Magazine article Artforum International

Francis Alys

Magazine article Artforum International

Francis Alys

Article excerpt

A STORY OF DECEPTION, 2003-2006, consists of a painting sliced in half and a film loop of a highway shot from the front of a car. The car straddles a dashed white center-line. In the middle distance, we see the glimmer of an oily mirage hovering above the scalding pavement. As the vehicle inches forward, the mirage evaporates, only to grow larger at the horizon, where the road dissolves. The car moves deliberately, slowly, as if toward a destination. It goes nowhere. Nothing changes.

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A Story of Deception was an apt introduction to the mind of an artist whose practice revolves around the representation of futility. The Belgian-born Alys has explored this theme with a certain relentlessness since moving to Mexico City in 1986, as the impressive enfilade at Tate Modern--irreproachably installed by curators Mark Godfrey and Kerryn Greenberg, with help from the artist--made abundantly clear. In Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), 1997, a seminal early project, Alys pushed a weighty block of ice through the streets of Mexico City's historical center until the obdurate mass melted into a puddle. In Rehearsal I, 1999-2001, a red Volkswagen Beetle drives up a hillside in Tijuana accompanied by the music of a brass band in rehearsal. According to Alys's instructions, when the musicians stop, the driver releases the clutch and the car rolls back downhill. The music starts up, and the action occurs all over again. (The cycle repeats ad nauseam.) In Barrenderos, 2004, street sweepers were asked to push a mountain of garbage from one street to the next until the growing accumulation of trash could no longer be moved. In each of these instances, an expenditure of energy yields no tangible result.

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Alys's works engaging the moving body--his walks, sweeps, drives, and flights--are his most arresting because they exhaust themselves in the making. Sometimes doing something leads to nothing indeed. The ideas of something and nothing are dialectically intertwined, John Cage once suggested. In his "action" The Collector, 1990-92, Alys took a series of promenades with homemade magnetic "dogs" that attracted bottle caps and other bits of detritus. Displayed at the Tate on shelves, the contraptions were records of purposeless walks, walks that took place for no reason other than for the sake of walking. For Alys, walking is a negation of "productive" action, of rational decision making. "As long as I'm walking," he declares in a totemic work of 1992, "I'm nor choosing ... smoking ... losing ... making ... knowing. ..." The list goes on. For Alys, to walk is not to do. The walker walks: That is all she does. And yet his practice reveals, a la Cage, the logical impossibility of an artist doing nothing, just as the Minimalist work, in opposition to its negative discourse, reveals the very impossibility of making an artwork that means nothing. Each form of nothing posits a different "something": The nothing is productive in spite of itself.

As Long as I'm Walking h thus the antipode of Richard Serra's Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself, 1 967-68, which describes the sculptor's endeavor as a series of action infinitives ("to roll," "to crease") capable of revealing material properties ("of tension," "of gravity"). For Serra, doing something leads to something, a result. Splashing lead creates splashed lead. Serra's later practice is an unending escalation of that tautological formula. Alys's well-known When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, is, among other things, a salutary response to the Ozymandian scale and hulking materiality of the public sculpture of the increasingly distant-seeming economic boom, exemplified by Serra's practice of the past decade and a half, whose spectacular domination of the beholder marked the abeyance of site-specificity as a critical form. Five hundred student volunteers bearing shovels climbed a great dune above a favela near Lima, Peru. …

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