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Published 21/06/2010 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Francis Alÿs

A Story of Deception

Tate Modern, London 
15 June–5 September 2010

By MK PALOMAR

Poetic gestures and mythical acts

As curator Mark Godfrey guides us through Francis Alÿs’s exhibition at Tate Modern he tells us, “you have to ask what kind of meaning a poetic act might have in a highly charged political situation”. While taking no moral high ground, without ridicule or malice, Alÿs clears convoluted rhetoric from urgent contemporary concerns, the magic of Alÿs’s work lies in his combining praxis with trickster and in this way his subversive actions dance in the face of governments. Jean Fisher, in conversation with Alÿs, documented as part of The Green Line (2004), (dripped paint along Moshe Dayan’s 1948 armistice border between Israel and Jordan), wonders “how can one think of art as political without falling into activism ...” Fisher decides that, “it’s got to derive from the poetic gesture the moment in which a gesture illuminates gives you an insight into a political thought”.

Trained as an architect in 1986, Belgian born Alÿs moved to Mexico City to work on regeneration projects after the earthquake of 1985. From his studio he made works responding to everyday life in the city. Walking is central to Alÿs’s practice, whether pulling magnets that attract the metal detritus off the street (The Collectors 1990–2), pushing a block of ice until it melts to nothing (Paradox of Praxis 1997), or leading a flock of sheep round a flag pole (Patriotic Tales 1997), his actions reference the frustrations and political difficulties of South American life.

In 1997 Alÿs was invited to take part in InSite, a biannual exhibition held on the border between Mexico and the US. Using his commissioning fee Alÿs travelled to the US the long way round, via Australia and Europe, and in making “The Loop” highlighted the difficulties that South American citizens face when attempting to cross into America. In Alÿs’s, When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) some 500 Peruvian students collaborate in shovelling a mountain a few centimetres, this quixotic enterprise again references the political and social struggles so prevalent in South America. Towards the end of the When Faith Moves Mountains documentation, one Peruvian participant laughingly tells the camera “we are now working on some other projects to drink the Atlantic and paint the sky”. With these marvellously impossible works that subvert the grind of politics and social deprivation, Alÿs empowers his collaborators enabling them to overcome the everyday by participating in mythical acts.  However in his work Tornado, (2000–10) it is us (his audience) that Alÿs takes with him literally into the eye of Tornados. And if you have ever stood with your back to the wind thrilled at being held up by that elemental blast, this roaring spinning ferocious experience will take you back to that childhood time where if you didn’t hold tight to some solid thing then the wind might blow you clear off your feet. Like Jacob wrestling the angel Alÿs repeatedly hurls himself back into the spinning roaring dirt to battle for us, against (I believe) the misery of servitude. This is the stuff of myth and dream; this is Francis Alÿs.



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