Duchamp did it before him; the Situationists carried on that legacy. Joseph Beuys mastered the art of false truths; Chris Burden and the body artists pushed the limits of performative shock value; Cai Guo-Quiang has enlisted teams of assistants to carry out his elaborate social interventions for decades. The ways in which these artists and collectives have historically tested the limits and definition of “art”find an enthusiastic agitator in the Belgian artist, Francis Alÿs’s dizzying miasma of works, currently on display at both the Museum of Modern Art and its Long Island City sister space, PS1. Here, tornadoes, a bisected tuba, London guards, wild dogs, a mountainous sand dune, a block of ice, pistols, strippers, and the open road all make cameo appearances in Alÿs’s many performance-cum-social actions, the effects of which are always clever, sometimes illuminating, and often hilarious in their absurdity.
On ViewMoMA and PS 1
May 8 – August 1, 2011
Samuel Beckett is the most obvious accomplice of Alÿs’s aesthetic sensibility, as the wall text at MoMA explains: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” A resident of Mexico City for the past 25 years, Alÿs has borne witness to the continual attempts (and, one might argue, successive failures) at modernization by the country’s government and its citizens, resulting in a tragic farce that, in the wake of ever-increasing violence and disorder, continues to play itself out on one of life’s largest stages. One observes this theme of repetitive failure in almost all of the artist’s work, but most apparently in his short films and performances, waged globally across international borders, labor classes, and art history.
At MoMA, a number of major works on this theme are highlighted, including the sharp-witted series, El Ensayo (The Politics of Rehearsal). The first piece, made between 1999 and 2001, features a red Volkswagen Beetle as it repeatedly attempts to climb a dirt-lined hill on the outskirts of the U.S./Mexican border. The action, set to the soundtrack of a brass band rehearsing, continuously evades fulfillment as the car, filmed rolling backwards down the hill, beats in kind to the musicians’ flawed syncopation. Similarly, “El Ensayo II,” a Performa commission from 2005, uses the art of the striptease—the allure of such an act being the promise of an ending that never fully reveals itself—to drive such demonstrations of futility home.
“Tornado” (2000-2010) deals less with political paradox than it does with the trappings of the individual mind. In spliced film clips, Alÿs is shown chasing after huge dust devils kicked up by the annual dry season in Northern Mexico. The sight of his lean frame racing towards the twisters is at once ridiculous and hysterical—blithe qualities that quickly give way to gravitas as the artist physically enters the eye of the storm. Inside, chaos reigns and Alÿs, unprotected except for his handheld camera, is enveloped and pummeled by flying bits of sand, dust and dirt. While seemingly an absurd (not to mention dangerous) gesture at first, the film’s stark beauty offers a powerful allegory for the essence of the human condition.
A three-part video installation of When Faith Can Move Mountains (2002), commissioned for the second Lima Biennial and perhaps one of Alÿs’s most famous actions, is also featured, along with dozens of drawings, notes, clippings, and e-mail exchanges related to the monumental performance. For the project, 500 volunteers clad in white converged with shovels upon an enormous sand dune on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, and, over the course of an afternoon, enacted a visual demonstration of “faith vs. insanity.” Documentary evidence in the form of aerial photography, video, and personal testimony account for the exploit’s potency: Alÿs and the participants, moving the natural structure a mere few inches, had tapped into art’s revolutionary potential for change. In Kafka-esque fashion, historical determinacy was suddenly obliterated.
But while MoMA’s white cube exhibition space lends the artist’s work a somewhat somber air, the curatorial installation at PS1 is much more in step with Alÿs’s playful nature. Here, figurative sculptures in wood guard solitary galleries, strategically positioned monitors stream narrative vignettes that muse on the dice of chance, and phrases printed on vellum call out performative instructions: “Upon arriving in a new city, move places removing insignificant objects along your way.” Indeed, the act of walking is a recurrent theme in Alÿs’s work (viewed from the ground, he consistently toys with the idea of an ever-receding horizon line) and it is in these simple and straightforward actions that his productions are most powerfully affecting.
A Story of Deception, therefore, is somewhat of a misnomer. Alÿs’s storylines are never disingenuous—the most successful pointing to the heart of our contradictory realities—although the pomp and circumstance of certain actions does prove tiresome. MoMA’s commission, “The Modern Procession” (2002) and “Guards” (2004–05), similarly funded by the London, based Artangel, offer a few examples where the spontaneity of chance is suspended in place of a predetermined outcome. While entertaining, this work falls flat, offering stunning visuals but lacking the vibrancy that constitutes his more genuine investigations into content. Alÿs is best when he is on his own, a rogue maverick, wreaking artistic havoc and happenstance in the most unexpected places. It is here that his work has the potential to be truly transformative—to ask the questions that beg to be asked.