Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception

A Review by Jon Beer, MFA 2012

Alÿs, Untitled from When Faith Moves Mountains
During the off-season of the Chelsea galleries in New York, art lovers from all parts come to the lineup of summer exhibitions at the big museums. This line up for this summer is nothing to scoff at – the Met boasts a Richard Serra Drawing Retrospective and Alexander McQueen exhibition that have museum-goers queuing up, while MoMA shows off Graphic Impulse, an impressive show of German Expressionism that has been a big hit. The hype from Graphic Impulse may have taken attention away from another gem currently on view there, an exhibition entitled Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception. (Museum of Modern Art, May 8 – August 1, 2011.) Alÿs is an internationally known artist and this two part show is a massive survey of his most important work made in the last two decades. I wasn’t as familiar with Francis Alÿs as I would’ve liked to be before the show, but after reading numerous reviews and seeing MoMA ads all over I was convinced to add it to my list of shows to be seen.

The title of the show couldn’t be more appropriate. Alÿs’s work is indeed deceptive, presenting itself with the aura of being serious and relevant in a deadpan fashion but leaving you with a measure of skepticism about its sincerity. It is a puzzling yet provocative experience of artistic semantics that not unlike an essay by Jean Baudrillard.

Alÿs, Cuentos Patrióticos
Hailing from Belgium originally, Alÿs came to Mexico City in the 80’s as an architect seeking work after 1985 earthquake. His choice to reside in Mexico clearly left an impression on him as a young artist and ideas of crisis, provocation, satire, and social constructs create the foundation he builds on. This survey is a mixture of drawings, small paintings, short films and projection installations done mostly after 1990. The first thing that caught my eye was his process – though he was trained as an architect Alÿs, thinks more like a conceptual video artist originally trained as an illustrator. All the preparatory work removed the magic of the content, never allowing the viewer to fully be swept up, but on the other hand it highlights the fundamentally constructed nature of our society. That said, there is no denying the elegance in some of his finished pieces.

Still from Alÿs' When Faith Moves Mountains
One such example is When Faith Moves Mountains, one of the central pieces in the show. It is a film documenting a performance in which Alÿs recruited 500 volunteers to move an enormous sand dune in the Peruvian desert by shoveling in unison. In the same breath he succeeds in showing us the futility and existential meaninglessness that accompanies grand undertakings while tempering it with the authentic determination of the volunteers realizing his vision. He underscores this theme in another piece where he pushes a block of ice through the hot streets of Mexico City until it is reduced into an ice cube. It seems we will never truly know his agenda.

Still from Alÿs' Re-enactments
In another film he carries a handgun through the streets of Mexico City, until he is eventually arrested. As you continue to watch, Alÿs repeats - or rather reenacts - the piece but with approval of the authorities. Is Alÿs selling out or is flaunting his role as artist? We are deceived again.
I suppose that on the deepest level his work could be about irony. Or maybe he’s trying to make fun of irony in a serious satirical way. He separates himself from other artists working with similar themes by not looking for Truth outright, but rather embodying the archetype of the Fool and exposing the world for what it is.

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