Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Francis Alÿs: Space for Language

By Katie Smither

Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), Mexico City, 1997

What is drawing a line?  

The act requires identification and choosing. A line underscores, separates, or obscures what lies on the surface of a page, a road, a sidewalk, an image, a space, a previous thought. Lines can remain permanently in material or slipping in memory, either way affecting the place in which a line is or was drawn. Of course, lines can also be made without mark, quickly and easily being drawn in metaphor because the many functions of a line are executed similarly when something or someone or an idea moves from one point to another. 

Cuando la fe mueve montañas (When faith moves mountains)], outside Lima, Peru, 2002

It is in this between-space of material and metaphorical movement that Francis Alÿs works.  Recently at MoMA’s PS1, I stumbled upon part of the larger retrospective Francis Alÿs: A Story of DeceptionI like this title.  It describes his practice well.  In Cuando la fe mueve montañas (When faith moves mountains), a line of 500 volunteers use shovels to move a dune by, perhaps, maybe, four inches. Other videos show Alÿs pushing a large block of ice through urban streets until the block melts completely. Or Alÿs walking through the Mexican desert and into dust devils, walking through Mexico City with a pistol until his arrest and then reenacting it, walking the length of a divided Jerusalem holding a leaking can of green paint. Most of Alÿs’ projects hinge on moving and the nature of that movement, creating imagined, outlandish, even invisible narratives that rub shoulders against the reality of political, urban, and social narratives within the places he inhabits.  He builds stories that, through symbolism, absurdity, setting, and allusion, float somewhere between performance art and the staging of theatre or folklore. He is in many ways a folklorist, materializing tales and allegories that will continue in the public consciousness of the communities where the events took place.  

The Green Line (Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic), 2005, historical Isreali/Palestine armistice line

His work exists in the witnessing or retelling of the event. It harkens to the non-object performance works of the ‘60s and the ephemeral, activist poetry of groups like Fluxus. However, the museum, in trying to give viewers something to “see”, somewhat dampens the raw power of each gesture in its attempt to chronicle and preserve it, as Roberta Smith’s review reflects. The work loses its “aboutness”, clarity, or directness in the shift from happening/reality to document/memory. It’s a necessary problem to navigate in sharing time and site specific performance like Alÿs’. Marina Abramovic addressed the issue of re-performing performance in her recent retrospective The Artist is Present, but Alÿs and others’ work, which does not have the neutral or gallery space as its setting, cannot be relocated there without mutating. As I moved through the exhibition, though many of the videos conveyed well enough to suggest each project’s reality and poetry, most of the show’s artifacts, objects, and residue of performance felt out of place in the static dead-space of gallery architecture.  The loss raised questions of if or how such work should be moved into the gallery or museum for the viewing public to experience.

A Story of Deception did provide one completely present and active addition to the gallery, though slightly tangential. Upon walking into the space, the viewer is met with the curatorial introduction to the exhibition printed on the wall in Spanish. A choice of language, like the other documentation, relating back to the site of performance.

Francis Alÿs is Belgian, but like many artists today, relates more closely to the culture and politics of another country, having lived there for an extended period of time. Alÿs has resided and worked in Mexico for more than twenty years and Mexico is, subsequently, often in the subject, setting, and language of his work. By choosing to use Spanish as the institutional language for the show, a very real and unique line is drawn between the content of the exhibition and the individual viewer. The choice is the active realization or response to some of the socio-political questions posed within the exhibition itself, in works like El Gringo and others previously mentioned.

Typically, all curatorial text in the United States, like almost all institutional text in the United States, is English.  There are few major museums that include primary or supplementary translation into Spanish. So finding the use of Spanish wall text is refreshing. It is also justified, as the language Alÿs speaks, uses, and titles his work with predominantly comes from Mexico. In contextualizing the work honestly (i.e. not translating it into the American, modernist institution and system), the hand of power that Alÿs repeatedly questions the location of in his work, is questioned and even challenged in and by MoMA. Comprehension and understanding is taken from a viewer who only speaks English, and given to one who need not know the language so often enforced or privileged by language policies, schools, culture and economy. The reality of that choice is thrilling and something I hope to see occur more often in major exhibitions of art in the States. In this case, I found the line tangible and productive. 

For more on Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception.