Francis Alÿs at MoMA, New York

by Carla Sakamoto, June 2011

Currently on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception has a title that gives one pause for thought. What is the deception? Who is being deceived? And is the “story” one of fact or fiction? With no overtly apparent through-line of aesthetic style, the Belgian-born Francis Alÿs, who resides in Mexico, is a conceptual artist working in video, performance, painting, drawing and photography—a select sampling of which is presented in the exhibition. The nascent viewer could wander through the gallery spaces and leave without a strong sense of who the artist is and what story he is trying to tell; the brevity and thumbnail nature of this retrospective somehow simplifies his message. The viewer must contrive to find the common thread amongst this small but disparate array of multimedia imagery, anchored by projections of his videos shown separately in inviting, walled-off spaces.

The larger concerns of his work, at first glance, are of social and political commentary, observations about the modern human condition and spirit. The overall effect, however, is somehow diluted and lacking gravitas when viewed in the context of other slightly humorous works and faux naïve paintings. His “magnetized collectors” from an early ’90s performance piece, are toy-truck-like “dogs” on wheels that were pulled around by a string as they magnetically picked up debris from the street—a reflection on communal urban spaces. Another room is lined with uniformly-sized tableaux canvases painted in an elementary and sketch-like style showing men donning suits and engaging in ambiguous, seemingly useless and banal activities. Alÿs had stated that he likes to show the almost “obsessive,” and repetitive motions in human behavior that reveal process as opposed to product. He has said, “However elliptical you want to be, you have to make contact… The paintings are a way to trap in the viewer.” (Holland Cotter, “Thoughtful Wanderings of a Man with a Can,” The New York Times, October  13, 2007).

All the videos in the show are virtually wordless and nearly soundless, allowing the viewer to quietly contemplate the scene that is occurring with minimal narrative influence. Whether he is ultimately making a social or political statement does not seem to be as important as demonstrating the natural absurdity of human folly and the inherent polarities in human existence. Rehearsal I (1999)a video with Sisyphean resonance, plays on a loop, showing a Volkswagen Beetle slowly climbing a dusty hill in a rural area in Mexico to the soundtrack of a kitschy-sounding brass band instrumental. Once the car almost reaches the top of the hill, it rolls back down in reverse, at which point the scene of the car ascending the hill restarts again, an allegory for Mexico’s struggle with “delaying the consummation of modernity”—and the band music playing in the background is a metaphor for a rehearsal.

In When Faith Moves Mountains (1992), his most well-known performance piece/video, five hundred men stand in a tandem line shoveling sand in unison, one step at a time, and eventually shift the position of a sand dune. The simple and clear metaphor is that a collective belief in something can slowly and surely become a reality. From a handwritten note by Alÿs: “Faith is a means by which one introduces resignation in the present, as an investment in the promise of an abstract future […] a postponement of desire and reward.” This constant sense of anticipation and having faith is what Alÿs believes is a fundamental nature of human existence. This theme continues in the video Tornado (2000–2010), which depicts a series of ghostly dust storms whipping up a barren landscape intermittently chased by frantic footsteps and then making contact with a breathless stormchasing camera operator, the artist himself. Thus, we are again seeing a metaphor for anticipation in this endless cycle of waiting, pursuing, catching/missing, and then all over again.

Perhaps “deception” from the title of the show is too strong a word to describe what is at play between the artist and his audience, but what Alÿs does seem to highlight is the inherent trickery and possible deceptions in life. The world he sees is one filled with irony, polarities, struggle and chaos. In an interview, Alÿs once stated that he believes that the artist is the “last, great entertainer.” Perhaps, as “entertainer” and storyteller, the artist has chosen this story of deception to tell.

Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception
8 May—1 August 2011
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, New York