Photographs of people adorned with bright smiles and shimmering accessories, vibrant tableaus of men and women dancing, and even sound installations in concrete halls that may have been clubs in another life. Although many people have attempted to tell the tale of a party’s past, none of them quite manage to recall the night. They can’t put the finger on what truly makes a party. What is it that makes the party inexplicably marvellous, and how can it be reinvoked in art?
The answer to this question is tucked away deep in the treasure trove of the nights, and the mornings and afternoons they sometimes extend to. Sheltered by blurry images and foggy memories, it remains there, in the safety of the party. Except for one instance. In Steve McQueen’s film Lovers Rock (2020) we are allowed a peek at the secret of the party. Squeezing the hours between nightfall and sunrise in a mere 68 minutes, this film recalls the movements of London’s West-Indian community under the moon on one night in 1980. It takes us along to a house party characteristic of that period, when West-Indians weren’t granted entrance to white clubs. Moving through the crowded hallways from the buzzing living room, emptied of furniture and replaced by a sound installation, across the staircase lined with a queue for the bathroom, past the kitchen full of pans filled to the brim with bubbling stew, all the way through to the backyard where partygoers lounge on plastic-covered couches looking up at the night sky, the film exposes the essence of a good party.
It shows uninterrupted stretches of glistening bodies moving to the music and each other, all compressed between four sweating walls. The room is animated by feet in motion, hands finding each other, bodies pulling closer, and waists meeting, against a backdrop of whooshing yellows, purples, blues and pinks from dresses and shirts. It becomes difficult to distinguish one body from another in the excitement on the floor, and soon faces start to blend together to the point where individuals are no longer discernible. All the steps and gestures are united in a dance of colours, lines and shapes that are lifted out of them. As McQueen himself explains in the text “A Celebration of All the Senses: Inside the Filming of ‘Lovers Rock’” by Chris O’falt on IndieWire, an abstraction of the narrative takes place through colour and movement.
At first thought, this seems to contradict the commonly shared belief that partying is a celebration of identity. After all, as I am reminded without fail on Saturday nights by the doorkeeper at my favourite club, an important aspect of a good party is that everyone should be able to fully express themselves. In this way, the party can provide freedom. However, perhaps the best way to achieve this expression and acceptance of a multitude of unique identities is to transcend their specificities and come together on a communal plane: one of colours, lines and shapes. And that is what McQueen does. Those elements do not belong to me or anyone else. They exist beyond the realm of property, negating the possibility of possession and appropriation. Instead, they exist freely and independently, offering themselves to each and every one of us to borrow from and apply in our own way.
Moreover, as these elements abstract and, by extension, obscure identity, they actually protect it. But don’t ring the alarm bells just yet; I am not encouraging you to hide yourself for your own safety, nor do I have any desire to turn back in time. Rather, through abstraction, the elements can actually harbour identity as a force. In her acclaimed book Things I Don’t Want to Know (2018), British novelist, playwright and poet Deborah Levy ponders the phrase ‘out of the blue’: “It was so thrilling to think about the blue that things came out of. There was a blue, it was big and mysterious, it was like mist or gas (…).” This blue seems enigmatic, yielding a sense of power precisely through its mysticism. Interestingly, in 2012 McQueen orchestrated a light installation titled Blues Before Sunrise in Amsterdam, invoking that very same wondrous mysticism by bathing the entire Vondelpark in a diffuse blue light. He replaced the regular light bulbs in all the lampposts with coloured ones, with the hope that people would surrender to the blue and be inspired to reflect upon themselves and their environment in a new light, quite literally. McQueen’s trust in the transformative power of the blue light attests to his awareness of the significance of colour.
Continuing, the enigmatic quality of colour is only intensified by the gaseous state that Levy evokes and associates with it. It renders colour intangible and uncontrollable, thereby making it all the more intriguing. It reminds me of nights at a club I enjoy going to, where the upstairs is essentially one big smoke curtain with people wading through it, and plumes of it sometimes escape and descend onto the dancefloor. The fog that spreads across the floor is like a blanket, offering the partygoers the comfort of letting themselves be taken up by the floating particles and becoming intangible as they drift through the space. The party, then, becomes a foggy composition of colours, lines and shapes welcoming and harbouring every person out that night, much like in McQueens’ fictional smoke-filled 1980s living room.
As such, in Lovers Rock McQueen performs an ode to the party as an enigma. While preserving some of the secrecy essential to the party’s existence, he reveals just a glimpse of what it is about: allowing oneself to be immersed in the night and disappearing into the colours, lines and shapes it offers you. McQueen demonstrates this surrender on screen as he foregrounds the visual delight of bodies adorned with rich colours, swaying, spinning and jumping on the dancefloor, while drowning out the other, in that moment, irrelevant details of the characters and their lives outside the party. As such, McQueen invites us to escape into his cinematographic rendering of precisely what a party is: “a rare space for youthful abandon and bodily freedom,” as very well put in an article about the film on ABC News.
Zazie Duinker (Delft, 2001) studied art history and writes for various magazines.