Steve McQueen: Ashes

London 14 October – 15 November 2014, Thomas Dane Gallery

By Dan Udy

Ashes, 2014. © the artist. Courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London & Paris

A large screen hangs in the middle of a darkened room, on it projected some shaky Super 8 footage that punctures the blackness with the glare of the Caribbean sun. A young man, slim and athletic, stands on the end of a boat, posing for the camera and drawing us in with a flirtatious smile. As green islands bob up and down behind him, he sits down on the edge and occasionally glances back. At one point he falls into the water, splashing drops onto the camera. The intimacy of Steve McQueen’s film is palpable, like a public airing of a private home video; it would feel invasive were it not so alluring.

What soon becomes apparent, though, is that something is not right, and the audio is at odds with what’s onscreen. The sounds of crashing waves were recorded at the shore, and Ashes (2014) takes place out at sea. Discarded from his 2002 work Carib’s Leap, the footage – shot by cinematographer Thomas Müller – was left for 12 years before McQueen returned to Grenada in the hope of tracking down its subject, the namesake of this new work. What he found instead was that Ashes had died, the story of which is now retold in a series of interviews that make up the plaintive soundtrack. Ashes’s friends describe how he found a stash of drugs hidden on a beach, deciding to take them for himself and make some money. Soon afterwards he was hunted down by dealers looking for their stolen goods and was shot in the hand, back, legs and stomach, mostly after he had turned to run away.

Ashes captures viewers with a polished sheen and a playful smile before a sharp reminder of the dangers that come with having a black male body; it is moving, disturbing and leaves an emotional mark

At Thomas Dane’s other gallery, a few doors along the street, McQueen ventures away from the moving image into the field of sculpture. Presented in relation to Ashes, Broken Column (2014) consists of two objects, both polished columns carved from Zimbabwean granite. Roughly broken off before the top, they symbolise a life cut short, embodying the film’s protagonist in their own peculiar, abstract way. The smaller version occupies a Perspex case, powdered rock resting on its surface, while a large column is placed on a wooden pallet in the adjacent room.

The artist’s declaration that his ‘only doctrine… is to not allow the dust of the past to settle’ is placed at the head of the gallery press release, making unmistakeably clear his intentions for these works. McQueen has hardly been one to indulge in ‘art for art’s sake’, but here especially he undergirds seductive aesthetics with a heavy political punch. Violence is deferred, retold through stories or solemnly implied, but this absence by no means lessens its impact. Trayvon Martin, Mark Duggan and Michael Brown are already etched into our cultural consciousness, though it must be remembered that these are just the few who made the headlines. Ashes captures viewers with a polished sheen and a playful smile before a sharp reminder of the dangers that come with having a black male body; it is moving, disturbing and leaves an emotional mark. Although the literal dust may have settled atop Broken Column, McQueen continues to agitate. He reminds us why we still need a resolutely political art. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.