Bridging the gap between art and cinema, British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen is the only person whose work has been honored by both the Turner Prize in the visual arts (1999) and an Academy Award for Best Picture (2014), for 12 Years a Slave, which he directed. His early videos from the 1990s are unequalled in their ability to penetrate the distance between the eye and the screen through the conflation of viewers’ senses of sight and touch. Mostly executed in black-and-white, those silent films epitomize the artist’s conviction that the human eye is an open wound. Subsequent works evidence a development toward the calculated use of sound and color, as well as being of longer duration and featuring more narrative arrangements. While McQueen’s films often expose the belated consequences of colonialism and racism, the persistent absence of any direct reference to their contexts restricts straightforward political interpretations. Instead, it becomes the viewer’s responsibility to unravel their implications.
Ashes (2014) tells the tragic story of a young Grenadian fisherman whom McQueen met while shooting another film in 2002. The newer work uses previously unseen footage that cinematographer Robbie Muller captured on the same trip. As Muller’s lens undulates with the boat and the waves, the handsome young Ashes exposes his body to the sun and the camera. When McQueen returned to the island in 2010, he learned that the boy in the video had been brutally murdered after he found a stash of drugs on the beach. On the soundtrack to the film, two friends recount the story of Ashes’s violent death, while the viewer struggles to equate the vibrant young man on screen with the deceased crime victim. Looped endlessly, the film appears to prolong his life indefinitely, seemingly refusing to let him pass on to the other side. A new film on the verso of the projection screen registers how Ashes’s remains are transferred from an unmarked grave to his final resting place. While the reburial represents a next step in the work of mourning, the voices of the witnesses continue to haunt the viewer, whom they confront with the tragedy of a lost and wasted life.