Francis Alÿs could be the 21st century conceptual Peter Bruegel, at least if he would be measured against the Renaissance painter’s profile as it appears half way through Jem Cohen’s ‘Museum Hours’ (2008). In one scene, a museum guest lecturer discusses the Dutch painter with a small audience, highlighting his ‘respect for everyday scenes, ‘games, rituals, masquerades’ and ‘hallucinations of the real’. That’s quite a scope- from routine to rarity, from fact to fiction. To complicate things further, Bruegel apparently indulged in modest amounts of falsity (or artistic invention) not only in the pictorial representation of peasants’ lives but wedged this uncertainty in between the content and the title of his works. The lecturer argues that in ‘Conversion of St. Paul’, for example, the main focus falls on the juvenile soldier with a helmet far too big for him, contrary to viewers’ expectations provoked by the painting’s name. In a similar vein, ‘Procession to Calvary’ should, by convention, point at the suffering Jesus but he is nowhere to be seen in Bruegel’s crowded image. Only upon closer inspection, the Biblical king can be spotted off centre surrounded by tens of other men, inconspicuous, unrecognisable.
Francis Alÿs understands only too well how much can be gained by keeping a distance from straight, unequivocal statements. As he incessantly takes on performative walks (or walking performances- both are valid), the Belgian-born artist residing in Mexico cannot be brought to the stillness of a fact. What compels him more than immediacy and divulgence is an invocation of displacement, of passing situations and open processes which have, in his case, become notorious for their futility. In the new exhibition at David Zwirner in London, his ‘Paradox of Praxis 5’ (2013) shows on a loop in an impenetrably dark gallery upstairs. The six-minute video follows Alÿs in night-time Ciudad Juárez as he sets alight a football and kicks it through the city until it self-immolates in a dry field. The video performance results in a non-result, just like when he pushed a large ice block on heated Mexican roads until it melted, walked with a can of green paint until it ran out or drove a red VW Beetle up the hill that never made it to the top. Even when he embarked on more politically charged pieces, attempting to construct bridges between Morocco and Spain (‘Don’t Cross the Bridge before You Get to the River’, 2008) and Cuba and Florida (Bridge/Puente, 2006), the plans ran aground.
Why is Alÿs obsessively teasing us with his incomplete, seemingly unsuccessful actions? Why does he exhaust his body and his bizarre props (a magnetic dog one time), sweating and walking for miles and letting the projects disintegrate? Maybe he’s a cynic and a nihilist, shrugging his shoulders as he goes along. But it is also quite plausible that his strategy serves a much more functional end: by refusing a satisfactory closure and rejecting predictable outcomes, he keeps his works and their meaning ‘in play’, extending and multiplying their life as art. The loss and destruction of the ice block or the football could, without forcing a Derridean reading, represent ‘deconstruction [that] interferes with solid structures.’ Alÿs’ viewers then gain an opportunity to glimpse the political and the poetic in the ensuing scatterings. In another favourite scene from ‘Museum Hours’, a security guard contemplates an ancient male statue whose crotch has been somewhat disfigured (to put bluntly, its genitals have been broken off): ‘That missing part of the sculpture makes everyone think about it and miss it.’ Alÿs, too, snatches away the much-desired coherence and rationality and leaves us only melted ice that evaporates before we manage to grasp it fully.
However, don’t confuse the 57-year-old artist for an evocative romantic or elusive poet who thrives in conditions of uncertainty and instability. He clearly needs something to hold on to and he finds it in the repeated formula of his performances. Additionally, he has grouped some works in a series which serves as a catalogue of diverse renditions of the same notion, evidenced especially in his ongoing ‘Children’s Games’. The titles and subtitles of the works have often been generated according to the mould, too: ‘Sometimes doing is undoing and sometimes undoing is doing’, ‘Sometimes making something leads to nothing’ ,’Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.’ Nothing is only what it is for Francis Alÿs; functions and meanings we attach to things are shown to be temporary and deceptive and so he sensibly proposes the coexistence of two states rather than a single one- to be safe, or more real. His ‘sometimes’ is that leap from one scenario to multiple ones that could arise, from here to there and elsewhere. The frequent ‘sometimes’ in the same breath announces ‘but then other times’; it is a split screen (‘Sometimes doing is undoing…’, 2013), a paradox, a leaking can.
But ‘sometimes’ operates along the similar lines to the already discussed Bruguelian methods that disorientate and mislead the art viewers, that say ‘look left’ when they mean ‘look right’. Alÿs relishes the zone of baffled curiosity and narrative unreliability which opens up as the work’s direct effect. He explains about the early work ‘The Collector’: ‘People talked about the crazy gringo with his magnetised dog [pulled by the artist on a string] after three days but after seven days, the story, the anecdote had remained even though the characters were gone… That’s how I started developing the idea of introducing tales and fables into a place’s history.’ This consolidates the reasoning as to why Alÿs continues with his useless rituals: the point is the plurality of points that can linger next to each other in the social, aesthetic and political consciousness if you remove the inclination to establish order (order can be replaced by progress, productivity, logic, clarity, etc) and hence any single way of signifying. Alÿs does make, I must concede, rather masterful, fluttering poetry.
The exhibition at David Zwirner, The Ciudad Juárez Projects, is a neat, minimal and symmetrically assembled exhibition that foregrounds the most salient aspects of Alÿs’ artistic oeuvre. Of course, in order to make sense in relation to this particular artist, it does not only feature large video screenings but also a broken line of muted, blackened postcards and examples of his small paintings. It is highly likely that the gravity of the exhibition resides exactly in these unostentatious works that I have not paid much attention to in this text. Or they will have all fallen apart by the time you get there. In any case, it is the beautifully articulated paradoxes and missed connections that speak enchanting truths in ‘Ciudad Juárez Projects’, keeping the contingent, interchangeable and inherently divided reality kicking about.
Sometimes, it is completely sane to be mad; sometimes, it is progressive to take a step back and sometimes, you can attack the heart of the matter by shooting obliquely.
‘Ciudad Juárez Projects’ is on at David Zwirner Gallery, London until 5th August 2016.
PS- You can watch the artist’s videos for free on his website francisalys.com. Given the recent incidents in the USA involving shooting of black men by white police officers (and white police officers by a black sniper), let me single out one of my favourite works, ‘Sometimes Doing is Undoing and Sometimes Undoing is Doing’, that addresses questions of (dis)assembly, conflict and political tension. Aren’t there always at least two points of view at everything in human society? Are those who stand on the opposite sides of the line automatically enemies? And wouldn’t it be effective, practical ‘doing’ if the guns stayed ‘undone’?
PS2- One of the best known pieces by Alÿs, ‘When Faith Moves Mountains’, the ultimate exercise in ‘maximum effort, minimal result’:
PS3- Read a more encompassing article on Francis Alÿs on artnews:
PS4- Read the press release on ‘Ciudad Juárez Projects’:
PS5- Read about Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city that was once declared the most dangerous place on the planet, riddled with ineffective government and drug violence, and that has now crossed the line and left the dark times behind:
PS6- Do watch Jem Cohen’s ‘Museum Hours’- his editing, evocative of sliding between reality and fiction, so strongly resembles Francis Alÿs’ conceptualism and his search for places between two states. Ciudad Juárez, situated near the US border, has five bridges connecting it to the States, more than any other place in the world. The artist also explored areas between Turkey and Armenia, UK military and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine and the earlier mentioned Cuba-Florida and Morocco-Spain seas.
PS7- I promise, this is where it ends! A meme that sheds light on the topic 🙂