Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words: Francis Alys Talks about When Faith Moves Mountains

Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words: Francis Alys Talks about When Faith Moves Mountains

Article excerpt

On April 11, 2002, five hundred volunteers were supplied with shovels and asked to form a single line at the foot of a giant sand dune in Ventanilla, an area outside Lima. This human comb pushed a certain quantity of sand a certain distance, thereby moving a sixteen-hundred-foot-long sand dune about four inches from its original position.

Lima, a city of nine million people, is situated on a strip of land along the Pacific coast of Peru. The city is surrounded by enormous sand dunes on which shantytowns have sprung up, populated by economic immigrants and political refugees who escaped the civil war fought during the '80s and '90s by the military and guerrilla groups like Shining Path. After a week of scouting, we chose the Ventanilla dunes, where more than seventy thousand people live with no electricity or running water.

When Faith Moves Mountains is a project of linear geological displacement. It has been germinating ever since I first visited Lima, with Cuauhtemoc Medina, the Mexican curator and critic. We were there for the last Lima Bienal, in October 2000, about a year before the Fujimori dictatorship finally collapsed. The city was in turmoil. There were clashes on the street and the resistance movement strengthened. It was a desperate situation, and I felt that it called for an "epic response, a "beau geste" at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent. Insinuating a social allegory into those circumstances seemed to me more fitting than engaging in some sculptural exercise.

When Faith Moves Mountains attempts to translate social tensions into narratives that in turn intervene in the imaginal landscape of a place. The action is meant to infiltrate the local history and mythology of Peruvian society (including its art histories), to insert another rumor into its narratives. If the script meets the expectations and addresses the anxieties of that society at this time and place, it may become a story that survives the event itself. At that moment, it has the potential to become a fable or an urban myth. As Medina said while we were in Lima, "Faith is a means by which one resigns oneself to the present in order to invest in the abstract promise of the future." The dune moved: This wasn't a literary fiction; it really happened. It doesn't matter how far it moved, and in truth only an infinitesimal displacement occurred--but it would have taken the wind years to move an equivalent amount of sand. So it's a tiny miracle. The story starts there. The interpretations of it needn't be accur ate, but must be free to shape themselves along the way.

This process can also operate on the narratives of art history, not to mention those of the art world. Paradox of Praxis, 1997, a piece in which I pushed a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melted into a puddle of water, was a settling of accounts with Minimalist sculpture. Sometimes, to make something. is really to make nothing; and paradoxically, sometimes to make nothing is to make something.

Similarly, When Faith Moves Mountains is my attempt to deromanticize Land art. When Richard Long made his walks in the Peruvian desert, he was pursuing a contemplative practice that distanced him from the immediate social context. …

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