For several years, McQueen had wanted to make a work in Grenada, the island where his parents were born and from where they had migrated to England in the 1950s. Caribs' Leap was filmed around the small town of Sauteurs (the French word for jumpers or leapers). The 40 metre high cliffs were named Caribs' Leap after an episode in 1651 when a group of native Caribs threw themselves off the cliffs rather than give themselves up to the Spanish soldiers who had invaded the islands.
Working with cinematographer Robby Muller, McQueen made a 28-minute Super 8 film revolving around the cycles of island life, from figures fishing in the sea at dawn and dusk to bodies dressed in a funeral parlour, dogs patrolling the beach and a hermit-like man sailing a flotilla of boats made out of coconut husks in a quiet backwater.
As a companion to this picture of life in Sauteurs, McQueen made a film of figures falling through the air, appearing and disappearing out of a light cloudy sky. The dream-like film, projected on a large scale, constantly loops, the figures always falling, but never hitting the ground.
The noise and darkness of Western Deep offers an oppressive counterpoint to the experience of Caribs' Leap. Filmed on Super 8 by McQueen's long-term Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt in the Tautona gold mine in South Africa (Western Deep No.3), the 24-minute film tracks the workers' daily journey from the surface of the mine two miles down into the earth, via a network of lift cages and tunnels. Passages in the film are so dark that almost nothing is discernible. Bodies, faces, machines, rock emerge from the darkness as the cacophony of the drilling intensifies the claustrophobia of this brutal world.
The figures in Caribs' Leap jump to escape the oppression of colonialism. The bodies in Western Deep are subjected to a contemporary equivalent to slavery.
Caribs' Leap / Western Deep premiered at Documenta in Kassel, Germany 8 June – 15 September 2002. A second and final version of the work was first presented in the cavernous concrete interior of the former Lumière Cinema on St Martin's Lane in central London 3 October – 10 November 2002.
Image: still from the film Caribs’ Leap (2002)
The installation presentation of Caribs' Leap was split between two screens. One shows the sky and its reflection in the shallow waters of the sea. Periodically the calm of the scene is disrupted by a figure falling continuously through the air. The figure is viewed mid-flight, never seen jumping or landing.
Another channel follows the activities of a day in Grenada:
[A] wandering camera captures dogs and goats, children playing, fishing boats crossing the velvety swell, ending with a figure seated on a jetty silhouetted against the sunset. It’s a panorama of the unremarkable rituals of everyday life, but with an eye always on mortality... – Gareth Evans, Sight and Sound, December 2002.
Towards the end of the film the camera moves into a funeral parlour where the dead lie in highly polished coffins. McQueen was inspired to make Caribs’ Leap after visiting Grenada for his grandmother’s funeral; the subject matter of the film is therefore highly personal and elegiac.
Image: still from Caribs’ Leap (2002)
Western Deep journeys into the physical interior of the deepest gold mine in the world, the Tautona mines near Johannesburg in South Africa. McQueen takes the viewer into the darkness and claustrophobia of the lifts and shafts, the dust and the noise of the working faces.
A lift descends blindly, goes miles underground, carrying its workers - and us with them - like damned men. We long for light - occasionally there's a flash of metal, a grid like a turquoise waffle sliding by in the dark. – Kate Kellaway, The Observer, 6 October 2002.
Three and a half kilometres underground, the mines represent the deepest anyone has been into the core of the Earth. Working at such deep levels has serious and potentially dangerous consequences for the miners. The Western Deep mines had been functioning under the same management since apartheid at the time of filming. In the depths of the mine the predominantly black miners are shown performing supervised exercises, stepping up and down as red buzzers blare above their heads. Some of them can barely move.
The strength and stoicism of the miners indicates the capacity of people to survive in extreme environments, and in this way relates albeit paradoxically to the Caribs’ bravery and defiance
Image: still from Western Deep (2002)
To say that Steve McQueen’s new film, Western Deep, is a staggering achievement barely does it justice…. It is one of the most physically powerful pieces of film-making I’ve ever experienced. – Sukhdev Sandhu, The Daily Telegraph
This is the darkest film I've ever seen. A lift descends blindly, goes miles underground, carrying its workers - and us with them - like damned men. The camera mines not for gold but for disconcerting glimpses of human flesh. McQueen has said this is not political. It cannot be anything else. – Kate Kellaway, The Observer, 6 October 2002.
McQueen's interest in the fundamentals of the act of filming has always included its staging, a preoccupation with how and where his films are shown and with the place of the audience, psychologically as much as physically. This is where film as art, and Western Deep, get really interesting. – Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 8 October 2002.
To say that Steve McQueen’s new film, Western Deep, is a staggering achievement barely does it justice…. It is one of the most physically powerful pieces of film-making I’ve ever experienced. – Sukhdev Sandhu, The Daily Telegraph, 15 October 2002.
Like fairgrounds in winter, the abandoned Lumiere cinema is achingly nostalgic. Steve McQueen’s double video installation is a good use of the venue’s gutted architecture – Sally O'Reilly, Time Out, 25 September 2002.
On one screen a wandering camera captures dogs and goats, children playing, fishing boats crossing the velvety swell, ending with a figure seated on a jetty silhouetted against the sunset. It’s a panorama of the unremarkable rituals of everyday life, but with an eye always on mortality – Gareth Evans, Sight and Sound, December 2002.
In Western Deep, McQueen dares to defy the current vogue for artistic solipsism – moving from work that is largely self-referential to that which is socially engaged, and provoking questions in the viewer about moral sensibility. – Sue Hubbard, RA Magazine, December 2002.
Over the last two decades, Steve McQueen has been influential in expanding the way in which artists work with film. Among his early films are Bear (1993), Deadpan (1997) which re-enacts Buster Keaton’s famous stunt in which he survives a house falling on his head, Drumroll (1998) involving a metal barrel, mounted with cameras, being rolled through the streets of Manhattan and Caribs’ Leap / Western Deep (2002) which was one of the highlights of Documenta XI.
Born in West London in 1969, he studied at Chelsea School of Art (1989-90) and Goldsmith’s College (1990-1993) in London, and at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, in New York (1993-94). He won the first ICA Futures Award in 1996 and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In 1997, solo exhibitions of his work were held in Frankfurt, Eindhoven and New York, where he showed both at the Marian Goodman Gallery and at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1998 he won a DAAD artist’s scholarship to Berlin and, in 1999, besides exhibiting at the ICA and at the Kunsthalle in Zürich, won the Turner Prize. In 2002 he was awarded the OBE.
In 2003 he presented a major exhibition at Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris called Speaking In Tongues which included the breathtaking new piece Once Upon a Time, a collaboration with NASA and linguist William Samarin. In the same year McQueen was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum as Offical War Artist to Iraq, attracting international attention with a rare non-film work titled Queen and Country which has since shown widely throughout the UK. Selected to represent the British Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, he made the film Giardini. He has since had solo exhibitions around the world.
For his first feature film, Hunger, McQueen won the Camera d’Or and an International Film Critics Federation Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. His 2013 feature 12 Years a Slave received numerous awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture, Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama, and the BAFTA Award for Best Film.
Images: (left) Steve McQueen in Bear (1993); (above) Steve McQueen in Caribs' Leap (2002)
Originally commissioned jointly by Artangel and Documenta, and presented at the former Lumière Cinema, St Martin's London and at Documenta XI, Kassel, Germany, Caribs' Leap / Western Deep was acquired by the Tate Collection. It has been shown at:
Image: Installation at Fondazione Prada. Photograph by Attilio Maranzano
Who made this possible?
Commissioned by Artangel and Documenta. Sponsored by Bloomberg, with the support of Heinz & Simone Ackermans, The National Touring Programme of the Arts Council of England, and The Henry Moore Foundation. Produced by Artangel, Documenta and Illuminations Films; in association with Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, and Museu Serralves, Porto. Initial development with the assistance of the Elephant Trust. Presented in London with the support of the City of Westminster, and the Company of Angels with the special help of Anita and Poju Zabludowicz. In association with Ian Schrager Hotels.