Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen visited the Institute of Contemporary Art to discuss perspectives on his video installation at the ICA, “Ashes” on Saturday. Hamza Walker, executive director of LAXART, and Donna De Salvo, deputy director for international initiatives and senior curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, accompanied him in the discussion.
“Ashes” is a dual video exhibit in the gallery, with one side showing a man, named Ashes, journeying across the sea alone in his boat, and the other showing the building of his grave. The two videos are shown on opposite sides of the same screen and share a soundtrack.
Jill Medvedow, the Ellen Matilda Poss Director of the ICA, introduced the panel.
“‘Ashes’ meditates on big themes of life and death, of bodies in motion and at permanent rest,” Medvedow said in the introduction. “It contrasts the buoyant precariousness of Ashes, perched on the edge of his boat, with our own human fragility and more specifically, the vulnerability of black men and black people.”
The discussion shifted from McQueen’s earlier work in film to his award-winning “12 Years a Slave” to his work in Boston and around the world.
“I was interested in two people having a conversation, and yes they have to be black,” McQueen said when discussing his film “Bear” during the panel.
“I wasn’t making movies for white people,” he added.
The first African-American director to win the Oscar for Best Picture, McQueen has focused his work on “identity politics” and the African-American experience.
Margaux Leonard, a spokesperson for the ICA, wrote in an email, “Ashes expands on McQueen’s subjects of the political body, and the ways in which bodies can be confined and defined by history, labor, and the legacies of colonialism and globalism.”
“It could have been me; I could have been Ashes,” McQueen told the audience when pondering about the making of his film. “I need to build him, make him a grave.”
McQueen wanted the audience to relate with “Ashes” based on a fundamental staple of every life: the experience of death.
“I think we’re all familiar with death in one way, shape, form or other, also memory, and loss, and grief, mourning and commemoration,” he said during the panel. “If [the audience] sees something they resonate with they can get what they want from it.”
After the discussion, the sold-out theatre gave a standing ovation.
“As a contemporary art museum, it is important for us to connect our audiences with living artists and to provide insight into their practices,” Leonard wrote. “Though people might be familiar with McQueen’s feature films, this talk was an opportunity to highlight McQueen’s important body of artwork and for audiences to learn more about his artistic concerns.”
Students who viewed the installation at the ICA said they thought the film evoked emotion and was impactful.
“I saw the Ashes film here, it was really intense I really liked it,” said Katharina Voehler, a Boston University exchange student from Germany. “I did not know much about Steve McQueen himself — I thought he was very funny, smart but lost in his own thoughts.”
Emilio Subia, a 19-year-old BU exchange student from Ecuador and aspiring filmmaker, said she learned a lot from McQueen’s films.
“The way he sees filmmaking as an entertaining medium, a powerful medium to tell personal stories is what I got out of it,” he said.
Linwood Giles, a freshman studying film and video at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, also recently discovered McQueen and said he has become a fan of the director and wants to emulate him.
“Watching Ashes really inspired me to maybe become an experimental filmmaker or video artist like he is, and my dream is to win Oscars too like him,” Giles said. “He’s the first black filmmaker to win; it’s very influential.”
Giles also got the chance to ask McQueen for advice for a young filmmaker.
McQueen told Giles that others used to tell him to be careful in his work — to which McQueen replied, “absolutely not!” After a chuckle, Giles said he planned to take McQueen’s advice.
“He said don’t be careful, he also told us he didn’t know how to work a camera or what kind of lens to use because it doesn’t matter,” Giles said. “What matters is what you’re trying to shoot.”
McQueen resonated this in the discussion, saying, “It’s not about the technicality of film … the camera is just paraphernalia.”