Steve McQueen’s Ashes makes its US premiere at the ICA
Although Steve McQueen’s film work is well known (he’s the Oscar-nominated director behind films like Shame and 12 Years a Slave), he’s also an important figure in the art world, where his short films and video installations have steadily captivated viewers since the ’90s.
Ashes, recently acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, will be the first time in roughly 20 years that McQueen’s work is shown in Boston.
In 2002, when McQueen was in Grenada filming Carib’s Leap, he came across a young, enigmatic man named Ashes and filmed him, capturing his playful and carefree essence. Nothing ever came of the footage until McQueen returned to Grenada a decade later and decided to ask around for Ashes, who had made a significant impact on McQueen. He found out that Ashes had died and learned of Ashes’ tragic end from locals who knew him.
The installation presents the footage that McQueen shot decades apart, each on one side of a single screen so that they may never be viewed simultaneously, though the same soundtrack accompanies both.
I recently spoke with Dan Byers, Mannion family senior curator at the ICA, about this exciting acquisition and the poignancy of Ashes.
How involved were you with the acquisition of Ashes?
Pretty involved. This was kind of the perfect institutional story in terms of there being a really mutual shared and strong interest by the museum and by our patrons. I had seen this work at the Venice Biennale, and so had Director Jill Medvedow, and Eva Respini, our chief curator, and so all of us were really taken by and moved by the piece. When we’d all come back together we realized that it was a shared interest. Concurrently, we found out that our trustee, Tristin Mannion, had a long-standing interest in Steve McQueen’s work, so it was really kind of the perfect storm of her interest in the work and our interest. She was able to get that work for us as a gift.
Can you talk a little bit about what it means to acquire a work?
I would say that it means a lot for a number of different reasons. On the one hand, you have this piece that was really a standout and very affecting for everyone who saw it in the major global exhibition. It’s an incredible thing to be able to show it as an exposition and to expose people to the work in that way, but it means something entirely else when you can acquire it and then share it with Bostonians for generations. Really, it means that you’re making a commitment to the artist and to this specific work to say that that we want to define our own institutional identity and that we think it will have a kind of perennial impact on those who see it and will find new contexts and new contemporary resonances whenever you show it. That’s the kind of thing we want to be able to do with our collection, especially a collection of 21st-century contemporary art. You can really zero in on issues and atmospheres and the zeitgeist of the times through a work, and then see how that piece continues to resonate differently over the years.
And it’s going to be on view for an entire year at the ICA.
Yeah, it’s a long run. We wanted to make sure people had the chance to see it. We change our shows pretty frequently here, and that’s great because it gives us a really active program, but I didn’t want to hear from people, “Oh, I missed that,” because it is a fairly ambitious work to install, and we can’t do it every year. It’s also very poetic, very contemplative; there’s a quiet energy to it, and my memory of seeing it, amidst the bustle of a very busy exhibition, was that it offered a real place for engaged reflection or meditation, and I think that’s the kind of thing that people will want to come back to see.
It feels like Ashes is about the ghosts that walk with us, and those who we meet that, for some reason, stick with us.
I think that’s a really apt description. There’s something about the footage of him, which feels ghostly. It’s a very ethereal kind of transitory image, and I hadn’t thought about the fact that that long time span between the original footage being taken and when it was used also creates a sense of memory and that kind of time capsule experience, which I think is somehow transmitted by seeing the work.
The responses to the work all seem very consistent in terms of the impact it’s having on people.
Yeah, it’s a powerful piece. It’s quiet and it’s something that forces you to turn inward a little bit. The difference in tone between the two works—it just really hits you. There’s the sense that you get the liveliness and the animated nature of a person and their specificity on one side and on the other side there’s this almost forensic specificity of the way that making the gravesite is captured, and that’s a really jarring and beautiful tension that McQueen creates.
And this is the US premiere, that’s pretty cool.
It is, yeah, it’s great. I’m really, really happy and proud that we’re able to do that. It was something that when we were first gaining momentum to acquire the work, I was shocked and happy to find out that no other museum was showing it, because so many of my colleagues from so many museums have left with an impression of that work. It’s great for us, it’s great for Boston, and for people just to be able to see a side of McQueen’s work which they don’t see that often.
ASHES. 2.15.17 THROUGH 2.25.18 AT ICA BOSTON, 25 HARBOR SHORE DR., BOSTON. ICABOSTON.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.