Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Olivier Debroise and Rafael Ortega. A Story of Deception, Patagonia, 2006 still from 16mm film (4:20). Courtesy of Francis Alÿs and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich © Francis Alÿs.
A Story of Deception is the title of Francis Alÿs‘ current retrospective on view at the Tate Modern. The title of the exhibition, which spans the artist’s two-decade long career is borrowed from a work of the same name, and appropriately provides the exhibition’s subtitle and introduces the gallery visitor to Alÿs’ work. The 16 mm film, A Story of Deception, captures a mesmerizing and unobtainable mirage on the horizon. The camera centers itself on a road, halved by a dotted white line and follows it across an arid Patagonian landscape. The film’s imagery and intent are oblique and deceptively simple – allowing a variety of creative, metaphorical interpretations. The road can be read as representative of a border and the unobtainable mirage as the often out-of-reach goal of border crossing.
While Alÿs is most readily associated with the film or video documentation of his actions, this retrospective takes care to illustrate the multi-media nature of the artist’s practice and is curated thematically. Film and video work is presented with related photographs, paintings, drawings or other ephemera. In one particularly successful example, Paradox of Praxis I or Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing (1997) is shown near photographs taken in Mexico City dating as early as 1992. These projected photographic images from the series Ambulantes (Pushing and Pulling) feature street vendors and workers bearing loads in the streets. The connection is evident between these photographs and Paradox of Praxis, in which Alÿs pushes a block of melting ice through the city’s streets. Both point to the often comical futility of contemporary labor.
The artist typically begins his work with an action, allowing other media to play a supporting or planning role, but that is not always the case. The artist works in a variety of media, including photography, sculpture, animation, drawing and painting. Paintings such as Le Temps du Sommeil (2003-present) and Silenco (2003-present) illustrate that Alÿs is influenced by urban advertising. They also reference the precedent – intentionally or not – of past artists like Magritte.
Film or video documentation of Alÿs’ carefully planned actions remain the most compelling and most capable of conveying both subtle and overt political messages. In Re-enactments (2000), Alÿs references the gun violence of his adopted Mexican homeland. When Faith Moves Mountains: A Project for Geological Displacement (2002) is one of Alÿs’ most well known works for its sheer monumentality. In it, the artist directs 500 volunteers to form a line and physically move a sand dune located outside of Lima, Peru. Armed solely with shovels and the spirit of collective effort, these volunteers complete a task whose apparent futility belies its profound metaphorical statement. This great effort of ‘geological displacement’ points to the immense shared burden of geo-political displacement.
The contemporary nation-state border, as a contradictory line that is both increasingly restricted and crossed, is an important theme in Alÿs’ art practice. The artist addresses the hypocrisy of the border in works such as The Green Line or Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic (2005) in which the artist walks the 1948 armistice border line between Israel and Palestine. Trailing a leaking can of green paint behind him as he walks a now defunct border, he quietly and profoundly points to the idiocy of human suffering caused by an arbitrary line of division. Loop (2007) chronicles the artist’s purposefully ludicrous route across the US – Mexico border as he travels from Tijuana to Australia, up the Pacific Rim to Alaska, and then finally to California. The epic route of travel taken in lieu of the actual distance between Tijuana and San Diego highlights the difficulty of this border crossing for illegal economic migrants. Also referring to the theme of border crossing, The Rehearsal (1999-2004) features a red Volkswagen Beetle that continually tries and fails to reach the top of a dirt road.
The exhibition makes a strong conclusion with the premiere of Tornado (2000-2010). This newly completed, 55 minute video documentation from hand-held camera footage was ten years in the making. It captures the artist as he places himself in the path of high-altitude tornadoes in Mexico – enduring severe winds and no visibility brown-outs in attempts penetrate the tornado’s central vortex where the air becomes eerily still. Alÿs places himself in peril – throwing himself blindly into chaos in hopes for resolution through the extraction of meaning. Or, as curator Mark Godfrey argues Tornado is again concerned with the border crossing and the immense difficulty of entering and leaving geo-political zones in our increasingly mobile world.
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception remains at the Tate Modern until 5 September. The show’s next stop is Alÿs’ home country where it will be presented at Wiels in Brussels (9 October – 30 Janurary). The exhibition comes state-side next year to New York’s MoMA (8 May – 1 August 2011).