In a deliberate contradiction of the conventional hypothesis that dominant centers determine the nature of artistic and cultural production in the so-called peripheries, Francis Alÿs relocated from Belgium to Mexico in the late 1980s. Trained as an architect, he has been elaborating on a body of work informed by two major influences: his personal encounters with religious and secular rituals that he confronts/provokes/performs on an everyday basis; and cultural sources such as political history, children’s books, fairy tales, street culture, and urban legends. Embracing a variety of media, including painting, drawing, installation, film, and performance, his work is framed either by the urban context that surrounds him or by the mythical space of the artist’s studio.
Alÿs’ practice is conceived as a metaphysical reflection on the unbalanced politics of the world and the capacity of art and the artist to affect the narrative of history as a logical relation of “means” to “ends.” He stages a subtle, perhaps absurd refusal of the cultural time and space that have defined a Western idea of modernity based on linear progress. He frees art from its cultural insularity. His work is animated by a manipulation of narrative structure in which there is never closure; it remains open-ended, liberated from climax, denouement, beginning, and end. Often allegorical, it is populated by characters who seem to have emerged from the self-centered isolation and elusive simplicity of a Samuel Beckett play, and in many cases are identified by the artist as his alter egos: the Liar, the Prophet, the Thief, the Collector, the Sleeper.
The Modernists (1998) is emblematic of Alÿs’ paintings and drawings. Realized on vellum, it presents an isolated character enigmatically struggling with a “right angle,” the icon of modernist architecture and Cartesian thinking. This meditation on modern times paradoxically borrows from a timeless aesthetic, somewhere between Giotto’s Renaissance and René Magritte’s Surrealism.
No less allegorical is Cuando la fe mueve montañas (When Faith Moves Mountains) (2002–2003), which grew out of Alÿs’ participation in the 2002 Lima Biennale in Peru. A documentary in the form of an installation, the work is composed of a series of drawings, press clippings, photographs, and videos. It was initiated by Alÿs and his collaborators, art critic Cuauhtémoc Medina and filmmaker Rafael Ortega, who invited 500 volunteers equipped with shovels to form a “human comb” at the bottom of a sand dune on the outskirts of Lima in order to move the dune a few inches from its original location during the course of a single day.
While the title of the piece is a clear biblical reference (“Faith can move mountains,” Mark 11:23), the event and its documentation call into question a specific social situation: the tension Alÿs experienced when visiting Peru for the first time in 2000, during the last months of Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorial presidency. For decades, Lima has been gnawing at its surrounding landscape in order to accommodate waves of Indian and peasant migrants and manage the conversion to a megalopolis. By taking the mountain for a walk, Alÿs addresses the issues of immigration and urban development in Peru.
Flirting with the absurdity of a maximum effort leading to a minimum result, Cuando la fe mueve montañas relates to an idea, dear to Alÿs, that “from time to time, doing something leads to nothing; from time to time, doing nothing leads to something.”1 It nevertheless suggests the power of a community-based action, the participation of each individual along the lines of the slogan “one person, one vote.” Moving a mountain is therefore an allegory for a democratic dream. On another level, the work displays the legacy of movements such as Land Art, for which nature provided an ideal field for an expanded idea of sculpture. In Alÿs’ case, the field at stake would be the social one, echoing the notion of social sculpture elaborated in the 1970s by Joseph Beuys and providing a context for an event that hopefully will remain in collective memory as a local myth, a fable transmitted from generation to generation.
Francis Alÿs in conversation with the author, Mexico City, March 2003. ↩