“Ashes:” Steve McQueen’s Powerful Meditation on Mortality

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Following a spate of awards for his film 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen goes back to his artistic roots with a challenging new short on display at the Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo.

The trendy and stylish surroundings around Omotesando are primarily known as a hub for lovers of fashion and style, but there are also many places where you can experience avant-garde art. One of these is the Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo, located on the seventh floor of the Louis Vuitton store in Omotesando. This art space, which opened in the beginning of 2011, is only the second Louis Vuitton Espace in the world —the first opened in Paris in 2006.

The gallery holds about three exhibitions a year, playing host to rising international artists as well as more established players on the world art scene, who create new works with the support of Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo.

Most recently, the Espace in Tokyo is showing an intriguing work by the British artist and filmmaker, Steve McQueen, whose film 12 Years a Slave had a tremendous showing at the 2014 Academy Awards, taking home the Best Picture trophy. McQueen is no stranger to success with feature films—his debut full-length, Hunger, won a Camera d’Or Award at the 2008 Cannes Festival—but his short films have also gained wide attention for their unflinching attention to the rawness of life in full detail. Both force his audiences to look the harsh facts of history directly in the face and develop their own emotional reaction to these moving canvases.

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Director Steve McQueen

The short on display at the gallery, Ashes, takes a more intimate subject for its attention than IRA conflicts or slavery in the US, but is no less affecting. The film has its roots in a trip that McQueen made to the Caribbean in 2001, while shooting another piece. The director was struck by the appearance of a young man who went by the name Ashes. He came from a humble background, but McQueen recognized a “star quality” in his athletic grace and natural presence.

Not able to cast him in the piece he was working on at the time, he asked a friend, Robin Miller, to film Ashes on his boat. The resulting clips capture the young man’s slender figure as it rises and falls in his small fishing boat, with only the stark blues of the West Indian sea and sky as a backdrop. The graininess of the digitized Super 8 film adds to the short’s immediacy and power.

The film was never meant to be displayed publicly, but after McQueen returned to the same island in 2009, he learned that Ashes had been murdered, and he decided to create the work as a tribute to the young man, so that his existence would not go entirely
forgotten.

Presented with McQueen’s characteristic minimalism, Ashes harnesses the contrast between the sheer happiness of its subject’s face on one hand, and the events of his short life and tragically early death, which are narrated in voiceovers by Ashes’s friends.

McQueen does not push his audiences to reach any particular conclusion with this powerful short; rather, he fashions an environment in which viewers are forced to develop their own sense of meaning, thereby becoming creators of narrative art themselves as they examine their own presumptions and expectations.

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McQueen’s work will be on display at the Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo until August 17. Admission to the gallery space is free.
Hours: 12 pm–8 pm
Address: Louis Vuitton Omotesando Bldg. 7F, 5-7-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001 (see map)
Phone: 03-5766-1094 | Fax: 03-5766-1089
espacelouisvuittontokyo.com/en/

–Alec Jordan

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