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When Faith Moves Mountains, 2000-2002

Grasping the uncertain

Francis Alÿs is a champion of the ordinary which, like a magician, he makes into something special. He also questions every assumption about contemporary life, society and art. Corinna Lotz reviews a new show of his work at Tate Modern.

At the opening of this June’s Royal Academy summer show, actor and writer Stephen Fry joked about “the sense of embarrassment” which he said was the usual way that many people react to new experiences in art.

But Fry welcomed the increasing enthusiasm for the complex, the peculiar, and the elusive in what he sees as an “increasingly infantilised world, the dumbed-down world of the X-factor” and added: “We want to share our genuine curiosity and passion for art.”  

A big factor in encouraging a new awareness and appreciation for contemporary art has, of course, been Tate Modern, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary. The outgoing director, Spanish art historian Vicente Todolí, has provided new perspectives with outstanding exhibitions celebrating the Modernist movement of the last century. He inspired and co-curated shows of works by Kandinsky and other Bauhaus artists plus Soviet constructivists, Rodchenko and Popova.

Todolí’s valedictory show features Francis Alÿs, an artist who until now was better known in Latin America and continental Europe than in Britain.  “A Story of Deception” is without doubt the most overtly political show to grace the spaces of Tate Modern. In an unassuming and sensuous way, Alÿs probes a host of sensitive issues to undermine and question every assumption about contemporary life, society and art and the relationship between them.

Alÿs, who was born in Belgium in 1959, but moved to Mexico City in the mid-1980s, uses every medium – paint dribbled from a can, film, animation, sculpture, blocks of ice, magnets, his own body, the city and its people, rubber floor mats, landscape, soil, the fall of light across a square and even traditional oil on canvas. He turns spectators into actors, passers by into protagonists. Alÿs is a champion of the ordinary which, like a magician, he makes into something special.

Alÿs Patriotic tales
Patriotic Tales, 1997

In the midst of the social upheaval of 1968, thousands of
bureaucrats were herded into the Zócalo to demonstrate in favor of
the government. Showing their frustration in an act that was both
rebellious and ridiculous, they turned their backs on the official
tribunal and began to bleat like a vast flock of sheep.
Pablo Vargas Lugo, 1997

In the 1990s, Alÿs worked with curator-critic Cuauhtémoc Medina and local sign painters to make artworks such as Patriotic Tales. His video lampooned the state and celebrated a famous rebellion by civil servants in 1968. Other works explored the reality of life for the poor citizens of one of the world’s most populous and polluted cities. He turned himself into an actor who walked through the city, highlighting ecological, social and political problems.

Through his political commitment and by taking genuine risks, Alÿs takes up the baton from Joseph Beuys, the iconoclastic German artist. Beuys pioneered the concept of social sculpture. The special role of the artist as a anarchic catalyst for political change was at the heart of Beuys’ work from the 1960s until his death in 1986.

Alÿs’s video Railings, inspired by London's archetypal Georgian squares, transforms the black steel fences of Fitzroy Square into a xylophone, creating  street music by running a drum stick along the square. A childish game, but with a subtext which appropriates the class barriers separating the rich from the poor, making them into a thing for us, rather than leaving it to “them”. 

Other artists such as Hamish Fulton and Richard Long have taken “walking possession” of a place or land. But what sets Alÿs apart is that his projects are almost always collaborative, often involving hundreds of other participants. His actions and films draw attention to state repression, homelessness, landlessness and unemployment. He highlights, often through crazy enterprises, paradoxical behaviour or gentle humour, the contradictions of contemporary life, of globalisation and how they affect city dwellers, the rural poor and migrants.

Alÿs Green Line
Green Line, 2004

With Alÿs there are always multiple dimensions. His walks in Mexico City, Sao Paolo and Jerusalem have a light poetic touch and often an element of foolhardy courage. He wandered through the hills of Palestine, dribbling green paint along the border erased by the Israeli invasion of 1967. Alÿs reasserted the existence of what had been destroyed.

It was foolhardy, ridiculous and scary, just as his five-minute 2000 video collaboration with cameraman Rafael Ortega called Re-enactment. The artist bought a 9mm Beretta gun and then walked through the streets of Mexico City “waiting for something to happen” – which of course it did!

All of these works are indeed “stories of deception”. They have the semblance of being accidental or freak events, when in fact they are planned and choreographed down to the last detail. “The more you prepare, the more you can incorporate the accidental,” Ortega explains. “People are more prepared to accept ideas in the form of a film because that is where we are in terms of language – it is as common as theatre.”

Alÿs’ most recent work, Tornado, is on display at Tate Modern for the first time. He runs into the furious eye of a tornado, shakily videoing his own progress as the yellow dust whips up around him. The violence of the wind suddenly subsides as he enters the eye of the storm. It could be a comment on our relationship with the extreme turbulence of the global crisis.

If someone can indeed penetrate the whirlwind, perhaps we should welcome violent change and turn its extreme force into something energising instead of being paralysed. Prepare for and grasp uncertainty as a dynamic force to propel us into the unknown, is the message from this artist.

19 June 2010

Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception is at Tate Modern until 5 September

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