it, when you start to get an idea of exactly what you are going to do, or maybe not even then, and then the structure or the form takes over.
M When one paints, one can take a long time on the canvas and keep on changing your mind. But with film…
S I asked Charlotte already three years ago, before I actually made the film.
M I am glad to hear that. I remember we once talked about a certain painter, in a different context. You questioned why it took him so long to raise a particular subject matter and I said, maybe painting takes longer. I think art in general takes long.
S It takes time because things have to resonate in some way. I asked her. She said yes. We met. We spoke about it. Three years later it was the right time. I don’t know why I asked her three years before I did it, but somehow one has to prepare for it.
M I believe this very much and I understand it very well. In an interview it is sometimes difficult to give an answer to a question, not because one can not answer, not because there is nothing to say, but because it took such a long time to get there. It is such a long process. I am glad to hear this from you.
S You thought I was an opportunist!
M No, no, I just thought you were quicker than me.
S Not at all. The consideration is very important before one enters into anything. It is the moment before you paint.
M What is special about this work, and maybe about your other work too, is this intimacy, this approach. When you approach someone who you are attracted to… You projected it not so big. You’re often a BIG PROJECTOR [laughter] that takes over the whole space. This time you didn’t.
S The scale is very important. This particular work has to do with meeting the eye. I needed a situation where I could create an intimacy with the audience as well. I love these moments when you are in a museum and you are looking at this painting, this image, and it feels as if it was just made for you as an individual. This relationship between you and the painting. I wanted that kind of relationship with the eye.
M Looking at your film, I had to think of other works with eyes. I don’t know if you are someone who gets upset if one compares you to other artists…
S No, not at all.
M Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel and Dali from 1929. The cutting of the eye… Often, the eyes are …
S …the windows of the soul? Really, I don’t care for all that stuff. For me, the eye is the inside-outside. The eye is the only part of the body that is all about the inside as such. Like an open wound. Something one should actually not touch. It’s extraordinary sensitive. Contact with dust or sand….is forbidden.
M The first time we spoke on the phone about the film. I had this still image on your invitation card in front of me. I could not see the movement, or how the finger approaches the eye, and I was just listening to your voice. You did not want to describe the work, but nevertheless you did, in quite sexual terms. Now I have seen the film. I saw the movement. It is intimate, it is tender. And it is also a bit scary, because you have to trust the other person, you have to trust that his finger is not going to poke you in the eye. You feel this tension in the movement towards one another. I don’t want to use the word, but this is one of your most erotic works.
S There is an allowing. There is a certain kind of openness on both sides. Vulnerability. Someone said to me however that he (she?) found it aggressive, squeezing the eyelid and whatever… I did not see it like that. If anything, it is very much a kind of conversation.
M I think it is nice because the eye is so vulnerable. Even if you wouldn’t know it is Charlotte Rampling’s eye, it is that type of look that has it’s own power.
S Yes, it is definitely some kind of duel. The eye has more character and much more power on the screen than the finger.
M That is true. The finger itself is quite big in relation to the eye. You feel the tension, but it is not really aggressive. It is potentially aggressive. The two stand up to one another.
S It’s a stand off. It reminds me of this film I once saw. There was this fight between a swan and a tiger.
M A swan and a tiger !?!
S It is very strange. I can’t remember what the film was called. A zoo was bombed somewhere in Eastern Europe. The film was so-so, but this wonderful scene of the tiger and the swan was amazing. The swan was hissing. The tiger didn’t know what to do. It was really a kind of stand off. The film is called playtime.
S Why I asked you to talk to me was because I am very interested in what you do as a painter. What I like about your work is that you make images while you caress the canvas – the care and vulnerability of the touch. My show is called ‘Caress’…
M Let me make a side step. Thinking about the fact that one of my first painting shows in the 80s was called ‘The Eyes of the Night Creatures’. The Night Porter. The night creatures.
The color of your film is red, it situates the main and only characters the finger and the eye directly in the ‘Night Time’, where all superfluous ( race, rank or other ) connotations dissapear. It’s a close-up place where words lose their sentences till only sounds stay around.
I used to think of myself as an expressionist, and expressionists make aggressive gestures. Gestures to prove that you are passionate. Much later I thought that is too simple. What about other types of gestures? What about tender gestures? How does that work? It must be possible to for a work to show passion and intensity without having to keep on slapping someone around. The strong emotions that lovers feel are dangerous and not only soft. But we also need gestures that are not based on dominance and overpowering everyone.
I think, it gets to a point when the lights go out. No matter what happens, things are different. When it gets to an intimate situation, things happen on a level of real communication. That is very important and for me, sometimes I feel who I am. Maybe I feel like the hippopotamus in Phantasia, you know.
M That is an important point. It depends on where you are and with whom you are and what type of relationship you are in. People are different in different relationships.
S And in different people’s company.
M The Dutch critics often described my work as ‘horrific’, but it just depends on what you compare it to. The term is much too heavy. This is also why the finger and the eye in this case have such a special intimate relationship of its own, which is very attractive.
S About Charlotte’s eyes… I remember the first time I met her. I tried hard to get there in time, because I am always late. She took of her sun glasses, these massive Jackie O’s. And my goodness – her eyes were so beautiful because of her heavy eyelids. It was almost as if she needed surgery. A lot of actresses from her generation have had surgery, like Catherine Deneuve and Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Christie and so on. I said to her, Don’t have surgery!
M It is all about someone’s idea of beauty and how to maintain that. Sometimes some people say, I love you just the way you are. Just to make the other feel better, but they don’t mean it. Sometimes there are love situations when someone really does mean it. Many artworks are statements for or against previous statements. In this case, it is really true that you were attracted to her. Not that truth makes for good artworks, but is it really true that…
S A truth theory !?!
M People read about beauty, how they should look. But it is very nice when someone really does like you and finds you beautiful.
S Like Billy Joel, having all these young girls hanging around him… ‘Don’t go changing… to try to please me.. I love you just the way you are…’ I love the Barry White version.
M They used to say men are more attractive when they grow old than women…
S They still do.
M You don’t see it that often, eyes of an older mature woman. I haven’t really seen that before, where someone is sort of making love to the eye.
S So what are you actually saying? That I am making love to the eye?
M It is not about this or that type of beauty, it is about real attraction, the electricity between.
S I am not so sure Í would call it ‘making love’. But the strange thing that happened when I touched her eye: there was this electric shock.
M Now that is what I mean.
S Very odd… an electric shock.
S Let’s talk about the intimacy between you and the painting. You approach it. You paint it. You hate it, forget it, go back to it. There is a relationship going on between you and the canvas, a physical one.
M One has a relationship with the subject matter and with the medium that you are working with. You literary have to touch the canvas with a certain gesture. How do you see your relationship to the screen? You are not filming yourself…
S It is a difficult situation. In the end of the day, it is about the viewer. Just as it is with you. But it is not all about the viewer, obviously.
M When one makes the last cuts and the last decisions…
S Sure, it is all hands off. As a student I used to paint. I used to love painting with my whole body. I was very physical with mixing paint. But filmmaking is unphysical. You have someone operating the camera, someone doing the lights and you end up saying cut at one point. It is so distant, in a way.
M In this case you are the actor. You are not holding the camera. You are the finger.
S I am the finger. It is all about what you want. It is all about how you as an artist make the physical thing happening. You choose the right person, the right lens, the right brush.
M It has been said about you, and sometimes about me too, you make the viewer feel a physical experience.
S Intimacy does help. The physicality of any kind of work is always the key to bring people inside the work.
M You actually do like your subject matter. You are attracted to your subject.
S One has to! Even if you hate it, you fucking love it. Think of extremely charismatic people one can utterly hate. What draws me to you as an artist is that we are both interested in people and relationships. I wanted to ask you, How the hell can you keep on painting figures. Isn’t there a limit?
M No. Some artists keep changing their medium, they keep on changing all kinds of things, thinking they are not doing the same thing all the time. There used to be a time when I thought I would only do something once. I made this drawing, ‘Love hasn’t got anything to do with it’. I was sitting on the paper, on the floor, crying about a sad love affair. The movements of the hand of the crying artist across the paper were authentic. But one can not keep this up for too long. When you cry and you start looking at yourself in the mirror, you stop crying.
S You are almost a blues musician. You do your thing and keep on doing it.
M I suppose if I start painting the sea it will still be part of the same old area of interest, of how to approach someone you are attracted to or how to say goodbye. When you fall in love with someone and he reaches out and touches your cheek the first time – what a moment. When I look back on my life there is so much that I have forgotten, but these short and frightfully tender moments can still make me shiver.
S Before I met her, Charlotte was this 2 dimensional, film person to me, not a real person. To touch her on the most vulnerable part of the exposed body was one of these moments. To get through, somehow. To come to a moment when something happens. You see a painting and you feel it happens and you don’t know what it is. That moment of freefall. One has to remind oneself of these moments. That is the reason why I got into art in the first place. I had these moments with your work a couple of times. You break the boundary, you penetrate through this coat of armour that everyone wears every day. That is rare.
M But one cannot do this alone. It is an interaction. What I like about your film is that it is an interaction. It is not something you can take credit for alone. It is not just you expressing an idea.
S I think any kind of intervention within art is a collaboration. Even if I would paint a stilllife with flowers in a vase. It is a collaboration. Absolutely. Totally.
M It keeps you humble. When it works, it shows you your interrelatedness.
S Humble is a great word.
M If it is not reciprocal, nothing happens. Very sad, because most of the time nothing happens.
S Art is like gold. It is not rare. It is just hard to get.
Marlene Dumas & Steve McQueen
previously published in Steve McQueen - Caresses - MIMOCA (Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, Marugame), 2006