Emma Mahony is an independent curator and lecturer.
Homi K. Bhabha writes that “the globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or dispossessed, the migrant or the refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers.”1 Those ‘few feet’ that separate a country of affluence from its poorer neighbour were the subject of Francis Alÿs’s The Loop (1997), his contribution to inSite_1997, a bi-national biennial exhibition that takes place across sites in Tijuana and San Diego. Inspired by the desperation of illegal migrants trying to cross the Tijuana / San Diego border, the Mexico-based but Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs staged a poetic response to their plight. Departing from the border fence in Tijuana, he took the longest possible route around the globe, traversing sixteen cities that circle the Pacific Ocean and arriving at the other side of the fence in San Diego, twenty-nine days later.
This dictum of ‘maximum effort, minimum result’ is a recurring theme in Tate Modern’s major retrospective, Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception. For the artist, it typifies his experience of two decades of Latin American regeneration schemes, which characteristically achieve little return in relation to the effort and resources they expend.
Alÿs applies a similar equation to the dissemination of his projects or actions. His epic twenty-nine-day journey in The Loop is condensed into a postcard. Here it is presented in a neat stack on a shelf, available for the viewer to take home and, potentially to continue its journey around the globe. Typically, Alÿs tends to favour methods of dissemination that promote exchange and distribution, and as such rumour or hearsay are important tools in his practice. Nowhere is this more evident than in When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), the tale of 500 Peruvian volunteers who, through sheer force of will, succeed in displacing a sand dune at the edge of Lima by several centimeters. Judging by their sense of elation recorded in the video document of the event, and the subsequent resonance the project has achieved, both in the art world and in the ‘real world’, they might as well have actually moved a mountain. The project was the outcome of Alÿs’s invitation to participate in the 2002 Lima Biennial. Having visited the city in 2000, he encountered what he describes as “a desperate situation… that called for an epic response, at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent.”2
Both these actions – the former a solitary endeavor, and the later an awe-inspiring collective effort – situate Alÿs’s practice in the metaphorical realm. Each succeeds in entering the social imagination, and achieves a resonance beyond their simple and absurd realities.
While some believe that art can only effect political change if it renounces its autonomy and actively engages in trying to find a way around the current system of exploitative relations, Alÿs takes the side of theorists like Peter Bürger and Theodor Adorno, who contend that it is necessary for art to retain its autonomy in order to have any voice at all. Alÿs’s political / poetic gestures are firmly rooted within the conventions of an autonomous practice. He openly acknowledges their futility but nonetheless continues to question whether they can in some small way effect change in our unequal world. When Faith Moves Mountains and The Loop may not have achieved political reform in any real sense, but they mocked, and thereby destablised the prevailing power relations. Alÿs describes these gestures as “operat(ing) like a hiatus – an ‘agent provocateur’, a short circuit – into the atrophy of a situation that finds itself in a state of political, social, confessional, ethnic, economic, or military crisis or lethargy.” 3
In the pursuit of his role as an agent provocateur, Alÿs does not appear to shirk danger of any sort. In the video diptych Re-enactments (2000) we see him purchasing a 9mm Beretta in a gun shop, loading it, and wandering through the streets of Mexico City, gun in hand. It doesn’t take long for the police to catch up with him. In a dramatic scene, he is ambushed, disarmed and carted off in the back of a police car. His intention, we learn, was simply to see what would happen. He had instructed his friend and collaborator, Rafael Ortega, to meet him in the gun shop, and to follow him with a hand-held camera. In the second monitor, a very similar event unfolds. Whereas the first was a document of a real event, the second, we are told, is fiction. Somehow, Alÿs managed to persuade the police to assist in a re-enactment of the event, later the same day. I for one was left uneasy by the apparent malleability of the authorities and their willingness to be co-opted into Alÿs’s drama.
So what of deception, and the role it plays in his work? The title of the exhibition is drawn from a work sited at the entrance to the show – A Story of Deception (2003 – 06). Captured on the grainy quality of film, a mirage appears on a desert highway in Patagonia. Filmed in a loop, the slowly zooming camera never reaches its destination, a metaphor perhaps for the hope and subsequent disillusionment following Latin America’s failed processes of modernity. But the story of deception Alÿs speaks of is not merely about disillusionment, it’s also about hope in the face of adversity. This is reflected in two works at the close of the exhibition. In his animation, Song for Lupita (Mañana) (1998), a simply sketched figure of a woman pours water from one glass to another, back and forth, to a refrain of “mañana, mañana” (tomorrow, tomorrow). Her actions and words are suggestive of this hope for the future, in spite of what seems like eternal procrastination. In a more recent body of work, Tornado (2000 – 2010), the artist races into the paths of tornados, camera in hand. When he reaches the epicenter, exhausted and visually impaired, there is a moment of calm. Has he reached a utopia of sorts?