Francis Alÿs’ works are like rumours. Few people have ever seen them first hand, not many people recall their exact details, but they persist in informing, antagonising and provoking us. The extensive show at the Tate Modern presents a body of work or “evidence” which unpacks Alÿs’ work over the last 20 years in a series of roughly chronological rooms. The curators have taken great pains to present the rooms as a series of didactic presentations. Somewhere between an exhibition, a living room and a snapshot of the artist’s studio, the structuring of the works invites the viewer to sit for a while, linger over a table, watch a bit of a film and pore over a selection of drawings. This method of presentation is at once both informative and disarming. The curatorial voice seems to loom large saying “I know it seems a bit confusing now, but it’s okay. Take a comfy seat, here are a couple of drawings, take your time.”
And in many ways Alÿs' work is confusing. For a general public who find it hard enough to come to grips with painterly gesture in art, it is a tall order to attempt to understand the performative gestures at the root of Alÿs’ work. Having said that, I would propse that painting, and in particular landscape painting is an extremely good entry into understanding this work. We could think of it like this: the bulk of the video pieces on display is primarily of a land- or cityscape in which a performance or happening is taking place. Rather like allegorical landscape painting. these are not landscapes for the sake of it, but rather methods for visually structuring stories or narratives which point to something beyond the landscapes themselves. Take the film "Tornado" 2000-2010, the tornados of the Mexican countryside are not just intriguing natural phenomena, but they also suggest the imminent collapse of political systems, evoking Mexico’s own Institutional Revolutionary Party who held “revolutionary” power for more than 70 years. His 2000 piece “When Faith Moves Mountains” is also directly concerned with politically active landscapes. In the piece 500 Peruvian volunteers walk up a sand dune digging as they go, literally displacing the mountain of sand as they move. Alÿs' epic act was a response to the imminent and inevitable collapse of the Fujimori government. We see in these works the use of a landscape to hold and structure the expression of political ideas.
What Alys exhibits, above all else, is a sense of judgement. The line that separates the inconsequential from the profound within his work is whittled down to barely more than a hair’s breadth. This is not simply a matter of addressing urgent questions through small acts and objects (finding the world in a grain of sand) but it is perhaps entirely the opposite. In “The Green Line” of 2004 Alÿs takes the whole contentious and complex issue of the the border formed by the six day war and responds with a simple green line of paint. I suppose the message is difficult to argue with, no matter which way you view a complex political act, there is somewhere in it all a line, or many lines that have been drawn and crossed. The complete title of the work puts it precisely – “The green line (sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic).
-- Mike Tuck
All images courtesy the artist, David Zwirner New York and Tate
Images: Ambulantes, Mexico City,1992-present, Slide projection, Courtesy of Francis Alÿs and David Zwirner, New York, Image by: Francis Alÿs, © Francis Alÿs, Francis Alÿs, In collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega, When Faith Moves Mountains (Cuando la fe mueve montañas), Lima, 2002, Video and photographic documentation of an action, 'making of' video and related ephemera, Video 36 minutes, 'making of' video 15 minutes, Courtesy of Francis Alÿs and David Zwirner, New York, Image by: Video still, © Francis Alÿs.