Magazine article The New Yorker

Walkabout

Magazine article The New Yorker

Walkabout

Article excerpt

Francis Alys, a Belgian-born conceptual artist who lives in Mexico City, left the David Zwirner Gallery, on West Nineteenth Street in Chelsea, one recent morning, heading southeast by foot. After a pit stop for an espresso on Ninth Avenue--he had arrived in the city at 2:30 A.M.--he began to scour the sidewalks and doorways for his doppelganger. It's a private game he invented to play when he's travelling. "As an artist, you end up getting invited to all kinds of places you don't have much to say about," he said. Hunting for his double gives him what he calls a "pretext" of connecting when he is far from home.

Alys's doppelgangers don't necessarily look like him; they don't even have to be male, though they usually are. "It's not so much about physical likeness as a certain attitude, a way of walking," he said. "You could also say it's about finding myself." Much of his art is about searching, such as "Duett," a film that shows two men wandering separately through Venice, each lugging half a tuba, before finally meeting, putting the instrument together, and playing a single note.

Alys, who is fifty-three, is a tall, long-limbed man of striking angularity, and his pace was quick. Walking, he said, lets his mind simultaneously drift and focus. Daydreaming while remaining alert is a good way of testing his ideas. "I need it because an artist can live in complete fantasy. It's important to keep one foot in reality," he said. Walking, he added, is also cheap.

Alys's walks fuel the performance-based films that have made him famous. In one, he pushes a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until, nine hours later, it has melted. In another, he carries a leaking can of paint, turning the ground into his canvas.

For his most recent work, which will be on view at Zwirner in an exhibition opening this month, Alys travelled to Afghanistan. He shot a movie, "REEL-UNREEL," of boys rolling spools of film through Kabul's dusty streets, their reels unravelling and winding up again, and began work on another piece, of former mujahideen assembling and disassembling an AK-47. He plans to return to film a U.S. soldier engaged in a similar task of "doing-undoing."

"I want to understand it from the other side," he said, turning east on Fifteenth Street.

Unlike many of his peers, Alys does not sell most of his films but posts them on his Web site. …

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