As amply demonstrated in this survey, Francis Alÿs has an eye for wandering. In the 1997 video projection that introduced “Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception” at MoMA, he pushes a big block of ice through the streets. At first, it is a mighty task. Nine hours later, the ice has largely melted and the effort required is negligible, like kicking a pebble. The title, as often with Alÿs, completes the thought: Paradox of Praxis I: Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing. Other peripatetic scenarios include one in which the Belgian-born artist walks around Mexico City, where he lives, with an exposed gun, waiting for the authorities to act (time expired before arrest: 11 minutes). In an inversion of his maxim “maximum effort, minimum result,” Alÿs shows in this work (Re-enactments, 2001) how little it sometimes takes to lever the apparatus of the state into action.
Occasionally, animals and inanimate things stand in for unseen protagonists. A red VW struggles up a hill to the sound of a brass band rehearsing, and—humorously, abjectly—rolls back down when the band breaks, never reaching the summit. A camera nears a pack of dogs, which, terrifyingly, grow increasingly violent. (At the video’s end, the camera lies on the ground, still running, delivering the grizzled, inquisitive snouts of triumphant hounds and a crazily tilting horizon.) Sometimes, armies are marshaled—to move a mountain, as by the 500 volunteers who wielded shovels to shift a Peruvian sand dune 10 centimeters downhill (When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002); to stand to arms, as by the red-coated, bear-hatted Cold Stream Guards, who set out singly, in London, falling into step as they meet each other, eventually numbering a thunderous 64 (Guards, 2004-05).
At other times, the action is quixotic in the extreme. In the 39-minute-long Tornado (2000-10), Alÿs tilts at windstorms, running, with audible effort, toward towering dust devils in the arid Mexican countryside. Each attempt culminates in blinding and deafening pandemonium, and then an ominously blank screen. Mark Godfrey, who curated the survey for London’s Tate Modern, where it originated, sees Tornado as brimming with political symbolism. But it is also one of Alÿs’s most abstract videos. Like A Story of Deception (2003-06), for which the show was titled—a looped film of an endless trip down a road on which a mirage shimmers—it is an arduous journey without evident purpose or end.
Unquestionably, Alÿs invests much of his work with political import. The red car struggling up the hill (Rehearsal I, 1999-2001) is, a wall label explained, aimed at the U.S./Mexico border; the video featuring a camera confronting angry local dogs is called El Gringo (2003). In The Green Line (2004), arguably Alÿs’s most politically explicit work, he walks the pre-1967 boundary of Jerusalem, trailing a dripping can of green paint (the video is not included in this show). At the same time, much of Alÿs’s work is innocent and dreamlike, particularly the small paintings on wood and little figurative sculptures that appeared, incongruously, between the big projections, appealingly surreal when not cloyingly sentimental.
This combination is not to everyone’s taste. Embracing futility does not suit activists; welcoming theory is alienating to lyricists. But Alÿs’s admirers are legion, and his work has been surveyed nearly continuously at museums around the world for the past several years. It may be the very fluidity of his identity that accounts for this success. At once Baudelairian flâneur, Situationist dériviste, Deleuze and Guattari-style nomad and Fluxist in the manner of Yoko Ono, Alÿs stages walks as an exercise in perception, à la Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, and rehearsals as a way of allegorizing the process of economic development, like, say, Stan Douglas—except when he is a big-tent director indebted to early Fellini. In The Modern Procession, the ceremonial walk Alÿs conceived for the temporary relocation of MoMA to Queens in 2002, precious artworks (in reproduction) were carried, as if they were statues of the saints, across the Queensboro Bridge, a brass band played, a woman (Kiki Smith, on a palanquin) was ironically worshipped and machismo affectionately mocked.
A chameleon, then, Alÿs is above all an artist of thresholds. Working assiduously at the furthest margins of esthetic coherence and social meaning, he explores the places where credibility takes shape.
Photos: (left) Francis Alys: Re-enactments (detail), 2001, two-channel video, approx. 5½ minutes. Right, Tornado, 2000-10, video, 39 minutes. Both at MoMA.