Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it.
– Mikhail Bakhtin, Rebelais and His World
A Hunger Artist is a new film by American contemporary artist Daria Martin. Her first piece of HD filmmaking (after working previously in sculpture, painting and 16mm film) is an adaptation of Kafka’s 1922 short story of the same name. It documents the somewhat self-imposed decline of a variety performer, who completes extreme acts of fasting and struggles to find satisfaction in his work.
The film – which explores the complicated motivations of artistic pursuit – is a Site Gallery commission. As the Gallery itself is currently not in operation, pending massive refurbishment, Martin’s work is screened further out of town in the much-deteriorated but unmistakably elegant auditorium of the Abbeydale Picture House. The displacement is something of a blessing in disguise, as there couldn’t be a more fitting location for this piece of work.
The 1920s former cinema was once an imposing figure on Sheffield’s cultural landscape. Noted for its decadence and celebrity, it came into being at a time of great shifts in popular entertainment. The four story high fly tower, which was initially designed to house the significant infrastructure of variety performances, was near-obsolete by the time it was completed. The cavernous backstage area was left deserted as the stage became a projection screen.
A Hunger Artist is curious about forgotten forms of entertainment and, like the Picture House, stands testament to the unforgiving nature of audiences. It also adopts the aesthetic markers of all things Music Hall and Carnival. Discordant waltz soundtracks, body-horror and a pervasive sense of unease fill every moment of the seventeen-minute long piece.
We are introduced to our protagonist towards the end of his life, after his prolonged public fasting has fallen out of fashion. Kicked out of the touring sideshow world, and left to perform in a cage near the animal enclosure of a circus, he falls into a depression.
Martin uses the narrative to tell a tale of artistic intent at odds with the metrics of mass entertainment, and the inevitable compromise of traversing both worlds. The HD lens constantly returns to animals with which he shares a bill, a platform, or a cage.
The immediate links to critical theory are Bakhtinian. An inversion of the grotesque, where instead of an excess of bodily desires and impulses, we are made to feast on the outright rejection of such desires. There’s a bodily awe to Martin’s lingering shots of the man in the cage. Instead of degradation, the artist sees his hunger as a noble pursuit.
Gender-blind casting makes Martin’s adaptation a wholly contemporary one. Hayley Carmichael is utterly convincingly as the male hunger artist, whilst the exploitative circus master is played by Kate Duchene. We’re reminded that greed, obsession and ignorance are not gendered things.
With A Hunger Artist, Daria Marin speaks to the demanding nature of audiences, the sacrifice of performers, and the inevitable miscommunication which happens between the two. From the debris-laden balcony of the Abbeydale Picture House, this feels even more acute.
Lucy Holt is a copywriter, journalist and poet based in Sheffield.