Ashes: Steve McQueen at Thomas Dane, London

Ashes from Steve McQueen's film

Steve McQueen’s film Ashes, 2014

As is always the case with gallery shows I spend months meaning to see I went to see the Steve McQueen exhibition at Thomas Dane on its penultimate day. There’s two sculptures in the old building and a video projection in the new one showing a continuous loop of Ashes, the story as told by his friends of a young man’s drug related death. Not due to the drugs themselves but at the hands of the men who owned the drugs that Ashes found on a beach in Granada and that he thought were a lucky break.

The video show a young black man in shorts and a necklace like one of hundreds of fishermen you can see working on the beaches on Caribbean islands like Grenada. He’s shot on Super-8 balancing on the prow of an orange and blue boat, messing around – young, smiling, muscular, vibrant and very much alive. Ashes draws the eye, the camera loves his vitality and it’s hard to look away.

Part of the voice over goes “They shot him in the hand for him to let go of what he was holding. And when they shoot him in the hand, he let go. But he tried to run and then they shoot him in the back and when he fell one of them guys went over to him and shoot him up around his belly and his legs and thing. And that was about it.” [Thanks to TeleSur for the transcript.]

It’s a story simply told of a life ending early for no good reason, one of greed, cruelty and exploitation that in its visual simplicity echoes back to Ashes ancestors who were in all probability brought to Granada to work on the plantations. Its power is in drawing together the lives of so many young black men who’ve died before their time.

Adrian Searle reviewed it in The Guardian and Sarah Kent reviewed it on The ArtsDesk website. You’ll enjoy Steve McQueen on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, trust me.

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