Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception

Museum of Modern Art |May 8–August 1, 2011
By Jonathan Beer

Francis Alÿs. Untitled, from When Faith Moves Mountains. 2002. Color photograph. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Speyer Family Foundation, Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro, The Julia Stoschek Foundation, Düsseldorf, and Committee on Media Funds. © 2011 Francis Alÿs

During the off season of the Chelsea galleries in New York, Art lovers from all parts flock to the lineup of summer exhibitions at the big museums. The program 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 pull attention away from another gem currently on view at MoMA; an exhibition entitled Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception.

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 is not unlike an essay by the Post-modernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

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, exposure to ideas of crisis, provocation, satire, and social constructs formed the foundation of his conceptual practice. Known for working in a variety of formats, this survey features a mixture of drawings, small paintings, short films and projection installations done mostly after 1990. Walking into the exhibition the viewer is overloaded with work – there is no easing into Francis Alÿs.
Each room represents a different project, coupling the finished work with studies, notes and other studio ephemera.  Although trained as an architect, Alÿs thinks more like a conceptual video artist with illustrative tendencies. He constantly shows his hand by displaying the collaged preparatory drawings and removing the illusion of the final piece. It is a sacrifice that deftly reveals the fundamentally constructed nature of our society. That said there is no denying the elegance in some of his finished pieces.

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 sweltering streets of Mexico City reducing it to a small ice cube. Weaving so many ideas into the fabric of his work it seems we will never truly know his agenda. Alÿs depends on the power of ambiguity; we are constantly questioning the meaning and interpretation of each piece. In Re-Enactments he carries a handgun in plain sight through the streets of Mexico City, until he is eventually arrested. As the film progresses, Alÿs repeats – or rather reenacts – the performance but with approval of the authorities. Is this the proverbial artistic sell-out or is Alÿs flaunting his role as artist? We are deceived again.

The work of Francis Alÿs is an interdisciplinary conversation spanning topics of irony, satire, futility, politics; each intriguing in their own right but its captivating power arises from the twisting narratives he creates with those themes.  The complexity and layering of information makes for a variety of readings, each just as mysterious and important as the other. 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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