Certain of Nothing: Francis Alÿs
Francis McKee traces the path of Belgian artist Francis Alÿs as he explores the boundaries between politics, poetry and art
There is more than a trace of the fabulist in the work of Francis Alÿs. Many of his pieces thrive on hearsay and rumour as much as on the impact registered by their physical presence. There are, admittedly, clear references to modern art movements such as minimalism in several of his works, and it would be possible to frame any discussion of Alÿs solely in terms of contemporary art practice. At the same time, it would be equally possible to begin any description of his work with the words ‘Once there was a man who …’ and continue by telling the tale of any one of his pieces: a man who pushed a block of ice across a vast city until it melted and disappeared; an artist who sent a peacock to take his place in an important gathering of his peers; a man who persuaded a small army of workers to move an immense sand dune armed only with shovels; a solitary walker who one day emerged from a shop holding a loaded pistol…
The quality of fable in Alÿs’ work is regularly emphasised by his willingness to depict the world of animals and humans as closely intertwined. In ‘The Last Clown’, for instance, he depicts his friend, the curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, tripping over a dog’s tail while out for a stroll. In the looped animation Medina is condemned to fall perpetually, mocked by the laughter on the soundtrack. In another video work a small, but constantly growing, flock of sheep are led around the giant flagpole in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square while in ‘Sleepers’, Alÿs’ camera lingers on men and dogs sleeping on the city streets.
Like all good fables, Alÿs’ works are fluid, mutable and open to multiple interpretation. ‘The Last Clown’ exists as a set of drawings, notes, paintings and an animation. His constantly growing series of paintings, collectively entitled ‘The Prophet’, depict small everyday moments of life, sometimes in the manner of a parable, an enigmatic collection in which significance floats in the gaps between each of the quietly surreal images. A video installation such as ‘The Rehearsal’ is rendered provisional by the artist with the inclusion of drawings, models and sketches on its making. Its title too suggests that it is not the genuine article, only a preparatory gesture. In the video itself, an old Volkswagen Beetle attempts to climb a hill, struggles to the top and rolls back down, recalling inevitably the myth of Sisyphus, condemed to roll a rock up a hill for eternity. In Albert Camus' retelling of that story, the futility of the situation is seen not just as tragic but as something positive and liberating:
‘You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.’
Camus’ final comment is the key to much of Alÿs’ work. The multiple versions of his artworks, the gaps and the fantastical narratives of many of his actions encourage the audience to swell the mythic dimensions of his practice through the stimuli of their imaginations. This is never more true than in the making of ‘When Belief Moves Mountains’ (2002). Responding to the political turmoil of a collapsing regime in Lima, Alÿs persuaded 500 volunteers in a poor shantytown district to shift a giant sand dune approximately four inches, creating, as he puts it, ‘a kind of land art for the land-less’. The work was documented in a series of photographs, two different video formats and a set of notes and archival material but the actual events of the day still appear to escape the historical record. It is a work that thrives most in the telling and which mutates frequently with each subsequent retelling. Writing his own account of the piece, Alÿs concludes: ‘We shall now leave the care of our story to oral tradition, as Plato says in The Republic. Only in its repetition and transmission is the work actualized.’ The work is entrusted then to the audience in the knowledge that they will distort it as they convey it into the public arena. At the same time, Alÿs makes it clear that the true medium he is employing here is myth, knowingly exploiting its communal force: ‘In this sense, myth is … an active interpretive practice performed by the audience, who must give the work its meaning and its social value.’
There is a philosophical basis to this attitude. By placing the fate of his practice firmly in the hands of his audience, Alÿs ensures that it remains inconclusive, uncertain and prone to reinvention. The repertoire of gestures that are found throughout his work are already elusive and indefinite. Everything is almost there. In ‘Paradox of Praxis’ (1997), he pushed a large block of ice through the centre of Mexico City until it melted away. Naturally, the work exists in an alternate version, the title of which suggests just what the paradox at the heart of his practice might be— ‘Sometimes when I do something it leads to nothing’ (1997).
He has since described ‘Paradox of Praxis’ as ‘a settling of accounts with minimalist sculpture’. In the light of his second title, this could be taken as a reference to the dematerialisation of the object in its most obvious form, the emphasis on idea rather than material object. There was, though, a more philosophical interest in nothingness that underscored the debates on conceptual art and minimalism in its heyday. In a conversation between Carl Andre, Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner in 1968, Barry stated that 'Nothing seems to me the most ppotent thing in the world'. Carl Andre helpfully expanded on this, noting that ‘I would say a thing is a hole in a thing it is not’. This playful acceptance of nothingness is something that Alÿs also embraces, understanding the art world’s fetishisation of the object as a wilful distraction. In his final comments on ‘When Belief Moves Mountains’ he says:
‘After all, isn’t the story of modern and contemporary art and its cult of the object really just a myth of materialism, of matter as an ideal? For me, it is a refusal to acknowledge the transitory, a failure to see that art really exists, so to speak, in transit.’
This transitory quality is, of course, literalised to some extent in the continuing series of walks that punctuate Alÿs’ work. These walks cannot be easily separated from his decision to live in Mexico City, where he has been based since 1987. Originally he moved there to work as an architect on the reconstruction of the city centre after the devastation of a large earthquake. The vast sprawl, with its temporary building reconstitutions and perpetual recycling of objects revealed another project to him and still continues to inspire him:
‘There seems to be a strange chemical reaction happening each time I return; I can arrive emptied and find myself working away two days later, without questioning vainly the mechanics and ethics of the profession. The City provokes an urge to react, you can’t ignore it or it’ll beat you.’
The walks, a series of documented performances or actions, began through his exploration of the city and his fascination with the random accumulation of perceptions, images and encounters that each one produced. This process provided a metaphor for one of the earliest walks, entitled ‘The Collector’ (1992-92), in which he pulls a magnetic toy dog behind him on a lead, gathering metallic scraps in the course of his journey. It is a perfect demonstration of the transitory quality that, for him, defines art—the ambulatory action is everything while the object is reduced to debris, a dog trailing after its master. Each walk also is based around its own story or striking image, a growing catalogue of fables such as ‘Narcotourism’ (1996), seven walks through Copenhagen over a period of seven days, under the influence of a different drug each day. Alÿs is conscious again of the fabulistic power of these pieces and admits as much: ‘I try to make the long walks simple, so the action can be retold as a story, such as the story of the man who always walked backwards or the man who insisted on erasing his own shadow.’ Just as other works ‘settle accounts’ with minimalism, Alÿs’ walks settle accounts with the 20th century concept of the ‘flâneur’, the perceptive walker who typifies the modern city in the writings of Baudelaire, Kleist or Walter Benjamin (‘In the flâneur the joy of watching is triumphant’). Although Alÿs does see each walk as a fragment of a story equivalent to the mapping of a city, a view shared with earlier theorists of flânerie, he does not share their urge to celebrate the modern metropolis. Instead, he believes that, ‘Mexico City has got all the ingredients for “Modernity”, but somehow has managed to resist it. And it acquired a unique identity through the resistance process.’ This resistance now informs his walks and through their relationship to the fable, he connects to an older discipline, something even spiritual, and persistently uncertain.
More recently, Alÿs has become interested in how the ambiguous poetic gesture inherent in these walks can be interpreted in diverse ways and how it can change depending on the context in which it is considered. These issues achieved a new urgency when he decided to walk along the ‘green line’, a provisional border agreed between Israel and Jordan in 1948. The history of this line and the current crisis in that region brought the poetic gesture into clear conflict with the hard realities of military power.
There is a certain Borgesian cast to the story of the line’s origins though, which suggests that there is a subtle relationship between poetry and politics. Agreeing the boundary at the Armistice talks in 1948, the Jordanian representative, Abdallah El-Tal used a red pencil to draw his line while the Israeli, Moshe Dayan, used a green one. As the map was small-scale the width of these two coloured lines and their divergences had an impact on real territory, creating a no-man’s land 60-70 metres wide under the imprint of their pencils. The Israeli army crossed the green line in the 1967 war and since then it has gradually been erased from maps, if not minds Tackling this project, Alÿs drew on an older project—‘The Leak’ (1995)—where he walked through São Paulo with a dripping paint can. When the paint ran out, he simply followed his own trail back to the gallery. For three days in June 2004, Francis Alÿs retraced the green line around the Jerusalem area using a similar method. Now though, as one of the first images of this walk makes clear, the gesture is located in a much more volatile situation. In the image, Alÿs walks towards a military checkpoint looking both vulnerable and defiant as he spills a thin green line of paint down the centre of the road. His line literalises a border that was once respected, retracing the boundaries of an agreement in front of the troops who embody its breach.
At this point, the walk confronts key questions such as how can an artist work in this context and avoid being simply journalistic and, what is the relevance of a poetic act in the context of an acute political crisis? An artist must ask if art can prevent betraying itself in such a context. Can the work can do more than assume an activist position or can it remain politically significant while existing as a true artistic gesture, ‘an act without possession’? Beyond these questions lies the issue of what happens when such a work is exported from its original context and is opened to fresh readings in new situations.
It seems likely that Alÿs will provide multiple views of this piece as he has with other works, exploiting the elastic quality of fable and its variations to deny any narrow political interpretation of the walk. Adapting an earlier thought, he may consider that ‘Sometimes doing something poetical can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetical’.
Francis McKee is a writer and curator based in Glasgow. He has recently published essays on Fiona Banner, Simon Starling and Graham Fagen.
 Footnote amendment (21 January 2016). Francis McKee is currently Director of CCA, Glasgow and a tutor and research fellow at Glasgow School of Art.