Francis Alÿs is a Belgium-born conceptual artist whose interdisciplinary practice examines the geopolitical and social conflicts embedded in the urban environment. His multi-faceted projects include performative gestures, video, installation, painting, and drawing, with which he stages poetic and playful actions to reveal the bifurcation of individual memory and collective mythology within politicised terrains.Read More
Born in 1959 in Antwerp, Francis Alÿs studied architecture and urbanism before moving to Mexico City in 1986. There, he began undertaking public actions as an immediate and more direct means of exploring issues of urbanisation and social unrest. Through these early experiments, Alÿs developed his 'paseos': walks following meandering routes, often with props, that intervene in the local imaginary through allegory and metaphor.
'Paseos' include The Collector (1991–2006), in which Alÿs walked a magnetic dog through the Centro Histórico, collecting metallic debris; Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) (1997), where he pushed a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City for more than nine hours; and The Green Line (2004), where the artist trailed green paint out of a can along the 1949 armistice border between Israel and Jordan.
Border zones have become an important site of Alÿs' artworks. The Loop (1997) saw the artist travel from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the Mexico/United States border, opting instead to circumnavigate the Pacific Ocean over 29 days. In When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) Alÿs recruited 500 volunteers to move a sand dune several inches on the outskirts of Lima in Peru.
Through grand yet ephemeral actions such as these, Francis Alÿs questions the obstacles and inertia imposed by state forces, suggesting the potential for transformation. 'I try to trigger a question or doubt about whether change might be possible, but it's up to the audience to decide if things need to change and in which direction,' the artist has said.
Francis Alÿs has worked as a war artist in some of the world's most contested regions. In 2013 he was attached to the United Kingdom's Task Force Helmand in Afghanistan, and in 2016 he was dispatched to the frontline with Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers near Mosul, Iraq. In 2020, he completed Sandlines, the Story of History: a feature-length film shot in Mosul with a cast of local shepherd children.
Sandlines is a culmination of the growing prominence of children in Alÿs work that began in 1999 with the series 'Children's Games' (1999–ongoing). As the artist explained in conversation with Xue Tan and Tobias Berger, 'During the first 10 to 15 years, I was the main protagonist of my videos, and gradually children have taken over as the main protagonists.'
In Sandlines, the starring children re-enact the history of Iraq, from the Sykes-Picot secret agreement of 1916 to the contemporary Islamic State of 2016. The film seems to exemplify Alÿs' enduring commitment to collaborative modes of creation, and his engagement with history through storytelling.
Wet feet __ dry feet: borders and games, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (2020); Francis Alÿs, Fragmentos, Espacio de Arte y Memoria, Bogotá (2020); Children's Game, Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (2019); Francis Alÿs, Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (2018); La dépense, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2018); knots 'n dust, Beirut Art Center (2018); Le temps du sommeil, Secession, Vienna (2016).
The Location of Lines, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2020); Our world is burning, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2020); For an Imaginist Renewal of the World. The Alba Congress: 1956–2019, Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Italy (2019); The Absent Museum, Wiels, Forest, Belgium (2017); On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010).
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021