In Steve McQueen’s film Caribs’ Leap/Western Deep (2002), images of figures falling through the sky are followed by those of a funeral parlour, where a number of bodies lie in their coffins. The title of the film refers to the town in Grenada where McQueen’s parents were born and where, in 1651, the last of the native Caribs chose to jump to their deaths from a local cliff – subsequently named Caribs’ Leap – rather than capitulate to the colonizing Europeans.
McQueen’s recent film Ashes (2014–15) repurposes Super 8 footage shot for the earlier work. Presented in the form of a diptych, Ashes, which debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2015, shares the elegiac feel of Caribs’ Leap/Western Deep, continuing its exploration of images of containment and of freedom curbed by death. One work shows a young man from Grenada – nicknamed Ashes – who was filmed (by the Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller) as he stands on the prow of an orange boat bobbing in the Caribbean; it pitches so violently at times that you could get seasick watching. His hair is in short, bleached, braidlocs; he wears a bone on a necklace and a pair of light-blue athletic shorts. At one point, he falls into the water then clambers back onto the boat and sits for a while, a sheepish look on his face. Soon, he stands again. It’s an image of physical power and of youthful insouciance. Water gets on the lens of the handheld camera.
The other film, projected back-to-back with the first, shows two men building Ashes’s grave; his friend, in voice-over, recounts the story of how he died. Ashes had found and kept a stash of drugs on the island but the owners of the drugs tracked him down. He apparently met their threats with the same fearlessness he demonstrates on the boat. ‘He says: “Man I don’t really care you know.” When they came for him they said: “Come, let’s go.” He says: “I’m not going anywhere with all of you if you have to kill me, kill me here in me people’s presence for them to see. I’m not going anywhere”. And then they shoot him.’
Against the great open expanse of the sea in the first film, McQueen counters the limited expanse of the burial ground, the precisely measured grave. As we watch the film from each side of the screen, the sounds of the other are also audible. As Ashes bobs on the prow of his boat, we hear the waves crashing and the drone of the sea, but also the sounds of the workers and their tools and the bleating of the goats meandering through the graveyard. A mosquito that crawls through the white paint, the dirt on the workers’ plimsolls, the pause one of them takes, where it looks like he may be praying, kneeling mid-job – all of these details give the film a searing, meticulous specificity.
The films are accompanied by two sculptures. Broken Column (2014) is a pair of unfinished columns, both in Zimbabwean black granite. One is large, polished and free-standing; the other is small, covered in clay and presented in a Perspex case, like a colonial pilfering on display in a museum. The medium of stone recalls the sepulchral materials of the film, from the cement poured to form the tomb to the polished marble of Ashes’s epitaph. Moonlit (2016) continues the reference to the film, consisting of a pair of stones painted in silver leaf, otherworldly, yet grave.
Before reaching the basement of the gallery, where the films are screened and Broken Column is installed, you have to pass through a room with an entire wall covered in neon signs that declare: ‘Remember Me.’ Written in many different hands, some of the letters are in caps, while others are in cursive; some are tiny, some big; some are straight, some slant; some are clear, some illegible. Each phrase is deeply personal despite the uniformity of the message and the medium. Two wires hang down from the sets of words, dripping like black liquid to power packs on the floor. The reference to the famous lament from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (c.1688) is implicit: ‘When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create / No trouble, no trouble in thy breast; / Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.’ But the story of Ashes’s death implores us not to forget his fate and to spare a thought for the many hands behind the neon signs.