Among the many small painted works appearing in Francis Alÿs’s recent solo show was an untitled piece composed of six 5-by-7-inch oil paintings. The panels at either end resemble the tri-tone pattern of U.S. Army camouflage. The four center panels include a Kabul cityscape, a close-up depiction of a wall of sandbags, a detail of an Afghan rug with the woven images of a grenade and an army helicopter, and one canvas that has been left entirely blank. The selective imagery reflects Alÿs’s concern that perceptions of Afghanistan have been thoroughly shaped by Hollywood and media coverage of American military involvement in the region. Might the single blank panel, then, be taken as an opening for a less predetermined picture of the country?
With its punning title and attentiveness to the unspectacular, Alÿs’s REEL-UNREEL (2011)—a 19-minute video shot in Kabul and originally created, in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi, for last summer’s Documenta—seems to promise just that. As is apparent, however, from the work’s opening minutes, Alÿs is just as concerned with asserting the inextricability of cinematic influence from daily existence as he is with offering a counterbalance to the dominant post-9/11 regional narratives cultivated, over the past decade, by films like Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
An early sequence featuring an Afghan boy fashioning his thumbs and forefingers into a viewfinder as a chopper hovers ominously overhead suggests that, even in the back alleys of Kabul, movies remain the ubiquitous window through which we perceive the world. As the text with which the work concludes puts it, “Cinema: Everything Else Is Imaginary.”
This bold claim about cinema’s hold on our collective imagination is coupled to an exploration of the value of film qua material object. As one segment in the video informs us, the Taliban apparently viewed Afghanistan’s film archive as a real enough ideological threat to order it destroyed. Fortunately, the fire said to have burned for two weeks on the outskirts of Kabul mostly incinerated only copies.
In seeming homage to the unlikely resiliency of the surviving negatives, the better part of Alÿs’s video is taken up by tracking shots of a group of boys taking turns rolling a pair of metal film reels—one unwinding footage while the other winds it back up—through Kabul in a variation of the hoop-rolling game played by children the world over. As the boys pass through narrow alleyways, bustling open markets and traffic-filled streets, pausing only so that a herd of goats may pass, Alÿs’s camera picks up a vivid patchwork of ordinary Afghan life. Meanwhile, the film extending between the reels picks up its own share of the landscape, passing through puddles and dirt and along the pockmarked walls of buildings before finally being singed in two by a roadside fire.
The escapade concludes when one reel is sent hurtling off a steep bluff overlooking the city. Standing near the bluff ‘s edge, a young lad smiles as he takes in the vista before him. This image of happiness on the proverbial face of a war-ravaged country’s future evokes optimism. As we are reminded, however, by a slow-motion shot of the remaining reel spinning in the boy’s hand, it’s all just a movie.
This multifaceted exhibition additionally featured a series of paintings based on TV test patterns—placeholders for absent or interrupted images of a land that remains a fiction, even to those who have seen it in close-up.
View of Francis Alÿs’s REEL-UNREEL, 2011, single-channel video projection, approx. 19 minutes, made in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi; at David Zwirner.