Francis Alÿs (born 1959, Antwerp) is a Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist. His work emerges in the interdisciplinary space of art, architecture, and social practice. After leaving behind his formal training as an architect and relocating to Mexico City, he has created a diverse body of artwork and performance art that explores urbanity, spatial justice, and land-based poetics. Employing a broad range of media from painting to performance, his works examine the tension between politics and poetics, individual action and impotence. Alÿs commonly enacts paseos—walks that resist the subjection of common space. Alys reconfigures time to the speed of a stroll, making reference to the figure of the flâneur, originating from the work of Charles Baudelaire and developed by Walter Benjamin. Cyclical repetition and return also inform the character of Alÿs’ movements and mythology—Alÿs contrasts geological and technological time through land-based and social practice that examine individual memory and collective mythology. Alÿs frequently engages rumor as a central theme in his practice, disseminating ephemeral, practice-based works through word-of-mouth and storytelling.
Alÿs’ work encompasses many media often involving the participation and presence of the artist. These performed events are documented in video, photographs, writing, painting, and animation. In an interview with sociologist, Sarah Thornton, Alÿs, metaphorized his artistic role as a “midwife.” Elaborating he said, “I am not an inventor. I’m just the one on the side.”
Early life and education
Alÿs grew up as Francis de Smedt in Herfelingen, about 25 miles outside Brussels, where his father was an appeals-court judge. He studied architectural history at the Saint-Luc Institute of Architecture in Tournai (1978–83) and engineering at the Istituto di Architettura in Venice (1983–6) before moving to Mexico City in 1986 where he arrived as part of a French assistance program after an earthquake to fulfill his Belgian civil-service requirement. Arriving just months after the 1985 earthquake, for the next 22 months he helped to build public works. At the end of this service, he took the name Alÿs to frustrate efforts by the Belgian authorities to meddle in his life. It was only years later that he turned it into his artistic pseudonym.
Alÿs’ work encompasses many media often involving the participation and presence of the artist. These performed events are documented in video, photographs, writing, painting, and animation. In an interview with sociologist, Sarah Thornton, Alÿs, metaphorized his artistic role as a “midwife.” Elaborating he said, “I am not an inventor. I’m just the one on the side.” He also stated: “I entered the art field by accident a coincidence of geographical, personal and legal matters resulted in indefinite vacations which, through a mixture of boredom, curiosity and vanity, led to my present profession”
Many of his works involve intense observation and recording of the social, cultural and economic conditions of particular places, usually conceived during walks through urban areas. Citing walking as the centre of his practice, for his first performance The Collector (1991), he dragged a small magnetic toy dog on wheels through Mexico City so as to attract debris to it. In Fairy Tales (1995), he takes a walk after unravelling the sweater he has on, leaving an ever-lengthening, blue-thread trail in his wake. Also in 1995, Alÿs realised an action in São Paulo called The Leak in which he walked from a gallery, around the city, and back into the gallery trailing a dribbled line from an open can of blue paint. This action was reprised in 2004 when Alÿs walked along the armistice border in Jerusalem, known as ‘the green line’, carrying a can filled with green paint. The bottom of the can was perforated with a small hole, so the paint dripped out as a continuous squiggly line on the ground as he walked. The work Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) documents an action performed on the streets of Mexico City in 1997. The film depicts a simple and seemingly pointless endeavour – a large block of ice being pushed through the city streets for nine hours until it melts away to a puddle of meltwater.
Between 2004 and 2005 Alÿs collaborated with Artangel on two projects – Seven Walks and The Nightwatch at the National Portrait Gallery’, an installation in which a wild fox called Bandit was set free in the Gallery with his movements recorded by surveillance cameras.
In his best-known work, When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), Alÿs recruited 500 volunteers in Ventanilla District outside of Lima, Peru. Each person moved a shovel full of sand one step at a time from one side of a dune to the other, and together they moved the entire geographical location of the dune by a few inches. Art critic Jean Fisher writes that “the radical event of art precipitates a crisis of meaning or, rather, it exposes the void of meaning at the core of a given social situation, which is its truth.” The Rehearsal (1999), the first part of an as yet unfinished three-part video piece shot in Tijuana, consists of a static long shot of a red VW Beetle driving up the slope of a dirt road in a shantytown while the viewer hears musicians rehearsing a song. Every time they stop, the car rolls backwards down the hill, as if running out of petrol, but when the music starts up again, the car starts driving up the hill once more.
In Tornado (2000-2010), spliced film clips show Alÿs chasing after huge dust devils kicked up by the annual dry season in Northern Mexico. Kara L. Rooney writes of the piece in The Brooklyn Rail, “The sight of his lean frame racing towards the twisters is at once ridiculous and hysterical—blithe qualities that quickly give way to gravitas as the artist physically enters the eye of the storm. Inside, chaos reigns and Alÿs, unprotected except for his handheld camera, is enveloped and pummeled by flying bits of sand, dust and dirt.”
In 2001, Klaus Biesenbach also advised Francis Alÿs on the exhibition Mexico City: An Exhibition on the Exchange Rate of Bodies and Values. At Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, Alÿs also collaborated with Klaus Biesenbach as well as with Alejandro González Iñárritu on material that he had generated in the preparation of “Amores Perros,” the Oscar nominated movie, which led to an installation entitled Amores Perros – El Ensayo (Amores Perros – The Rehearsal) in Berlin in 2002. The scenes shown on numerous monitors and projections in the exhibition space were not from the film itself, but from hours and hours of crude research video, casting clips, acting rehearsals and discarded rushes.
For Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg, Alÿs contributed a “road movie” that ends with a Lada car crashing into a tree in the courtyard of the Hermitage.
Alÿs regularly employs Mexican sign-painters (“rotulistas”) to paint enlarged and elaborated versions of his small paintings, which they are free to produce in limitless copies. An example is the series of paintings called The Liar, the Copy of the Liar (1997). His intention is to challenge the idea of the original artwork, rendering the process of making more anonymous and deflating the perceived commercial value of art.
The paintings in the series Le Temps du sommeil were begun in 1996 and often worked on at night. They feature visionary dreamlike scenes involving tiny suited men and women acting out strange rituals reminiscent of children’s games and gymnastic experiments.
The Fabiola Project
Since 1994, Alÿs has been collecting copies of Jean-Jacques Henner’s painting of Saint Fabiola, a fourth-century patrician Roman woman who, despite divorce and remarriage, later did such fervent penance that she was welcomed back to the faith and, after her death, sainted. For years she fell into oblivion, but in the nineteenth century returned to popularity as the protagonist of a novel named after her. Alÿs acquired his Fabiola portraits, mostly the work of amateurs and in a variety of media, from thrift shops, flea markets and antiques stores primarily in Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Holland, and Germany. All the works have been left in their original state. The artists, dates and places of origin are largely unknown. Fabiola is always depicted in profile with her head covered in a rich red veil. Alÿs plans a special location for each exhibition, devising a new constellation for the portraits.
In 1997, 60 of his Fabiolas were exhibited at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery and later, between May and September 2009, at London’s National Gallery. The collection, grown to include 514 copies of the portrait, was on exhibit at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel of the Menil Collection in Houston from May 21, 2016 to May 13, 2018.
Between 2010 and 2014, Alÿs traveled extensively to Afghanistan following his invitation to participate in dOCUMENTA(13). In collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi, he created Reel-Unreel (2011), a 20-minute film. In 2013, he served as an embedded war artist with the UK’s Task Force Helmand in the country.
Commissioned by the Ruya Foundation For Contemporary Culture In Iraq, Alÿs spent time with a Kurdish battalion in Mosul and visited refugee projects in the country’s norther in early 2016.
Alÿs’ work has been shown in many international institutions, including Wiels (2010–2011), Tate Modern, London (2010), The AiM Biennale (Arts in Marrakech International Biennale), The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2008), the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2007), Portikus, Frankfurt, Germany, MALBA, Buenos Aires, Argentina, MALi, Lima; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg; Musée d’Art Contemporain, Avignon, France (2004); Centro nazionale per le arti contemporanee, Rome, Italy [traveled to Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid] (all 2003); and Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2002, 2011); and Or Gallery, Vancouver, Canada (1998). His traveling show of portraits of the Saint Fabiola has traveled to London, New York, Perú and LAMCA. Alÿs participated in the Venice Biennial in 1999, 2001 and 2007, and the Carnegie International in 2004. He was part of the Revolution vs Revolution exhibition that took place at the Beirut Art Center in 2012.
Alÿs is represented by David Zwirner in New York and Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich.
When Faith Moves Mountains
One of Alÿs’ most surrealistic works is When Faith Moves Mountains (when hope moves away). In 2002, with the help of 800 students, Al ins attempted to move a sand dune in Lima, Peru, ten centimeters. The four-hour performance was performed close to the slums of Lima for the Lima biennale. He got the idea for this action when he was confronted in Peru with the consequences of the policies of President Alberto Fujimori.
Francis Alÿs: Walking Distance from the Studio 4 September to 28 November 2004, Wolfsburg Art Museum, Wolfsburg
Francis Alÿs: Politics of Rehearsal September 29, 2007 to February 10, 2008, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception June 15 to September 5, 2010, Tate Modern, London
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception October 9, 2010 to January 30, 2011, WIELS, Brussels
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception May 4 to September 12, 2011, MoMa, New York
Francis Alÿs: Fabiola March 12 to August 28, 2011, Schaulager, Basel
Work in public collections (selection)
Stockholm (1997), MoMa, New York
Looking Up (2001), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), M HKA, Antwerp
The Nightwatch (2004), Tate Modern, London
The Silence of Ani (2015), Center Pompidou, Paris
The Dynamite Show (2004), Middelheim Museum, Antwerp
Source from Wikipedia