Saturday, 29 May 2010

Review: Francis Alÿs and 'A Story of Deception' - narrative readings

If you haven't seen Francis Alÿs' retrospective 'A Story of Deception' at Tate Modern, you're too late. It closed on 5th September, and in my non-journalistic style, I am only getting round to the review now. However, it will be showing from October at WIELS in Brussels, and from May at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with some differences no doubt, partly due to the architecture in the respective venues. For the arrangement in space of this exhibition is as important as the individual works themselves. It is this narrative reading of Alÿs' exhibition that I would like to consider in the first half of this review. Visitors who like to be surprised by what they see in a gallery, and how it is presented, should hasten to the second half of this article, in which I consider a way of reading Alÿs' oeuvre as having spiritual themes, concurrently with the more widely discussed political themes. Although it is impossible not to interweave some of my readings of these spiritual themes in with the discussion of the narrative; as Alÿs has said in another context, it is impossible to dissociate the one from the other. ['Meet the Artist: Francis Alys', Tateshots 30 april 2007, on the process of the production of the work inextricably linked with the final product]

A Story of Deception: Narrative in exhibition

This is intellectually stylish stuff, both the individual works themselves, and their visual/narrative presentation, on whatever level you choose to take them. Prepare yourself for a treat, whether remembering or anticipating.

Room 1

Introductory text panel
A Story of Deception
(16mm film and slashed painting)
Sound audible in room: the whirr and click of a 16mm projector
Lighting: moderate

Most visitors tend to bunch up at the initial explanatory panel at exhibitions, which in this case is on the wall behind you as you enter. What confronts you face on is, I think, what Alÿs wants you to see first, and focus on: the looped projection of an ever approaching, and ever receding, mirage filmed while prone on the bonnet (hood) of a car trundling slowly along the eternally straight highways of Patagonia. The heat rising from the land, as well as the softening quality of 16mm film, renders everything slightly out of focus, a dream like quality, punctuated every minute or so by flashes of light produced by bands of dark frames where the film is spliced, creating a loop. Alÿs may well be saying with this piece, 'Here I am, this is what I do, come into the dream with me, the metaphor of the mirage as the eternally unreachable notion of progress in Latin America. I will be speaking to you throughout in dreams and fables, and all is not what it may seem. When you think you have grasped my meaning it may well prove to be just an illusion. Come deeper, and I will show you more.'

Already what I might describe as the intertextuality of this exhibition is at play here; at all times Alÿs is placing one work juxtaposed with another, perhaps made years earlier or later, and often picking up themes of other works not included in the exhibition but often referenced in the catalogue. So the blinding flash of light at the beginning and end of A Story of Deception foreshadows the sudden eclipse of nothingness that overcomes Alÿs and his camera as he plunges into the heart of a tornado, in Tornado at the climax of the exhibition.

Possibly unnoticed, in one's peripheral vision if standing behind the projector, is the other half of A Story of Deception - a small canvas depicting the afterglow of a pink-lit sunset, vertically slashed completely in half, wood frame and all, the blade having hollowed a groove out of the gallery wall. (I can't help picturing a technician having a fun time with a rotary saw.) The vision is not just illusory, but negated, expectations of wholeness literally torn in two. The exhibition, despite the best efforts of the curators and the insurers, is not to be precious or behind glass (though most of the ephemera are).

Room 2

The Loop (postcards and text panel)
When I'm Walking (powder on twin panels)
The globe (globe and elastic band)
Sound: 16mm projector, slide projector, bell tolling, occasional insistently rung handbell
Lighting: moderate

The state of fable and dream being established, the visitor rounds the corner to be confronted with a work that exists only as a description, a fable: Alÿs' participation in the 1997 exhibition InSite consisted of The Loop, in which he travelled for twenty-nine days round the Pacific rim in order to avoid crossing the US border between the adjacent border towns of Tijuana and San Diego. Maximum effort, minimum result, as one of his maxims goes (I can picture the scene at the travel agents' in Tijuana: 'But the tram stop is just over there - you can get to San Diego for $2.80!'). No video, no ephemera, just a stack of postcards with a map and a picture of the Pacific. Take one, visitor, and you have a work from this exhibition as valid as any of the paintings from Alÿs' collaborations with the Rotulistas (not exhibited), whose market value soared beyond the pockets of their producers despite the intention of saturating the market.

The eye is drawn to When I'm Walking, a credo of methodology in blue powder, used when stencilling the outline of the shushing finger of the Silencio motif over the walls of Panama City. Alÿs might be saying, 'You have now my themes of fables, unfulfilled dreams and politics - here then is one of my favourite methods of working explained, the walk, so simple compared to the endless global travel demanded by the art world.'

What the eye might have missed is the globe, with a loop of elastic around it. Should you spot this, inevitably you will look up, as it is mounted on a perspex shelf at least four metres above floor level. And what then is being recreated? Looking Up, as featured in the catalogue - when Alÿs stood in the Zócalo, the huge public square in Mexico City, simply looking up into the sky, until he assembled a crowd of passerby also straining to see something in the sky, whereupon he slipped away. I can picture him laughing, just knowing that it is so simple to influence the public - us. Harmless enough in this instance, but...

The quiet of the gallery is finished, for the cacophony of noise draws you swiftly on to Room 3 - indeed you inevitably glimpse Ambulantes, showing people doing a very different kind of walk, through the door while looking at While I'm Walking.

Rooms 3 and 4

Ambulantes (two slide projectors at floor level)
Paradox of Praxis (video projection)
Patriotic Tales (large video projection)
The Collector (objects and video)
Lynchados (paintings and ephemera)
Historic centre, Mexico City (drawing)
Sound: bell tolling, occasional insistently rung handbell, occasional siren, Tijuana brass band, soprano singing German lied intermittently, accompanied by piano, voiceover in Spanish
Moderate lighting, dark in Patriotic Tales seating area, the other side of The Collector, which forms a see-through barrier. Ephemera are displayed on a long glowing lightbox.

The next few rooms burst on the visitor with an overwhelming barrage of sound and ever-changing vision. It is an excellent simulation of the effect of suddenly being dropped in the middle of a very large, crowded foreign city - and this one can only be Mexico City. It is of course a metaphor for Alÿs' own experience, the experience of anyone who comes to a point in their life where they are transplanted to a completely different society on the other side of the globe. How to make sense of it all? In the room, most people will either start by investigating Ambulantes, a double slide projection of photographs of street sellers moving their goods in various ingenious ways without benefit of forklifts (a nice complement to the August Sander-inspired typologies currently on display on another floor of Tate Modern) - or the visitor will be drawn to the clamour of Paradox of Praxis, a video of Alÿs pushing a block of ice through the city for nine hours until it completely melts. These two works, so different in tone, have rather obvious points of comparison, as the non-motorised locomotion of trade in a place with terminally delayed modernity. Alÿs, of course, is not selling the ice, though he is, in a sense, selling the documentation of its demise. Is this right, or comfortable, we might wonder, when the people in Ambulantes are pushing awkward objects for real, so to speak, because they have to, to survive? The artist's survival is equally precarious, and an artist's work itself may be on the surface more difficult to justify, from a 'modern' society's point of view - if the production of the artist is something that is deemed either unnecessary, or in this case, if no object remains for the art market after the effort. The right of the artist to work in a way that could be seen as a parody of the work of the ambulantes may also be challenged particularly when the artist is in some ways the eternal outsider, even after years of being part of the local furniture, so to speak - though I believe Alys' sympathies to lie entirely with the ambulantes, and the joke to fall entirely on himself, as he doubles over to carry the precious ice down some steps. (Most visitors were watching with serious attention and I was relieved to spot at least one other person helplessly chuckling.) All the issues raised by the juxtaposition of these two works are themselves references to Turista, an action that took place a couple of years after Alÿs began collecting photos for Ambulantes, in which he spent a day standing behind a sign offering his services as a tourist, alongside others touting for work as electricians, plumbers, etc.

Another point of intertextuality of Alÿs' oeuvre in the narrative of this exhibition: Ambulantes is projected at floor level, so that the viewer, even the child viewer, is looking down on the people in the photographs. This positioning problematises the viewer-subject relationship in the same way as Beggars, not exhibited here, but shot from above and always projected onto the floor to replicate the positioning of the viewer.

Alÿs continues to say, 'So this is Mexico City, where I have practiced most of my walking - these are the streets, the people, the politics' as you are inevitably drawn to the loudest piece in the room, Patriotic Tales, a mainly black and white video projection filling the entire wall of Room 4, partially glimpsed through open metal shelving that marks the boundary of Room 3, on which are displayed about fifty of Alÿs' magnetised metal dogs on roller skate wheels, and the video for their project, The Collector. At first you are looking through the dogs to see sheep - for Patriotic Tales is the documentation of Alÿs walking a series of sheep around the enormous flagpole in Mexico City's Zócalo square, in homage to the 1968 protests of civil servants in that place. Here is another kind of walk, but destinationless, going nowhere, and therefore as 'unproductive' as dragging a block of ice around, or indeed as the labour of those of the ambulantes who manage to sell little or nothing after their huge efforts. A loop, but a much smaller one, with a more specific target for its commentary. It is hard, watching, not to marvel at how the sheep continue to walk assuredly in the established circle, especially once they are being called out of the circle one by one, leaving a growing gap behind Alÿs. The animal choreography and performance of this single take is flawless, and the viewer becomes hypnotised by the ever changing yet predictable pattern of sheep, and the regular, endless tolling of the bell. This tolling takes on a new significance if, upon emerging from Room 4, one looks at the tiny painting Lynchings (Linchados), dwarfed by a long light box of ephemera, including materials relating to this phenomenon of people seeking 'justice' against accused community outsiders, in frustration at the perceived failures of the Mexican legal system. The bell tolls endlessly, for these dozens of victims, as it tolls too for the frustrations of hundreds of civil servants, for the wasted efforts of thousands of ambulantes. For us who laugh with Alÿs, seeing in his struggles with the ice a metaphor for our own hapless tilting at online forms that freeze, call centre menus that lead to no human voice, or jobs that seem to make no difference in the world, there is only the clanging of a handbell to signal us to start all over again, and the laughter of children at the inevitable end.
Finally, in a neat piece of circularity, the visitor might tear their eyes from the larger screens and see a fourteen-inch monitor with most of the colour drained from it, depicting Alÿs in a nightly perambulation with The Collector. This screen is at dog height, so that the best way to see it is to sit down on the bare floor, at the level of the Ambulantes. While it is impossible to see what magnetised detritus the dog might be collecting, instead what the viewer collects is more glimpses of Mexico City: late night lights of tiny shops and bars, rubbish sweepers, a street seller with a cart that lets off a dramatic blast of steam, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, and a drunk leaning against a post. Like the metal dog, you have been rapidly collecting impressions of Mexico City, and one more remains: upon leaving the room, you might notice an architectural drawing of the historic centre, a surprisingly straight grid belying the apparent chaos of the dog's wandering through tumbled backstreets.

Room 5

Re-enactments (video projection and ephemera)
Sound: bell tolling, occasional sirens, occasional insistently rung handbell, slide projector, German lied, commentary, Tijuana brass band, roar of car engine
Lighting: subdued. The ephemera are displayed on a long lightbox.

The sense of chaos and possible danger intensifies as this room confronts the visitor with a double video projection of Alÿs' walk through the city with a loaded gun. Alÿs has expressed regret at allowing this representation to reinforce the stereotype of Mexican urban violence; however from the ephemera displayed, it is obvious that the media there focus on the gangs. I also cannot believe that those in the population who can afford satellite television, or who live close to the US border, are not exposed to police documentaries featuring the very type of re-enactment Alÿs presents here - complete in its details of unrealistic dramatic closeups, police and public as 'actors' playing themselves, and the sudden point of view shot as Alÿs is bundled into the police car. Certainly the meticulous storyboarding displayed with the ephemera does a lot to unpack the contrived 'reality' of such programmes. I also don't think that the piece necessarily highlights incompetence in the Mexican police: the timecode on the tape of the original action, though condensed by editing, appeared to roll for only twelve minutes from the time he left the shop with the gun. It depends where you are, I suppose, but I think twelve minutes is a pretty good police response time.

But returning to consideration of narrative in the exhibition: one continues being immersed in the physicality of Mexico City (shops with shutters drawn, a man carrying a cello), while considering the political and social milieu. 'This is how it is here now,' Alÿs seems to be saying. 'Now come into the next room and I will show you the mechanics of it, and how it came to be this way.'

Room 6

Politics of Rehearsal (video on television, small projection and ephemera)
dog fetching ball (video on laptop)
Caracoles (video projection of boy and bottle)
La Leçon de Musique (painting of two men blowing on paper)
Sound: more chaos of (German, European) piano and song versus (Latin American) Tijuana brass band, roaring car engine and sporadic handbell, with occasional sirens and constant speech with intermittent additional Latin American music from documentary in Room 8
Lighting: subdued, mainly from projection screens and light boxes with a few spotlights on the painting

The mechanics behind the current Mexico, where ambulantes and civil servants alike struggle, where garbage lines the streets every night and where anyone can buy a gun and walk down the street with it, Alÿs suggests, began with Harry Truman's inaugural speech in 1949, in which he positioned the United States as prosperous and progressive, and said that the way to safeguard this prosperity was to recognise Latin America as undeveloped, and to give aid so that they could embrace modernity. This speech opens the video Politics of Rehearsal. However, Alÿs suggests through the voice of commentator Cuauhtémoc Medina, in order for the United States to remain prosperous and to keep the upper hand, this modernity must be forever delayed. This room is full of metaphors for the delay: the rehearsal, in which a song is never sung straight through, and a stripper stops her act and begins to dress again every time the musicians pause; the dog who endlessly fetches a ball, eager for reward but only to have the ball thrown away again; the papers that are endlessly ruffled in a third projection, or blown to a fragile and pointless verticality in the painting; the circle of men who draw on each other's backs, a sort of Ouroboros of eternal labour; the boy who is determined to kick a bottle up a hill, even though it will always fall down again.

Room 7

Rehearsal I (El Ensayo) (maquette version, video projection)
Rehearsal I (large video projection)
Sound: very loud Tijuana brass band, still louder gunning of a hapless VW engine
Lighting: the interior of this room is dark, lit only by the projection screen

Never one to shy away from reworking an idea again and again, here Alÿs presents the musical rehearsal and the bottle rolled into one. There were always people watching these videos, laughing as the jaunty red car failed yet again to ascend the Tijuana hill, or make it to the US border beyond. The rules were as with Politics of Rehearsal: when the music rehearsal stopped, the progress of the car stopped. Of course Alÿs was controlling not only the car, but also the brass band: explaining his ideas for a composition without a score or musical terminology, a hundred pauses and reworkings were inevitable. The use of music of his own composition will be echoed in Room 16, and in the extract of Bolero (Shoeshine blues) playing in the documentary shown outside the exhibition.

Room 8

When Faith Moves Mountains (large video projection)
Sound: diegetic speech, soundtrack music, with intrusions from the car and brass band from Room 7
Lighting: Dark except for projection screen and light spilling in from the doorway of the next room

Our artist guide might well continue, 'Well, if eternally delayed modernity is the mirage resulting in the chaos and poverty shown in Rooms 3 to 5, what can we do about it? However absurd it seems, faith can literally move mountains!' One of the most popular pieces in the exhibition, it was apparent in this 'making of' documentary that the Peruvian student volunteers for this intervention on a grand scale found the experience of shoveling sand up one side and down the other of a massive dune an overwhelmingly uplifting one. While initially treating it as some kind of bad joke ('A Mexican, a Belgian and a tutor walked into the union bar... I said, "Don't they have sand dunes in Mexico?"'), afterwards participants spoke of being made to 'think' when they saw the shanty towns near the dunes; of the elation at coming over the ridge and seeing the view; of the euphoria of physical activity and communal spirit ('I felt really great!'). And, as so often with Alÿs' work, it immediately became the stuff of fable, tales to be passed down to next year's freshers; dreams of 'future projects' they might do: 'Drink the Atlantic, melt the Antarctic, paint the sky... simple things like that!'

Room 9

Silencio (array of rubber mats filling the floor)
Sound: Not silent! as the speech and music from When Faith Moves Mountains spills in, though people tended not to talk in this room, often walking through the shortest possible route on tiptoe in case they weren't allowed to walk on the artworks
Light: optimistic, with natural light from a large window, subdued by a translucent shade, supplemented by bright artificial light

As you salsa your way out of Room 8 (an exuberant chorus of 'Si! Si! Si!' plays out the credits) you are confronted by a floor of rubber mats, each bearing a differently coloured finger raised to lips, but no verbal explanation. Only diligent reading of books other than the Tate catalogue, or a sharp eye for some tiny print in the foyer outside the exhibition, might hint that Alÿs went to Panama trying to spread a minute's silence, rumour style (One Minute of Silence, 1993). But the message, in this room filled with more light than any so far, seemed to be getting through; aside from the noise of the soundtrack from Room 8, there wasn't much conversation here. 'I want one of these for my front door!' cried a woman, laughing at the prospect of finally being able to silence noisy family and friends.

Room 10 (corridor)

Sandcastles (video screen embedded in wall)
Déjà vu 1 (small painting under glass)
Sound: waves and spades on sand, commentary from The Green Line, speech and music from When Faith Moves Mountains
Lighting: dim, lit entirely by light spilling in from adjacent rooms

A miniature version of When Faith Moves Mountains, and shown on a smaller screen. Except this little mountain was hopeless; it would inevitably be washed away, despite the diligent efforts of the boys who built it. But that was the whole point; a game, just as the stones that will be so earnestly skipped in Room 12. Perhaps taking things as a game, or at least poetically, is the best answer to the deferred mirage of progress. It was mainly the children who enjoyed walking on the Silencio mats, without fear of damaging valuable art work.

Room 11

inner room:
The Green Line (Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic)
(large video projection and laptop with map and commentary menu)
Sound: the voices of the commentary
Light: lit only by the screens

outer room:
The Green Line (text panels, maps, ephemera)
Small paintings of Israeli landscapes
Sound: the commentaries
Light: ample natural light from large windows, with a view of the Thames and St Paul's Cathedral

'Now, as the outsider showing you Mexico from the inside, I move you to just one of the many places round the world where I work in my guise as an international artist. Behold the situation in Israel and Palestine: so entrenched and seemingly intractable; so absurd when a grease pencil draws a line on the map that is actually sixty metres wide when scaled up. So here I will show you how I made a 1:1 map, by doing another walk, this time with a can of leaking green paint. And just as I have shown you that the video or painting is the tail wagged by the dog of sketches and ephemera and a long, vibrant process of creation, here I will show you a variety of commentaries and critiques of my work, results of my work seen while viewing the work itself.'

This last is actually very clever: by interviewing around a dozen people with varying points of view on the conflict and the work, and playing them as a rotating soundtrack to the video of himself doing the walk, Alÿs created a captive audience who were willing to stay to see the video several times. The commentators were listed on the laptop, and changed automatically if no one selected a particular name. Meanwhile an animated map traced Alÿs' route as he walked it while the reactions of passerby were juxtaposed with both Alÿs' progress and the commentaries.

Camguns: here we come to the inevitable device signalling 'this is precious: do not touch' - the little rope slung across the corner, gamely protecting the assemblage of Camguns, made from found film reels and assorted junk, emblems of violence, or a kind of media violence, or the possibility of tempering violence through photographic / artistic intervention. What good is this rope really doing, aside from providing a distraction from the work? I wonder if it was some sort of compromise; at Tate St Ives they have these strips on the floor that emit a guilt-inducing wail whenever anyone looks too closely at a painting. The Camguns, though no doubt valuable, are also pretty robust. Alÿs is doing his best to bring the life of the studio into this exhibition, with the lightboxes of sketches, and the Le Temps du sommeil paintings with hi-top sneaker prints where the artist has stepped on the work. Reality in most studios is that things get chucked around, certainly not treated with the white-gloved hagiographic reverence they do once entering the gallery. Speaking of playing, and chucking things around, it might be time for the next room...

Room 12

Children's games (large video projection, replacing Retouque/painting)
Sound: relatively quiet, stones on water
Light: dark except for light from projector screen and natural light from adjacent rooms pouring through two open doorways

I wonder what technical, copyright or artistic decision caused the substitution of this video, after the exhibition booklets were printed. Retoque/painting, in which Alÿs repainted sixty road stripes in the former Panama Canal Zone, would have continued the theme of borders after The Green Line; instead the video of Moroccan boys skipping stones provides an intellectual rest after concentration on the varying points of view in the Green Line commentary. At any rate, there were always a few people seeking quiet refuge in here. This video continues the theme of loop; it is seamlessly cut from top to tail with no title or credits, so that I watched for a good ten minutes before realising I must have seen it all (the piece is only a few minutes long). Another little joke or mental displacement, like Déjà vu or the 'looking up' globe in Room 2. Of course it is really only the post-medieval/Renaissance Western culture that sees time almost exclusively as linear progress rather than circularity, something Alÿs would have encountered in his studies of medieval urbanism. This circularity gives a dreamlike quality which leads on nicely to the next room.

Room 13

Le Temps du sommeil (dozens of small paintings arranged around the corner of two adjacent walls)
Sound: intermittent roar of tornadoes
Light: well lit by large windows

One half of this room is empty, or occupied by windows. The other half contains a little snake of people making their way from left to right along this collection of very private dream-like paintings, often produced late at night. The whole collection may suggest some kind of narrative, at least the sort of nonsensical narrative with erratic changes of scene typical of dreams. Besuited figures performing mysterious acts on grassy moonlit swards, glimpsed through an ochre haze that is itself torn with incised drawings and date stamps. And of course, the occasional footprint. 'When the problems of politics are too big, and poetry and even play fail you, it is best to fall back into the subconscious and dream. Perhaps a solution will emerge.'

As you leave the room, there in the darkened passageway is a painting of a man skipping into a puddle. Was there one like it somewhere else? It's Déjà vu.

'And consider, visitor: have you seen what you think you have seen? And does it mean what it at first appears?'

Room 14

Tornado (large video projection)
Déjà vu 2 (hallway outside projection room)
Sound: a huge dynamic range from the video, ranging from silence to quiet breathing, pounding footsteps and ragged breath, to roaring winds off the scale of the microphone's recording range. During the quiet times a distant siren can occasionally be heard, not ambient to the location of this film, but coming through the wall from Re-enactment on the other side of the exhibition
Light: only from the wall-size projection in this windowless room with no window in the corridor outside

If I say too much about what a possible dream solution might be, I will stray into my topic for the second part of this review. I can only say that whatever intellectualising may be going on in the room that follows this one, all thought was absent in the sheer intensity of this experience - and that is just for the viewers, never mind Alÿs.

Room 15

Tornado / 'situaciòn dada' (ephemera and small paintings)
Sound: quiet punctuated by the periodic roaring of the tornadoes
Light: well lit by natural light from large windows or overhead lights during late openings

A return to the intellectual, and the ephemeral. A collection of small paintings, newspaper articles, post it notes and even a spoon (shades of the catalogue photograph from the early work Péchés de jeunesse, featuring a girl with a spoon hanging from the end of her nose?). All dealing with - ways of accepting the inevitable. More on this in Part 2 of my review, but acceptance may be part of Alÿs' possible proposed answer.

Room 16

Song for Lupita (Mañana, Mañana) (small 16mm film projection and 45 rpm single on record player)
Sound: whirr of the projector, crackle of the needle in the groove of the record, and of course the lullaby repetition of the woman's voice in the song, and the guitar accompaniment. A sudden rush of crowd noise when the exit door is opened.
Light: very subdued, only from the projector and natural light spilling in through the open doorway from the previous room

A delicately drawn animation shows a woman pouring water endlessly from one glass into another, and back again. A circle, and the path through the exhibition has come full circle. Time to sit in the dark corner on the leather sofa, or to be hypnotised by the song and the motion of the record player (who has 45's any more, or anything to play them on?). 'If modernity is a mirage, time is a circle and activities lead to nothing when the ice melts and the sand dune blows back and the song is never completed, then just go with it. Relax and accept. And when you're ready, exit through the gift shop. But you won't find any of my postcards there - you've already had one, my gift to you.'

It does well to be grateful. Not just for the postcard and the work, but for the way it is presented. How much more imaginative than the chronological approach so typical of retrospectives. And how much in keeping with Alÿs' style of working, where multiple projects are developed concurrently over overlapping durations of years, giving critical distance as he flits between projects during the course of a day, and where he examines all items in his oeuvre in relation to each other, looking for gaps in an overall lifetime narrative.

Exit foyer

documentary (video on widescreen tv)

Just as you emerge, blinking and a little overwhelmed from a full dose of Alÿs, there is the possibility to experience a little more, over coffee, as a sort of appendix. The video was actually a very good thing to come back to after a meal and a stroll along the Thames; it features interviews with many people who know or collaborate with Alÿs, including a very engaging mariachi musician, as well as extracts from some of his works not included in this exhibition, such as Railings, Barrenderos, If You Are a Typical Spectator What You Are Really Doing Is Waiting for the Accident to Happen and Bolero (Shoeshine Blues).

Gift shop (Alÿs-related items)

- A Story of Deception catalogue
exhibition posters (sold out)
- Fabiola book (documenting Alÿs' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and other venues)
- DVD of the documentary playing in the foyer (sold out by the last weekend)
- tornado watching book
- a few books of philosophy
- no further merchandise (the merchandise related to Exposed, the other Tate exhibition, was endless)

I wonder whether the comparative lack of merchandise was also at Alÿs' direction. It would be in keeping with his and critic/collaborator Medina's concerns about the art world moving ever closer to the world of entertainment, and with his (failed) attempts to saturate the market with copies of his paintings in order to keep the prices low ['Meet the Arist: Francis Alÿs', Tateshots 30 April 2007, and Rotulistas, 1993-97].

Area in front of entrance

The Nightwatch (bank of 16 televisions playing 16 CCTV videos)
summaries of actions (small stencilled labels running along wall)

The videos, recording the capers of a fox released in the National Portrait Gallery in London, was a taster for the exhibition, something to observe while queuing for admittance, or a background to coffee and cakes afterward. It was also nice to have a work that people who could not afford tickets or membership could see for free. People really enjoyed looking for the fox; one woman jumped up and down with glee, squealing, 'I saw the fox, I saw the fox!' Not just little hops; these were full, joyful, heels-smacking-the-bum jumps.

The stencils went largely unnoticed by the public, until the final evening at closing time when I saw people, herded out of the exhibition, desperately reading and photographing them in an attempt to squeeze the last drop of experience out of the event. Many of them address the reader in the second person - you do this, then observe that. I wonder how many people will try staring into the sky to attract a little crowd, or dragging a bottle cap with their shoe against the pavement until it magically transforms into a coin.

Some final thoughts on the exhibition narrative:

When moving through this exhibition, it was very difficult to backtrack and visit early rooms for comparison with the later, because of the bottleneck at When Faith Moves Mountains. Really the visitor was being forced into a linear, or rather circular, narrative; the pattern of rooms formed a loop, when the same space has previously been more open, as with the Vorticists or Cildo Meireles. I don't know if this was Alÿs' intention (to prevent backtracking through a bottleneck; the linear / intertextual narrative almost certainly was), or if anyone could have foreseen the crowds towards the end of the exhibition's run. Usually late night Friday openings means having the rooms to yourself: I found it so at Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern, and even Picasso at Tate Liverpool, both earlier this year. But Alÿs was packing them in, and they were staying for hours. The sofa in front of Politics of Rehearsal was crowded with men ('I'm appreciating art! Honest!'), twenty feet of leather sofa was continuously occupied and the doors nearly blocked with people standing to see When Faith Moves Mountains, it could be hard to elbow your way into the slow moving line 'reading' the series of Le Temps du sommeil, and as for The Green Line! It would have taken white-gloved Japanese train conductors to shoehorn more people into the room. They sat on all the seats, and on the floor, and leaned on the low wall that fed along the entranceway, and stood in the entranceway, peering over each other to read the subtitles. One expects great crowds at blockbusters such as Van Gogh at the Royal Academy, also earlier this year. But a solo show by a living contemporary artist? Maybe I don't get out enough, but I've never seen such crowds, so engaged for so long, come to see the work of someone who has a long and happy career still ahead.

As the Tate catalogue says, we look forward to Alÿs presenting himself again. [Vicente Todolí, p. 6]

on to part 2: A Story of Deception: A Spiritual Reading

back to blog home

Francis Alys' website

Tate Modern, London

The exhibition continues at WIELS, Brussels from 9 October to 30 January 2011

then travels to MOMA New York from 8 May to 1 August 2011

All image sources copyright Francis Alÿs, and rephotographed by Margaret Sharrow, 2010. Pen sketches and text copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2010.

21 September 2010

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