PRINT April 1999


[As] the highly rational societies of the Renaissance felt the need to create Utopias, we of our times must create fables.—Francis Alÿs, the loser/the winner, 1998

MY EPIGRAPH WAS EASY ENOUGH to find. It was typewritten by Francis Alÿs on the lower left corner of a tourist map of Stockholm, which had been spread out on a simple antique wooden table complete with a matching chair in a room inside the Swedish city’s Nordic Museum. Together with other writings and a postcard, the installation was one component of the artist’s the loser/the winner, 1998, itself part of an ongoing series of projects the artist calls paseos (strolls). Generally carried out with various props in tow, the paseos have been enacted in any number of diverse locales: Alÿs strolled the avenues of Havana while wearing magnetic shoes; he traversed the working-class neighborhood of Pinheiros in São Paulo carrying a punctured can of paint that left a fine, colored line tracing the artist’s path; and, in the case of the loser/the winner, he walked from one end of Stockholm to the other clad in a sweater that unraveled with every step.

In the loser/the winner, Alÿs’s work—his walking—connected two sites separated in space and time: The point of departure was the modern, rationalist building, very much in the Bauhaus style, that houses Stockholm’s Museum of Science and Technology. The destination was a nineteenth-century neo-romantic structure recalling in turn the palaces of a century before; today it is home to the Nordic Museum, a curious visual encyclopedia embracing everything from ethnographic displays of Laplander culture to a recent show concerning the relationship of Swedes to their cars. Alÿs’s hike had taken him through the parks that lie between the museums. At both sites, viewers had at their disposal (in racks located at the entrance of the two rooms where the exhibition took place) postcards printed with the artist’s image, his back turned to us, clad in an electric blue sweater, its tonality obviously manipulated on a computer, with a long unraveled thread extending from one of the sleeves to the edge of the photo. The following typed inscription was found on the postcard:

Here is a fairy tale for you
Which is just as good as true
What unfolds will give you passion
Castles on hills & also treason
How, from his cape a fatal thread
To her window the villains led.

Two small paintings, one per venue, rounded out the installation. Each represented a tall, anonymous individual, wearing the blue sweater, strolling through a dark forest, an appropriate enough setting for a fairy tale. The image, painstakingly rendered on a canvas partially covered with a torn piece of translucent paper, was the only document in which the audience could actually see the determined walker in his idealized setting. By contrast, in the fifteen photos strewn across the table at the historical museum, the blue thread meandering in the grass or between the somber trees was the only trace of the absent stroller. The fact that the artist was missing raised a number of questions. Had the action actually taken place? Or better, is it beside the point whether it took place or not? For Alÿs’s paseo is a fable—a journey that is also already a story of a journey—and fables are nothing but a curious mix of reality and fiction, a truth half told in a world of half-truths, that questions the truthfulness of reality itself.

Alÿs’s personal history might itself be a fable extracted from his work. Once upon a time—actually, at the end of 1987—the Belgian architect arrived in Mexico as part of a French assistance program to that country’s government (participation seemingly allowed our protagonist to avoid military service in Europe). With no knowledge of Spanish, the young Alÿs, who had studied engineering in Belgium and architectural history in Venice, quickly found himself working on the aqueducts of La Mixteca (Oaxaca), several hours south of Mexico City. On one of his days off, walking through the streets of the capital’s historic center, an activity that had developed into a routine of his visits to the city, he happened to meet curator Guillermo Santamarina, a tireless promoter of contemporary art in that country. The setting was the Salón de los Aztecas café, a space that housed art shows and a bookstore, not far from the Zócalo, the magnificent square in front of Mexico City’s baroque cathedral. Their initial conversation may have been about streets and books, but we can surely guess that before long the difficulties facing contemporary art in Mexico came up. Around that time, the Salón de los Aztecas was the meeting place for a whole new generation of artists. Almost by coincidence, Alÿs would encounter there those with whom he would soon begin to show his work on a regular basis: the British artist Melanie Smith and the American Thomas Glassford; and the locals Pablo Vargas Lugo, Gabriel Orozco, Diego Toledo, and Abraham Cruz Villegas. From the very beginning, Alÿs’s work responded intimately to the environs in which it was realized, incorporating local materials and reflecting on the conditions of production in Mexico. One of his earliest works would be a poignant critique of the idealization of the Mexican pictorial tradition: three pieces of chewing gum, red, white, and green, like the colors of the Mexican flag, attached to a wall. It was in Mexico City that Alÿs, toward the end of 1991, would complete his first paseo, walking through the city’s streets, dragging along a little magnetic dog mounted on wheels. From that point on, the fables would replace the aqueducts.

Naturally, the genealogy of Alÿs’s perambulations is bulky. The nineteenth-century flaneur appears among the antecedents, but the hypnotic fascination that the dazzling shop windows famously exerted on the Baudelairean figure finds in Alÿs an infinitely more cynical and incredulous response. If Alÿs’s strolls are fables of sorts, they are painfully crystalline ones, like the hyperreal perceptions that follow a hangover. In 1997, for example, he was invited to contribute a work to the annual edition of the InSite show, and he decided to carry out a paseo between the two host cities, Tijuana and San Diego. But he chose a path such that the border dividing Mexico and the United States would never be crossed. Over the course of thirty-five days, he traveled from Tijuana to San Diego, with short layovers in Mexico City, Panama City, Santiago, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Bangkok, Rangoon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Anchorage, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. During his furious five-week itinerary, this alienated tourist stayed in touch with one of the show’s curators via e-mail. Together with the documentation relating to the journey, this correspondence—itself a sort of harried, poetic diary—was presented as an archive open to the public at the CICUT library in Tijuana.

The Loop articulates, on one hand, a critique of the tragic absurdity that marks the extensive border between the United States and Mexico, two countries that have signed mutual cooperation pacts yet remain divided by a barrier that can only bring to mind the Berlin Wall. All the more remarkable, then, that Alÿs could do so without directly commenting on the piece’s obvious subtext, indeed refraining from “all critical content beyond the physical displacement of the artist” (as stated on the postcard printed for this project)—an affirmation that, paradoxically, only reinforces the work’s political implications. From a different perspective, The Loop is marked by the double-edged attitude toward the commissioning institution. The artist, after all, has seen to it that for all practical purposes InSite has footed the bill for an all-expenses-paid world tour, foregrounding and thus parodying the contractual aspect of the project.

The relationship between artists and institutions is paradoxical in other paseos as well. In Narcoturismo (Narcotourism), realized from May 6 to May 12, 1996, for a group show at the Louisiana Museum outside Copenhagen, Alÿs wrote: “I will walk in the city over the course of seven days, under the influence of a different drug each day. My trip will be recorded through photographs, notes, or any other media that become relevant.” The piece proved to be an exhausting exercise that left Alÿs physically drained. The paseo was a test of resistance for both the artist and the institution. In this case, the irony of a museum officially authorizing the artist to consume drugs is not difficult to miss. Narcoturismo is the perfect complement to The Loop; in both, lost time is transformed into its contemporary version: time “wasted.”

Rather than the shadow of the flaneur, then, Alÿs’s strolls violently conjure another figure at the margins of modernity: the subject of the situationist drift. Situationists, halfway through the century, turned to “the drift”—a “fleet-footed technique through diverse environments,” according to Guy Debord—as an antiurban critique of the modern city’s rationalism. It was a question of mapping out, against the grain, the urban fabric, of discovering its personal underside, of unearthing the true experience underneath the layer of spectacle that would cover it up, like a thick layer of grime, in the contemporary city. At the end of the century, Alÿs’s paseos are a parodic, indeed tragic, version of that situationist vision. Some, like the loser/the winner, openly exhibit the vestiges of the romantic ideology that animated the attitudes of the situationists. Others, such as Narcoturismo, seem to be conceived and executed as the nightmarish underside of the situationist project, erratic wanderings through the peripheral streets of a sleepless Paris. In Alÿs’s strolls, an astringent criticism harmonizes with flights of the imagination, but there is no chance for situationist melancholy. The “original experience,” a longing for some uncontaminated and pure access to reality that still motivated Debord and appeared as a leitmotif in his restless invectives, has completely disappeared, as has the very possibility of conceiving a willful and autonomous subject or the notion of a pure and undisputable “truth.” We, Alÿs’s contemporaries, are left with nothing more than a world of white lies and half-truths. A world of fables, and the space that separates them is a distance to be traveled without the illusion of final destination. A perfect distance for a stroll.

Carlos Basualdo is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Translated from Spanish by Vincent Martin.