The first work in Tate Modern’s retrospective of the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs is, fittingly, a chimera. Projected onto the wall is a 16mm film of a mirage shimmering on the horizon of a Patagonian desert highway. There is no sound, except for that of a tolling cathedral bell from another work in an adjacent gallery. Like the Yellow Brick Road, the image beckons with utopian possibilities. Yet, as modern sophisticates, we know, in our hearts, that such promises are unobtainable. It is at once a simple, seductive, sad and rather profound image. Entitled A Story of Deception 2003-6, it gives its name to the whole show.
So what is this ‘deception’ that preoccupies Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist born in 1959, who trained as an architect before decamping to Mexico City in 1986? Essentially it appears to be the false hope and subsequent disillusionment at the heart of the modernist project, and the desire to find appropriate metaphors to reflect the urgent political, economic and spiritual crises of contemporary life. He invites us to assess the relationship between poetics and politics and question the underlying absurdity and ‘senselessness’ of everyday situations in order to create new spaces for alternative ways of thinking and doing.
There is a lightness of touch about his work, a slapstick quality that, like Beckett’s knock about tramps, belies its seriousness. In Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)1997, the artist pushes a block of ice around the dusty streets of Mexico City like some Dadaist Charlie Chaplin, until after nine hours he is left with nothing but a puddle. Alluding to the unproductive hardships that constitute the daily reality for most people living in the region, Alÿs avoids heavy political didacticism in favour of his own form of the theatre of the absurd. Life as a Sisyphusian struggle is revisited in his video Rehearsal I, 1999-2001. Here a plucky little red VW Beetle climbs a dusty slop on the impoverished outskirts of Tijuana, accompanied by the sound of a brass band rehearsing. Each time the band pauses the driver removes his foot from the pedal so that the little car slides defeated back down the slope. As an allegory for those struggling to reach the US border from Latin America it is a poignant image. Like the clown in the circus, who continually goes back for yet another custard pie to be thrown in his face, we cannot help but admire the little car’s heroic stoicism as an enactment of Beckett’s famous “fail again fail better.” After all what else is there to be done? Structured around the recording of the brass band’s rehearsal, the film evolves into an apparent comic narrative that highlights the difficulties of Latin American societies to resist western models of ‘development’ before they regress back, all too soon, into another economic crisis.
Alÿs’s works have no fixed forms. They include videos, drawings, objects and documents, as well as some rather good little paintings. Many of them are modest in nature and simply involve walking through a city – as one work describes “as long as I’m walking, I’m not choosing, smoking, fucking or stealing – others require months of bureaucratic planning, the seeking of permits and volunteers, the hiring of equipment and cameramen. Unorthodox methods of dissemination have always been central to his practice. In the mid-1990s he contributed to Insite, an exhibition held in the border region between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. Using his commission he travelled from Tijuana, across to Australia, north up the Pacific Rim and south through Alaska, Canada, and the United States, reaching San Diego without having to cross the Mexican- US border. The point of this extravagant journey was to emphasis the difficulties faced by Mexican citizens trying to enter the US. Although the ‘act’ was itself ‘the work’, Alÿs disseminated his ideas in a series of free postcards that challenged preconceptions as to what constitutes a work of art, implying that there are many forms of seeing and understanding. Through this process Alÿs emphasised the vulnerable and precarious nature of an artwork allowing it no greater value or right to survival than the multitude of logos, jpegs and ephemera that characterise what Maurizio Lazzerato terms an age of ‘immaterial labour’.(1)
Among Alÿs’s most potent works is the video made for the Lima Biennale in 2002, When Faith Moves Mountains. Five hundred volunteers equipped with shovels were asked to form a single line with the intent of moving by 10 cm a 500 metre long sand dune from its original position. The cri de coeur – ‘maximum effort, minimum result’ – is an absurdist inversion of the lies told about contemporary productivity from the Nazi “Arbeit macht frei”, to communist and capitalist credos on the efficiency of labour. Yet the piece succeeds far beyond a piece of political polemic. For despite the fact that the task was hot and tiring, and the volunteers barely displaced the sand dune more than a few invisible paces, many of those taking part felt a sense of elation. Evoking the biblical parable about faith moving mountains, the work demonstrates the positive experience of collective endeavour, as well as posing questions about the enormous burden of establishing social and economic change in comparison to the paucity of the actual gains achieved. That the event took place on a barren slope on the edge of Lima, where many millions of displaced rural people migrated during and after the civil war of the 1980s, and that those taking part were mostly students whose lives are generally removed from such collaborative acts of physical endeavour, is not coincidental. It also implies a critique of 1960s Land Art such as Robert Smithson’s heroic Spiral Jetty, where land takes on a romantic role as opposed to one of nurture and sustenance.
“There is no fixed line between wrong and right,/ There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed,” the American poet Robert Frost once sagely wrote. Although Alÿs has long maintained a studio in the old centre of Mexico City, and much of his work focuses on Latin America, he is also concerned with broader commentaries. Following on from a 1995 work in São Paolo called The Leak, in which he walked from a gallery around the town dribbling a trail of blue paint; he adopted a similar method in a poetically charged work made in Jerusalem in 2004. Walking along the armistice border, known as ‘the green line’, originally pencilled on a map by Moshe Dayan in 1948 at the end of the war between Israel and Jordon, which had remained the border until the 1967 Six Day War when Israel moved to occupy the Palestinian-inhabited territories, Alÿs casually dribbled a line of green paint from a can as he went. The trail emphasised the arbitrary nature of the border that had originally been drawn with a blunt pencil on a map, along with the implicit violence that such an act entailed. The fragile trail of green paint became not only a reminder of the 1948 armistice line at the very time when a new boundary – ‘the separation wall’ was marking the boundary east of the original green line, but also a reminder of Frost’s words, that such boundaries are neither preordained or morally fixed.
In Alÿs’s most recent work Tornado 2000-10, we see the artist running in and out of a series of tornados spiralling around dusty Mexican fields. Not only can this be read as a comment on the precarious nature of South American society, where catastrophe such as the recent swine ‘flu pandemic in Mexico and the huge loss of life from violent incidents connected with drug trafficking are ever present, but it demonstrates that nature is no respecter of artificial borders. History is shown as spiral of destruction. Walter Benjamin imagined it as a storm of ‘progress’ blowing the angel he had witnessed in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus away from paradise, a storm so violent that even the angel could not mend the wreckage left behind. Since Benjamin the notion of ‘progress’ feels even less linear. The tornado has made an appearance in Alÿs’s work when the promises of modernism seem particularly meaningless in the light of economic crisis, global warming, famine and constant war. Yet Alÿs does not simply stand watching as an impartial observer. Running in and out of the tornados he becomes covered in its dust and dirt. He dirties his hands and makes a choice to be involved.
Alÿs never harries, his voice is never shrill. He simply creates complex visual metaphors that reflect the dilemmas of contemporary life and allows us to read them as we will, for poetry is as much in the thoughtful eye of the beholder as it is in the mind of the artist. He holds up a mirror on the world knowing as Walter Benjamin wrote that: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. (2)
1.Maurizio Lassarato, ‘Immaterial Labor, in Michael Hardt and Paulo Virno (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy, Minneapolis 1996, pp.133-47
2. Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII (1940; first published, in German, 1950, in English, 1955)