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Francis Alÿs: Progress or Deception?

李静茹 Jelly Lee 2019-03-07 16:53


On a scorching summer day in Mexico City during 1997, a tall white man pushed a gigantic block of ice down the street. It’s a strenuous job, finally he lost patience and kicked the melting ice. Paying no attention to the curious passengers, he continued and nine hours later, the ice block vanished into water that spread throughout the city and vaporised… This man is artist Francis Alÿs. His nine hours of behaviour are made into a ten-minute video, which becomes his most iconic work. 


Francis Alÿs is one of the most recognised and influential contemporary artists in the world. Besides the ice block, he also kicked fireballs, painted 24 km of “borderlines” in Jerusalem with a can of green paint, drove and hit a tree, videotaping kids’ gaming moments, placed a live fox in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and drove and hit a tree, again. Alÿs’s works usually take a lot of time to finish, some of them took a decade, for example his well-known work, Tornado. From 2000 to 2010, he used a handheld camera to record his entrance into the cores of tornadoes, in order to capture the contrast between the raging outside and tranquil inside. 

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He utilises multiple ways to record the dramatic tension that takes place in the natural environment, and often involves hundreds of participants. Each of these poetic qualities contributes to Alÿs’s idiosyncratic way of approaching questions to do with urbanism, economics, migration, and borders. Throughout his career he has particularly investigated the processes of modernisation in Mexico and Latin America. 


In fact, before becoming an artist and settling in Mexico City, Francis Alÿs was trained as an architect and engineer. In 1985, a 7.8-scale earthquake hit Mexico City. The next year, Alÿs as a volunteer from Belgium National Rescue Team reached Mexico and started repairing the water supply system. During the two-year-long project, Alÿs was deeply attracted to the exotic culture and complex society of Mexico. He chose to stay and became an artist. Later, Francis Alÿs extended his range of art to a series of behavioural artworks based on his understanding of local culture, history and social background. 


Francis Alÿs challenges the issues of anthropology and geopolitics in his poetic and imaginative way, closely observing and experimenting with daily life. Through the years Francis Alÿs has been travelling between Mexico and the rest of the world, discovering the geographic and socio-political environment’s influence on people’s lives. His forms of creation include painting, animation and sketching. Many of his behaviours in the works look absurd, but they are all carefully planned. 


Recently Francis Alÿs’s first solo show opened in Shanghai Rockbund Art Museum. As the curator Yuko Hasegawa notes, “In a China transformed by a fast-paced transition to capitalism and the efficiencies of technology, excessive ‘non-productive consumption’ is just as important in human activity as productive consumption.” Such a notion is tightly wounded into Alÿs’ artistic practice La dépense, which Hasegawa commends for “courageously grappling with the status quo; casting doubts on our visual sense; rethinking the meaning of the labour of manual work and what it means to consume time: these are among the subtle messages from Alÿs’ work that can be applied to the situation in China.” 


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