Steve McQueen's Unblinking Look at Life and Afterlife

The 12 Years a Slave director’s video installation Ashes highlights that death is narrative but existence is not.

An image from Steve McQueen's "Ashes"
Rebecca Fanuele

The miracle of filmmaker Steve McQueen’s work is the miracle of not blinking. For 2008’s Hunger, he recorded a 17-minute uninterrupted shot of a tormented political dissident in Northern Ireland; for 2011’s Shame his camera stayed with a sex addict through every excruciating pause in conversation on a first date; for 2013’s cinematic landmark 12 Years a Slave he depicted the abuse of black men and women in bondage so exhaustively that it dared the audience to turn away. Even his Kanye West video simply trained its eye on the rapper for nearly 10 minutes as he performed alone in a room.

McQueen’s approach is not just Birdman-like formal daring. He holds his lens steady to achieve a truer sense of bodies in real time, and to give the viewer no choice but to let their mind unravel the implications behind the images.

The purest expression of this ethos is now on display at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in the first American mounting of McQueen’s 20-minute video piece Ashes, which debuted at the 2015 Venice Biennale. With two loops playing simultaneously on a double-sided screen hanging in a darkened room, McQueen pays close attention to a few moments in one man’s life—and even closer attention to that same man’s death.

The installation’s origins are rooted more than 15 years in the past, when McQueen was making his 2002 short film Caribs’ Leap in Grenada, the island his parents immigrated from. There, he and a cameraman met and spent a few hours at sea with a local fisherman who went by the name Ashes. The footage from that voyage, shot in the evocative fuzz of 8mm film, makes up one side of the Ashes diptych. The young man sits on the bow of an orange boat, often looking back and smiling; he stands up, balancing over choppy waters; at one point he falls into the sea and pulls himself back onboard.

Ashes is luminous: grinning constantly, his bleached dreads picking up the orange of the hull, his bathing suit ruffling in the wind. The water shimmers a different blue than the sky that’s dotted with just a few clouds. As you watch, the sound of waves wash from speakers behind you. You’re almost there with him.

Francesca Buccaro

But you also hear incongruous noises. The sound of scraping, clanging. A voice, heavily accented, explaining something. A snatch of singing. This is the soundtrack to what’s on the other side of the screen—Ashes’s burial.

McQueen revisited Grenada years after filming Caribs’ Leap and asked around about Ashes. Locals told him that the fisherman had been killed in an altercation over drugs just two months after McQueen had met him. He lay buried in a pauper’s grave; McQueen arranged for a new tombstone and filmed the process of its creation.*

And it was, indeed, a process. Shot in crisp 16mm, this side of Ashes follows workers as they dig, pour concrete, trace letters, bevel, clean, and paint. In lengthy close-up shots you watch nails being hammered and hands working cement. You see goats and a dog wandering among the greens and browns of the cemetery. You see the fabrication of the name plate—careful stenciling, chemical finishing, a laminate peeled off revealing the words “Ashes ... Entered Into Rest … 30th May 2002 ... Age: 25 Yrs.”

Steve McQueen

In voiceover, a friend relates what became of Ashes. They all lived together in “the ghetto”; Ashes was “a good guy, a brilliant guy in the ocean”; one day he happened across a stash of drugs that he believed would make him rich. Instead, he was shot over them, first in the hand, then in the back, then in the belly.

It’s on this side of Ashes that McQueen’s unrelenting documentarian approach starts to force questions. There is the painstaking labor, laid out for the viewer: How often does one considered the physical work that goes into a grave marker? The rebar, the paint, the man-hours? Then there are the existential questions. At certain points, McQueen steps back to proffer a wide shot of the graveyard. You see the other tombs; you think of the labor they took, and the lives they signify.

Ashes’s murder connects to larger fault lines of race, poverty, and colonization, and an air of tragedy is undeniable in these videos. But the murder itself is not the subject—his passing is invisible, taking up only the space between two sides of a flat surface. Such is the case for death in general: It’s an instant, much shorter than life and certainly much shorter than what’s after. It’s also a generator of story—an ending that gives shape to what came before it.

But McQueen’s films often evade the traditional strictures of stories, and this project almost seems to actively reject narrative. A news account or novelization might focus on the grisly facts of Ashes’s demise but Ashes keeps them in parentheses. There is only the grainy memory of wondrous life, playing on loop. There is only the clear and undeniable fact of what’s left behind, and the people, like McQueen, who create monuments to those gone.

* This article originally stated that McQueen arranged for Ashes's remains to be transferred to a different graveyard. We regret the error.