Is Francis Alÿs the McDonald’s of conceptual art? That’s the discussion AFC Editor-in-Chief Paddy Johnson and I had, walking out of the MoMA portion of his two-venue retrospective (the other half is at P.S.1). It might sound cruel, but it’s a fair question: Alÿs’s style is accessible, digestible, reliable and direct in a way few other artists embrace so readily, and few can deny McRibs are fucking delicious.
Alÿs’s use of metaphor often aims to produce an “Aha!” moment, a second of “I get it!” where mystery is stripped away. When this produces true insight, the ease of its delivery is Alÿs’s greatest strength. In other works, the “Aha!” is more fleeting, a mere sugar rush, and Alÿs’s metaphors function only to demonstrate superficial similarity. Ambiguity in a work is expendable, but also desirable: Alÿs’s show manages to prove both.
As a retrospective, the current show is remarkably cohesive: though he works in a variety of media — primarily video and performance, but also painting and (regretfully) sculpture — Alÿs has apparently dealt with the same concerns of the mechanics of group membership and the value of failure for his entire career. In the vast majority of pieces on show, those concepts are viewed in light of the ever-more-distant dream of Latin American development — a situation that Alÿs portrays through one metaphor after another with workmanlike determination. The problem with determination, though, is that it’s very close to repetition; Alÿs is fully capable of expressing himself clearly, and indeed poetically, the first time around.
Rehearsal I (1999-2001), at MoMA, sets the bar. Alÿs recorded a brass band in rehearsal, and then videotaped a car driving up and down a hill on the Mexican-American border. The car accelerates as the band plays, brakes when the band stops, and slides slowly back down the hill while the band members talk, tune, and prepare for the next attempt. The symbolism of Mexico as Sisyphus, the mythical king sentenced by Zeus to an eternity of meaningless toil rolling a boulder up a hill and watching it roll back down, is obvious. The reference here, though, is less to the original myth’s theme of divine punishment and more to Camus’s 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which famously ends its consideration of life in the face of absurdity and futility with the line, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”; judging by the upbeat music and the fun-looking bright-red Beetle, it seems Alÿs agrees. It’s an apt metaphor, particularly in light of the general finding that Latin Americans are some of the self-reported happiest people in the world, and the piece works: it’s a little slapstick and a little serious, a little conceptual and a little wistful. Watching it, you quickly cotton on: the car is never going to reach the crest, so there isn’t any point in sticking around unless you enjoy the trying. When I visited, the audience was divided on the topic: children stayed, critics left. Perhaps there’s something essential in that.
Politics of Rehearsal (2005-2007), another video, waits in the next room. Here, a singer rehearses a song — notably, in a language not her own — while a stripper performs a striptease to the music. Already, themes begin to recur. The singer is Mexico as Sisyphus, producing beautiful music even as she “fails” to perform a song which she has difficulty understanding the point of: Every now and again she needs to be reminded that this or that part is happy or sad, just as Mexico might need occasional reminders as to why the clearly dysfunctional American system is such an attractive objective. The stripper is similarly a Sisyphean figure, but an optimistic, post-Camus one — stripteases are a situation in which we have already come to accept the meaninglessness of the goal in favor of the beauty of process, a situation in which we imagine Sisyphus happy. These are again fitting metaphors, but already there might be twice as many as Alÿs needs to make his point. Triple-checking that we got it, Alÿs adds a layer of narration to Politics of Rehearsal, recording the critic Cuauhtémoc Medina as he gloomily lectures us on the political situation of Latin America and the origins of “development” as a narrative.
If things are still unclear, move over another two rooms for When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), Alÿs’s most ambitious work to date and an exemplar of his style. When Faith Moves Mountains is a work for which Alÿs convinced 500 participants, mostly locals, to help move a hill on the outskirts of Lima an imperceptible distance one shovel-load at a time. There’s a video, with both individual interviews and shots of the endless line of shovels, along with a room of documentation, planning, and detritus. His stated goal — “Maximum effort, minimum result” — should come as no surprise, as should his essential optimism about the project. In one of the pieces of documentation, Alÿs refers to “provok[ing] a multiplication of storytellers”, with the objective of the work being to create such a notable communal event as to strengthen the social fabric of Lima. (It is worth questioning, of course, whether that multiplication would have been better served without such exhaustive, authoritative documentation.) To Alÿs’s credit, he seems to have succeeded in his goal: the participants in the video are heartfelt in their appreciation of the work’s effect, in their pride in taking part, and in their recognition of its storyworthiness. That said, it’s unclear how informed they were as to the project’s basic conceit, and signs seem to point to willfully maintained ignorance: There’s no evidence in the interviews or documentation of Alÿs attempting to communicate his message concerning development to the participants, and one wonders whether he purposefully chose sharing, smiles, and preciousness over engaging his participants in a political discussion directly relevant to their daily lives. That’s a shame, because Alÿs has a way with words, and plenty of his planning notes would be serviceable revolutionary slogans; one reads: “Faith is the means by which one introduces resignation in the present.”
[Aside: For an artist whose practice sits firmly atop the ivory towers of conceptualism and relational aesthetics, Alÿs can be surprisingly proletarian: for both When Faith Moves Mountains and The Modern Procession (2002), another mass-participatory work, he actually bought everybody matching shirts. Who does that?]
Most of the show’s remainder at MoMA is forgettable. Three video one-liners fit entirely too well into the apparent themes — one’s about walking and the media, one’s about walking, useless effort, and minimalism, and one’s about walking, useless effort, and absurdity. Meanwhile, a huge series of postcard-sized paintings entitled Le Temps du Sommeil (1996-2011) shows a gradual amble through painting in both style and content; they’re progressively datestamped, and the subject matter is nearly always a semi-authorial figure in a green bubble walking around red backgrounds ranging from landscape to abstraction. They’re interesting as a nod to Alÿs’s early painting, which seems to have been abandoned as his video works found success (his website now solely hosts videos); other than that, though, they only appeal in the way any large series of paintings would: things come, things go, things change, things stay the same.
Certainly less forgettable is the video Tornado (2000-10), which is mostly impressive in a Jackass sense. Alÿs, camera in hand, chases and runs into dust devils in the Mexican highlands, which is good because it’s cool seeing a guy run into a tornado. The wall text, bending over further than usual to make Alÿs look serious, will tell you it’s a work about “the present chaotic state of Mexico” [Hat tip Roberta Smith for the quote].
At P.S.1, regimented into the space’s classrooms, the display feels like a series of curiosities. The Modern Procession, his parade on the occasion of MoMA’s temporary relocation to Queens, is stuffed into one room, appearing more like a fun day out with art jokes than a serious project. In others, a few early works push hard to give Alÿs a sort of continuity he has quite enough of: see, for instance, the titular A Story of Deception (2003-2006), which is a 16mm film of a road meeting the horizon, and the resulting mirage.
The saving grace of the P.S.1 side is a half-hour video entitled Guards (2004). Alÿs worked with 64 Coldstream Guards — the red-coat, puffy-hat nutcracker crew — instructing them to disperse throughout the City of London’s square mile. Separated, the guards wander alone through the empty streets in search of each other, looking out-of-place and strangely vulnerable. Upon finding their colleagues, however, they instantly fall into lockstep, forming ever-growing squares of perfectly choreographed Guards — with a capital “G” — as the regular beat of their steps approaches its climax. Upon completing their 8 by 8 square, the Guards march to the nearest bridge and disperse, returning to life as guards, lowercase, regular folks who just happen to work for the Crown. Alÿs’s directorial hand is light, and the participants appear to simply be left to their business.
It is, quite simply, the finest work Alÿs has made. Without the didacticism of Politics of Rehearsal or the heavy-handedness of Rehearsal I, Alÿs refashions the known to ingrain a new, deeper knowledge of ourselves as individuals and as groups. The word expands on earlier walking pieces like Duett(1999), a video a few rooms away in which Alÿs wandered the streets of Venice with top half of a tuba searching for an accomplice with the bottom; the two ultimately find one another and join in a brief tuba-humming duet. Where the relationship of Duett seems contrived — Alÿs must fabricate a relationship between the two participants unlike any we are familiar with — the situation of Guards seems, somehow, plausible: after all, marching in formation is just what these guys do. Their professional eradication of self lies at an extreme of the spectrum of accepted human behavior, but, crucially, within it: the former gives the symbol its clarity, the latter its power.
The understated quality of Guards, though, also throws the flaws of Alÿs’s other work into higher relief. Alÿs is adept at devising interesting, even enlightening situations, but his execution can be heavy-handed, and the distilled concentrate of a retrospective makes his statements look particularly like lectures. In art as in any form of communication, it’s best to allow your audience to come to conclusions on its own — assisted, but ultimately empowered. For all his optimism, perhaps Alÿs lacks some faith in people.