TATE MODERN, LONDON | 15 JUNE – 5 SEPTEMBER 2010
“Sometimes doing something poetic can become political, and sometimes doing something political can become poetic,” reads the wall alongside Francis Alÿs’s video, “The Green Line” (2004). This piece, together with ‘‘Re-enactment II” (2000), in which the artist buys a handgun in Mexico City and strolls through the streets with weapon in hand, and “When Faith Moves Mountains” (2002), in which a few hundred volunteers move a mountain by a few inches, are probably his best known pieces. In “The Green Line,” Alÿs takes a walk through the zone between the 1949 armistice lines of the Arab and Israeli forces in Jerusalem, itself called the Green Line. The work is, in fact, a “remake” of his 1995 walk “The Leak,” an homage to “action painting” in which he carries a leaking can of blue paint as he moves, leaving a trail for his return journey. Here, green paint marks the terrain. Though Alÿs’s wanderings might recall Richard Long’s, his walks are also cheeky acts bearing resemblance to Chris Burden’s performances. And although Burden is an agitator of another stripe, Alÿs’s purported trip to New York with a lump of cocaine disguised as a small statue of a Mexican president is not unlike Burden’s impression of a “secret hippy” in which he dresses as an “F.B.I. agent” with a metal star embedded in his sternum. Somewhere between Burden and Long is the somewhat idiosyncratic space in which Alÿs operates; it is a space between the poetic and the political.
The first work of Alÿs’s I ever saw was an animation of a lady endlessly tipping water from one glass into another. Was it about labour in Latin America, or about the activities of everyday life, things we are trapped into repeating day after day? Actions and their video documents are not the only things Alÿs creates. His drawings, paintings, objects, notes, diagrams, installations, and, of course, animations seem to mostly describe and animate action. Strewn throughout this mid-career retrospective are small paintings that recall Mexican retablos or votive paintings. They are small objects that depict fantastical scenes imbued with a surrealist quality. Others illustrate actions—future and past. “Le Temps du Sommeil” is an ongoing series of 111 little fantasy-like paintings the artist has created and re-worked since 1996. Replete with swans and seemingly fantastical scenes, they supposedly record visual ideas related to Alÿs’s actions. Each time he brings one of these paintings to a crescendo, he applies a date stamp. This particular act of marking a moment is reminiscent of On Kawara, an artist whose works could be construed as marking time’s passage, and thus remembering the act of living. In that sense there is a link between Alÿs and Kawara, but where Kawara notes bare existence by the simple act of marking a date, Alÿs is both humourous and surreally existential in his actions. He describes his five-minute video “Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)” as being inspired by the nature of labor in the Latin American countries; that is “the massive disproportion between effort and result,” while also alluding to the dematerialisation of the art object. The video follows him pushing a block of ice along the streets until it turns into a puddle of water. It could also be a metaphor for artists’s work generally, possessed as they are by fighting materials’ resistance to transformation, recalling the Myth of Sisyphus.
The appeal of this Belgian, long based in Mexico City, is the range of approaches he takes to the world and the way he touches it. For example “Re-enactment II” is really a dual channel video. The first follows the artist along the streets of Mexico City until he’s arrested, while the second reenacts this action. They complement each other from slightly differing viewpoints. The work is really about how information is re-packaged for us, but his gun-carrying antics and the furtive glances of people on the street both amuse and unnerve. “The Green Line,” probably his most overt piece of political art, is not just a document about the act of walking and marking, there is also a voiceover of Alÿs in discussion with various cultural groups. More than just a verbal narrative, it becomes a built-in discourse. What is remarkable is the simultaneous futility and potency of this one act.
The works I have described—in particular “When Faith Moves Mountains”—might be considered Land Art, à la Michael Heizer, as it might also be landscape art, as in the figure situated in the landscape, or even portraiture as Alÿs usually performs his actions. It seems to me that a lot of work in vogue today responds to or is inspired by a situation or a moment dictated by terms exterior to it. It can have its basis in the political, the social, or the biographical. Take for example Gabriel Orozco’s 1994 work, “Elevator,” in which he cuts down an elevator to fit his height. This ‘‘contingent work’’ is not overtly about eternal values or even universal ones, but develops in response to social or political scenarios. In Allan Kaprow’s terms, it would have been “art about life” as opposed to “art about art.” But unlike with Kaprow, these are not merely actions, but actions in the form of objects. Where the work of other artists of this ilk usually possesses a certain formal or conceptual aloofness, Alÿs’s humanity is everywhere on display—he sweats for his work. Though it is not quite as overtly political or poetic as the words imply, Alÿs’s art lies in a kind of futility and absurdity.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.