PRINT Summer 2002



“IN MY CITY EVERYTHING is temporary,” writes Francis Alÿs. And indeed, the ephemeral is the central aesthetic principle for this artist, who is perhaps best known for his “walks”—like The Collector, 1991–92, which entailed his pulling a magnetic toy on wheels through the streets of Mexico City, picking up bits of metal along the way; or Narcotourism, 1996, for which Alÿs traversed Copenhagen over the course of seven days under the influence of seven different drugs. Such works chart a literal and figurative path through an urban, social, or discursive space. One might say that Alÿs has invented an art of passing through.

The Belgian artist first encountered the city that inspired his peripatetic approach to art in 1987. Visiting the sprawling megalopolis as an architect, Alÿs soon repudiated that practice and turned to sculpture. Sculpture then gave way to painting, and painting, in turn, to the challenge of his more fleeting adventures. Yet these moves should not be understood simply as rejections. Not to be an architect, not a sculptor, not a painter, is not in Alÿs’s case an act of negation. These gestures belong to the decidedly fuzzier logic of almost: almost architecture, almost sculpture, almost painting.

*Last month Alÿs organized for the third Bienal Iberoamericana de Lima what is arguably his most ambitious work to date, When Faith Moves Mountains. In a conversation excerpted here, Alÿs describes the project, which involved the coordinated action of hundreds of volunteers on the arid dunes of Ventanilla, an area on the outskirts of Lima dotted with the makeshift shelters of a shantytown, as an attempt to interject a “social allegory” into the cultural conversation that is Peru. Herein lies its peculiar strength: His work never tells any story in particular but rather crystallizes an image that demands storytelling as an active interpretive process. One day a mountain moved four inches. So begins a tale that we, the audience, must tell.

Saul Anton

ON APRIL 11, 2002, five hundred volunteers were supplied with shovels and asked to form a single line at the foot of a giant sand dune in Ventanilla, an area outside Lima. This human comb pushed a certain quantity of sand a certain distance, thereby moving a sixteen-hundred-foot-long sand dune about four inches from its original position.

Lima, a city of nine million people, is situated on a strip of land along the Pacific coast of Peru. The city is surrounded by enormous sand dunes on which shantytowns have sprung up, populated by economic immigrants and political refugees who escaped the civil war fought during the ’80s and ’90s by the military and guerrilla groups like Shining Path. After a week of scouting, we chose the Ventanilla dunes, where more than seventy thousand people live with no electricity or running water.

When Faith Moves Mountains is a project of linear geological displacement. It has been germinating ever since I first visited Lima, with Cuauhtémoc Medina, the Mexican curator and critic. We were there for the last Lima Bienal, in October 2000, about a year before the Fujimori dictatorship finally collapsed. The city was in turmoil. There were clashes on the street and the resistance movement strengthened. It was a desperate situation, and I felt that it called for an “epic” response, a “beau geste” at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent. Insinuating a social allegory into those circumstances seemed to me more fitting than engaging in some sculptural exercise.

When Faith Moves Mountains attempts to translate social tensions into narratives that in turn intervene in the imaginal landscape of a place. The action is meant to infiltrate the local history and mythology of Peruvian society (including its art histories), to insert another rumor into its narratives. If the script meets the expectations and addresses the anxieties of that society at this time and place, it may become a story that survives the event itself. At that moment, it has the potential to become a fable or an urban myth. As Medina said while we were in Lima, “Faith is a means by which one resigns oneself to the present in order to invest in the abstract promise of the future.” The dune moved: This wasn’t a literary fiction; it really happened. It doesn’t matter how far it moved, and in truth only an infinitesimal displacement occurred—but it would have taken the wind years to move an equivalent amount of sand. So it’s a tiny miracle. The story starts there. The interpretations of it needn’t be accurate, but must be free to shape themselves along the way.

This process can also operate on the narratives of art history, not to mention those of the art world. Paradox of Praxis, 1997, a piece in which I pushed a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melted into a puddle of water, was a settling of accounts with Minimalist sculpture. Sometimes, to make something is really to make nothing; and paradoxically, sometimes to make nothing is to make something.

Similarly, When Faith Moves Mountains is my attempt to deromanticize Land art. When Richard Long made his walks in the Peruvian desert, he was pursuing a contemplative practice that distanced him from the immediate social context. When Robert Smithson built the Spiral Jetty on the Salt Lake in Utah, he was turning civil engineering into sculpture and vice versa. Here, we have attempted to create a kind of Land art for the landless, and, with the help of hundreds of people and shovels, we created a social allegory. This story is not validated by any physical trace or addition to the landscape. We shall now leave the care of our story to oral tradition, as Plato says in the Republic. Only in its repetition and transmission is the work actualized. In this respect, art can never free itself from myth. Indeed, in modern no less than premodern societies, art operates precisely within the space of myth.

In this sense, myth is not about the veneration of ideals—of pagan gods or political ideology—but rather an active interpretive practice performed by the audience, who must give the work its meaning and its social value. After all, isn’t the story of modern and contemporary art and its cult of the object really just a myth of materialism, of matter as an ideal? For me, it is a refusal to acknowledge the transitory, a failure to see that art really exists, so to speak, in transit.