Francis Alÿs mixes the poetic and the political in his witty, Sisyphean performances and in sculptures, drawings, and other works that relate to them
In Francis Alÿs’s video REEL-UNREEL, the action takes place along the bare cityscape of Kabul, Afghanistan. The cameras follow a reel of film as it unrolls through the old part of town—pushed by two children, uphill and downhill, like a hoop, inspiring an improvised narrative. It’s an example of “doing/undoing,” Alÿs says. And that interplay became the axiom of the film.
REEL-UNREEL was made in collaboration with filmmaker Julien Devaux and architect Ajmal Maiwandi in 2011, and it touches on the multifaceted, open-ended nature of Alÿs’s art, his social and political concerns, his appreciation of film itself, and his fascination with children’s games. (Alÿs has a 13-year-old son.) It was shown earlier this year in a chilly white viewing room inside David Zwirner gallery in New York, where Alÿs and I met to talk about his practice.
Hanging in neighboring rooms were many mostly small drawings—of people and landscapes, some with color bars (in the style of TV test patterns) painted on top of them. These bars, often done later than the diaristic sketches underneath them, block the image, as if to distance their author from the memory of his experiences, and also to leave room for interpretation.
He made the drawings, he says, to keep in touch with the film when the crew wasn’t shooting. “Eventually,” he explains, “I found it very difficult to represent what’s going on in Afghanistan. It’s not easy to translate the experience of being there—it’s very conflictive in the sense that you can’t help being seduced by the place and the people.” He found that “painting color bars is a kind of take on a Bruce Nauman expression, ‘bound to fail,’” he says. “It was my own kind of material way of expressing my frustration and recognizing that in any kind of representation I was going to fail somewhat.”
Like almost all of Alÿs’s projects, REEL-UNREEL was founded on a performance or action, and from it emerged a range of related works—from hand-drawn animation loops to small sculptures, paintings, and drawings—which Alÿs sells to support himself and his larger projects.
Tall, lanky, and sensitive-looking, the 54-year-old artist was born Francis de Smedt outside Brussels and now lives in an 18th-century townhouse in Mexico City. He ambles through cities like an itinerant storyteller or minstrel, a figure out of a Lyonel Feininger painting. He allows that maturity has mellowed him, laughingly saying, “If you’d known me ten years ago, you would probably have found me arrogant.”
He began doing performances and street actions in 1989—walking around his Mexico City neighborhood like a flaneur, acquainting himself with his environs and discreetly attracting attention to his activities. Beginning in 1994, he began to perform and show his work internationally. In his action Fairy Tales, first performed in Mexico City in 1995, he walks along letting his sweater unravel, leaving a blue trail, or storyline, in his wake; in The Leak (also from 1995), he meanders through São Paulo with a can dripping blue paint behind him; and in 2004, he did the same in Jerusalem with a jittery stream of green paint marking the Green Line, the 1948 border between Israel and Jordan.
Among the most dramatic and absurd pieces are his 1997 Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), in which he pushes a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City for nine hours until it melts and disappears, and his even more Sisyphean project When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), for which he recruited 500 volunteers in Lima, Peru, to shovel sand from one side of a dune to the other, altering geography by a mere few inches.
His social satire is sometimes not subtle, as in Cuentos Patríoticos (Patriotic Tales), 1997, which refers to 1968 demonstrations in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza. Where bureaucrats had rebelled by walking in a circle bleating like sheep, Alÿs led a flock of real sheep around a flagpole at the plaza’s center.
UCLA art professor Russell Ferguson, who curated the 2007 exhibition “The Politics of Rehearsal” at the Hammer Museum, says that Alÿs exercises a kind of “resistance to finality, which is different from the way earlier artists worked.” Ferguson adds, “All of his bodies of work are part of a conversation with his audience.”
And there have been many such conversations. Alÿs has shown most recently in the huge traveling show “Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception” that moved from Tate Modern in London to WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels to the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York, where it was overseen by curator Klaus Biesenbach. The artist is represented by David Zwirner in New York, where his work sells for between $15,000 and $600,000, and by Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich. At the same time, Alÿs’s videos are available free of charge on his website.
As Mark Godfrey, who curated Tate Modern’s version of the show with Kerryn Greenberg, observes in his catalogue essay, “The poetic qualities of Alÿs’s projects reside in their fantastical absurdity, their transience or incompletion, their imaginative imagery, and most of all in their enigmatic openness to interpretation.”
This propensity for inconclusiveness and absurdity may have its origins in Alÿs’s upbringing in Belgium and that culture’s characteristic vein of Surrealism. Alÿs recalls, “I had a rather peaceful childhood and adolescence in the remote Belgian countryside, called Pajottenland. It was so quiet and continuous that, looking back, it is often difficult for me to place small events in time.”
Alÿs, whose father was an appeals-court judge, left for the United States when he was 17 for a year-long student-exchange program. He then went on to study architectural history at the Institute of Architecture in Tournai, Belgium, and engineering at the Istituto di Architettura in Venice. He was attracted to the “humanist quality of the studies,” he says. “There was a bit of everything in the program, which fit me fine, as I had no idea what to do with my life.“ He shifted from architecture to art because of the freedom art allowed him.
Then, in 1986, he went to Mexico. “I was happily living in Italy and doing just enough to survive,” he says, “when I was drafted by the Belgian Army at age 27 and left within three weeks to Mexico in search of an NGO that would hire me so as to do a nonlucrative two years of civil service that would exempt me from my military duties. After those two years, the story of life—a girlfriend, a professional shift, the slow drifting away from Europe. . . .” he trails off. Among the artists he hung out with then and there were Gabriel Orozco, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Thomas Glassford, and Gabriel Kuri.
Alÿs’s art is impromptu and speculative. Everything is part of his work, and his materials range from anything to nothing. He does not necessarily expect audiences to understand the political, emotional, and narrative aspects of his projects. Much is contained in the act of interpreting, he explains, when precise communication is never quite possible. It’s like an architecture of translation, in which the building is never complete.
At the same time, a kind of optimism seems to inform his speculations on social ills. He wants to understand things from all sides. And this helps account for his eagerness to collaborate, to let other people introduce unpredictable variables, as in his Sign Painting Project (1993–97). For that work, he asked professional sign painters, called rótulistas, to perform different tasks. In some cases, he made his own paintings and then suggested that the rótulistas enlarge them or interpret them in their own style, often correcting or elaborating on one another’s work. Alÿs then sometimes made versions based on theirs, so the question of authorship remained ambiguous. By the same token, the project was intended to confound the market system for determining value.
The archive of images that accumulated from the Sign Painting Project is “devoted to documenting insignificant things that are neither productive nor startling, all within deliberately unremarkable contexts,” anthropologist Néstor García Canclini writes in a book about the project. “At times one can scarcely tell where it happens within the painting field, the realm of performance or the interface between advertising and art.”
“The project,” Alÿs notes in the same book, “was an attempt to sabotage the market by invading it with a massive and unlimited number of paintings.” However, the market talked back, and the supposedly cheap and accessible works made by the collective became popular and increased in value—from $1,000 each in 1993 to “about double” that price in 1997. A series, titled “The Liar, the Copy of the Liar” consisted of these identical but nonidentical copies that forced us to wonder, Who is the liar, what is a lie, and is it a lie if the lying is overt and intentional?
Started in 1991, The Collector marked the beginning of Alÿs’s practice of walking and interacting with environments. In this video, he walks from his studio through Mexico City’s center pulling a small-dog-size object on wheels with magnets attached to it, which accumulates random metallic detritus. In so doing, he creates a story that tells itself and a witty case of hyperliteral realism. And absurdity. Alÿs has explained that as ridiculous as the townspeople considered him, they remembered his action long after it was over. Out of this was born an urban legend—he’d become part of the city. As for the wryly metaphorical title, Alÿs has pointed out how a collector will keep accumulating until he is “completely smothered” by his trophies.
In many ways, Alÿs’s practice has become an “urbanism of the imagination,” observes curator and art historian Cuauhtémoc Medina, a close friend of the artist. “The idea is to reinvent the city on the level of stories.”
Alÿs is well and widely read, starting with “the classic French authors you were allowed then in Catholic institutions: Jules Verne, Marcel Pagnol, Tintin, of course, Jean Giono, Victor Hugo,” he says. As a teenager, he got into the French Existentialists, whose ideas are echoed in his more Sisyphean endeavors. And he has an affinity for the fables and fiction of many Latin American writers, such as the Argentine Julio Cortázar, whose stream-of-consciousness style and witty surreal tales parallel Alÿs’s plays on fairytales and fantasy.
He is also a passionate movie fan, and among his favorites are Albert Lamorisse’s classic The Red Balloon, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, and particularly François Truffaut’s La nuit Américaine (Day for Night). REEL-UNREEL, Alÿs says, was “a little bit of an homage to analog cinema, with the strip of film unrolling through the landscape.”
As for the future, Alÿs says, “I am still completing the Afghan venture and have at least another two journeys planned. Yet I am starting to explore other projects, some in Mexico. And I am continuing the documentary series ‘Children’s Games.’” In May, he left for a two-week embed with British troops in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Most of all, he still enjoys diving into the unknown. “Cinema is something I don’t know at all. I adore it, but it’s not my language,” he admits. “It’s always more interesting to enter a new territory, no matter where it leads you. I might decide, ‘OK, it’s not my thing’ or ‘I should go further.’”