Known alternately as a poet of politics, a mawkish master of the absurd and a wonderful nut, Belgian-born Francis de Smedt arrived in Mexico in 1986 as an architect to work for nongovernmental organisations just after the earthquake of 1985, a disaster that left angry scars of political ruin and urban rubble in Mexico City for decades. Since making the transition from architect to artist at the end of the 1980s and adopting the nom de plume Alÿs along the way, he has developed an action-based practice in which featherweight provocation, documentation and political gesture intermingle through the emulsifying magic of humour, beauty and a reverence for the preposterous.
His early work is characterised by a scratching at what friend and curator Cuauhtémoc Medina has called ‘those alternative moments that oppose the rationale of city planning and understanding of modernization as social engineering’. Working, or more specifically walking, in the historic centre around the Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square), Alÿs, in his practice from this period, deployed something of the methodology of the Situationist dérive, as a call and response exchange with the psychogeographical rhythms of Mexico’s urban life (for Situationist International leader Guy Debord, a dérive aimed to be ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’). Works like Placing Pillows (1990), The Collector (1990–92), Seven Lives of Garbage (1995) and Doppelganger (1999–) are meant to play with the strings of the social fabric rather than disrupt or document them.
In 1994 Mexico experienced a cultural and economic earthquake on par with the upheaval of 1985: the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed, flooding the Mexican market with cheap foreign goods; the peso was devalued by approximately 50 percent (the resulting economic crisis was dubbed the ‘Tequila Effect’ and spread throughout Latin America); and presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated at a campaign rally. Alÿs’s response to the social and economic after-effects was to introduce a decidedly political element in his approach to walking as his artistic materia prima. This time he treated the rhythms of daily life as series of fleeting phenomena that are responsive to and representative of the political and economic context of the moment rather than cultural fixtures. In The Swap (1995), for example, Alÿs spent a day moving through the metro, first bartering his sunglasses and then continuing to trade through a succession of objects, before ultimately leaving the last object as something of a sacrifice to the city. Through this gesture of exchange, the artist invokes the tensions in the process of modernising Mexico’s economy as a result of the aggressive adoption of neoliberal policies by the Salinas government (1988–94). In Vivienda para Todos (1994), Alÿs illustrates the cruel bluster of campaign promises that transform real need into manipulations of political rhetoric by making a tentlike shelter of campaign posters lifted by the hot air rising from the subway grates in front of the National Palace.
Among the legacies of colonialism in Mexico is the fact that fair skin is charged with the history of conquest and by extension class, so that European features all but oblige passersby to mutter, hiss or jauntily announce, “Güero” – blondie. As a güero who stands a full head-and-shoulders taller than the average citizen, Alÿs, in his early work, leveraged his outsiderness (as embodied by his physical otherness) as an instrument to explore the effects of neoliberalism’s notions of efficiency on labour by eliciting something to his doing ‘nothing’. Pieces like Turista (1994), in which he stands as a ‘tourist for hire’ among day labourers waiting for work, or Looking up (2001), in which he stares intently at the sky until he has attracted a group of curious bystanders to do the same (at which point he retires from the scene), exploit Alÿs’s physical conspicuousness and the malleability of group behaviour to highlight the distinction between the ceaselessness of cognitive labour versus work as activity of production.
Alÿs has stated that his work should circulate with the ease of rumour. When I asked how he came to use myth as medium, he explained that when he was confronted with the enormity of Mexico City, creating objects didn’t make sense. There was already so much stuff, how could more things have an impact? “It seemed to be better to create a story that would travel easily,” he says, and let the circulation of the tale be the foundation of the work. In these fables Alÿs activates the information networks that bind communities by highlighting the economy of information that defines and reinforces group identities. In the Mexican art community, he is the man to let a mouse loose in the Jumex Collection (The Mouse, 2001) and push a block of ice through the city (Paradox of Praxis I, 1997); to his neighbours in the historic centre, he’s the gringo in the street arrested with a gun (from Re-enactments, 2001); and to the world, he’s the artist who hurls himself into ‘tornadoes’ (Tornado, 2000–10) and moves a mountain (When faith moves mountains (Cuando la fe mueve montañas) Lima, 2002, in collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega).
Mexico City isn’t what it was during the 1990s, and neither is Alÿs. No matter how conspicuous a person may be, 30 years in a place makes one a local: ‘People still know me as “the gringo”, but I’ve been living in that vecindad longer than anyone there’
These days Mexico City seems to be running dry as font of inspiration for Alÿs. The city isn’t what it was during the 1990s, and neither is he. No matter how conspicuous a person may be, 30 years in a place makes one a local. “People still know me as ‘the gringo’, but I’ve been living in that vecindad longer than anyone there,” he says. The price of familiarity is that it starts to become a blinder of routine; you stop being so open, you stop seeing. In recent projects, which tend to follow a formula of conceptual simplicity in a geopolitically charged context, he has turned his attention beyond Latin America to search out psychogeographies in places where he can rely on the disorientation and openness that arise from a state of otherness to sharpen his observational acumen and arrange an interaction without slipping into activism.
In The Green Line (2004), for which the axiom was ‘sometimes the political is poetic, sometimes the poetic is political’, Alÿs walks holding a punctured can of dribbling green paint along the contested width of the so-called Green Line established between Israel and its neighbours following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. In formal terms, The Green Line is a reenactment of an earlier work, The Leak (1996), in which the artist took a can dribbling blue paint for a walk and installed the empty container in the gallery. By recontextualising The Leak in geopolitical terms, Alÿs relocates the tensions in the work from those formal ideas of action and painting to questions of maps and territories and who has the right to live where.
Alÿs has been filming children’s games for decades; however, as he gravitates to more charged contexts, he seems increasingly to rely on the innocence of childhood as something of a political pressure valve. In Reel-Unreel (2011), which he produced for Documenta 13, he deploys children in a riff on hoop-rolling that manifests as a game of chase through Kabul in which the running boys simultaneously unspool and respool a filmstrip connected to two reels. In practical terms, the documentation of their youthful play foils the complexities of filming in a location weighted by generations of armed conflict. Metaphorically, child protagonists seem to be a way for him to navigate the difficulty of reconciling his real/unreal privilege and responsibility as an artist invited to produce a work in a conflict zone. Inspired by the Taliban’s burning of the Afghan Film Archive’s film collection, their game of winding and unwinding film while running through the city streets addresses the politics of representation and the inherently problematic issue of subjectivity of war reporting in international media. Similarly, Silence of Ani (2015) uses a stratagem of innocence by filming children playing with bird whistles to invoke a chimera of a harmonic civilisation coming back to the ruins of a city on the Turkish-Armenian border that suffered repeated sackings over the centuries, was closed off after the First World War and the Armenian genocide, and is now ‘an empty, militarised no-man’s land’.
Alÿs’s current exhibition, The Story of a Negotiation, at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Havana, focuses on three major works, Bridge/Puente (2006), Don’t cross the bridge before you get to the river (2008) and Tornado, as well as Alÿs’s paintings, and seems to have Forrest Gumped its way into one of the most important diplomatic turning points in contemporary Western history. Alÿs assures that “the political context of the show was a complete accident. The exhibition had been planned long before Obama and the Americans announced they wanted to normalise diplomatic relations.”
While in Mexico the show was largely celebrated, in Cuba it has been interpreted by some as a frustrating reminder of yesteryear’s migration issues at a moment when the country would rather be looking forward. The main focus of this criticism is Bridge/Puente, in which Alÿs simultaneously produced two chains of boats, one in Havana and the other in Key West, Florida, to symbolically meet on the horizon, creating the illusion of a bridge. The horizon, as the point of imaginary meeting, gives the ‘military operation’ notion of bridges (as key infrastructural supports to tactical endeavours) a dreamy optimism through Alÿs’s instance on the bridge’s incompleteness. Maybe the caustic reaction to the piece in Cuba is a nationalistic reaction to the unfortunate coincidence of exhibiting an older work in a changing context. Or perhaps it points to the pitfalls of taking a practice committed as much to poetics as to politics on the road. As much as brushing politically weighty topics without offering the artist’s personal risk in the work and leaving the viewer to put flesh on bare bones allows Alÿs’s work an openness to an interpretation that emphasises the value and agency of humankind, it also leaves the work subject to the question of what we expect an artwork to do rather than to be. The question we are left with is, if a work is reliant on the politics of distant marginalised communities to generate meaning, is poésie enough?
Francis Alÿs: The Story of a Negotiation is on view at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, until 12 September; Ciudad Juárez Projects is on show at David Zwirner London, from 11 June to 5 August
This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ArtReview