PRINT May 2006


On a bright day in late March, scores of local fishermen in Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, assembled to realize Francis Alÿs’s Bridge-Puente, a work for which two chains of rowboats would extend from their respective harbors to the horizon—poignantly suggesting a link between the two countries. Writing in response to Alÿs’s most recent—and perhaps most poetic—intervention to date, art historian and critic Mark Godfrey reflects on the practice of an artist who explores history, culture, and political conflict in eloquently corporeal terms.

LAST SEPTEMBER, Francis Alÿs hung a length of string from the skylight above the stairwell of a run-down eighteenth-century London town house. The string, stretching nearly to the ground floor, some fifty feet below, looked gnarled all along its length. But when you got close, you could see that the gnarls were actually tidy knots of various kinds; and walking up the stairs to the second-floor landing, you found these knots depicted on three small documents, the sorts of things you might see on the wall at a sailing club. Yet here each knot was identified not by its name but as a symbol of a particular movement: Instead of “bowline,” “overhand,” etc., the labels read, I WALK STRAIGHT, I TURN LEFT, and so on. By treating the string as a code and these illustrations as its key, you could work out the path of the walk that was being described—but only for the fragment of cord visible from the landing. Up and down the string stretched, disappearing into sunlight above and darkness below. Here was a work that provided the tools for its own decryption while making any comprehensive interpretation impossible: a neat allegory for Alÿs’s recent practice.

Knots, 2005, was part of Alÿs’s exhibition “Seven Walks,” organized by Artangel, which also comprised six videos, two slide projections, paintings, drawings, photographs, and a wealth of material besides. At the core of the show was the thirty-minute video Guards (made with Alÿs’s frequent collaborator, Rafael Ortega), documenting an action that the artist organized early one Sunday morning in July 2004. That day, sixty-four members of the Coldstream Guards were dropped off individually at locations throughout London. Their instructions were to walk, in full ceremonial regalia, until they located fellow soldiers, at which point they were to fall into step and continue to search for other guards until all sixty-four had come together. The eight-by-eight formation would then march to the nearest bridge, fall out of step halfway across, and disperse.

The video begins with stark de Chirican scenes of empty gray plazas. Enter the scarlet figures of lone guardsmen, ambling casually in search of their mates. Wonderfully absurd sights give way to the pleasures of sound as the guards meet up, the video increasingly animated by the rhythm of their steps. Tourists gawp at this never-before-seen Sunday morning spectacle as the guardsmen add a flourish, momentarily setting aside Alÿs’s instructions and breaking out of their columns into lines that peel away, curve off, and rejoin. Sometimes you groan at agonizing near misses as one group slips down a side street just as another enters the frame. By contrast, each meeting is hugely satisfying—none more so than when a small rectangle of fifteen guards slots into place with the irregular polygon of forty-nine others to complete the final square.

In the show’s catalogue, Alÿs speaks of his wish to explore the “human desire to match up to the perfection of geometry,” and indeed, it’s hard to imagine even the least military-minded viewer failing to be seduced by the order of the guards. But if the work asks us to acknowledge and question our fascination with power, so too does it provoke us to wonder. What are all these lavish uniforms, towering bearksin hats, and parade-ground pageantries for? Whom or what do these soldiers guard? In the wake of the July 2005 attacks on London (which took place while the film was being edited), such questions were thrown into relief. Yet if the guards seem out of place and—the synchronization of their steps notwithstanding—utterly out of time, the video reveals them to be no more of an anachronism than the medieval dragons and heraldic crests that are everywhere on the streets of London, cheek by jowl with the Brutalist Barbican and the po-mo excesses of countless ’80s office blocks. While Guards alludes to all of these different ideas, to watch it is to be continually drawn back to the unfolding of the event and to understand it on the most literal level: The soldiers are just doing what Alÿs has specified in his instructions. As strange as it might seem for the Coldstream Guards to have worked with an artist, the match is in fact a perfect fit, for here is a group of people used to following orders. No rules could seem absurd to them.

In Alÿs’s London exhibition, such complexities were elaborated on in the numerous additional works that were shown alongside the video, slighter projects that had not required permissions, planning, multiple cameras, or months in editing suites. Some, like maps on which Alÿs had drawn the routes of cross-London strolls he undertook on the longest and shortest days of 2005, underlined the playfulness of Guards, while others seemed to take up its political implications: The Path of Most Surveillance, 2005, for example, is a map on which Alÿs marked a route for a walking tour that would keep one constantly in view of London’s countless CCTV cameras. Railings, 2004, meanwhile, tempted us to treat Guards primarily as a continuation of Alÿs’s post-Cagean interests in sound. In this trio of videos, Alÿs walks around London’s Georgian squares clack-clacking a stick along their iron railings and at one point setting off a car alarm, thus turning the armor of paranoid London into a found musical instrument.

In keeping with his established practice, Alÿs also presented scores of images, e-mails, faxes, and drawings, arrayed in ring-bound files, across tables, and even on mantelpieces. Since these items were not clearly differentiated from the discrete artworks on view, everything seemed to carry equal weight. Visitors could pore over exchanges between Alÿs, Artangel, the Lisson Gallery, and miscellaneous London authorities, and get a sense of the artist’s evolving plans for the project as well as of the obstacles he faced. Laying bare the processes of making, in spirit, if not in form, this presentation of ephemera recalled the best traditions of the Russian avant-garde, as well as classic post-Minimalist art. But what seemed most crucial was the fact that the “extraneous” materials affected viewers’ understanding of the video in unpredictable ways: For example, a photograph of Carl Andre’s 1979 wood-block sculpture Fermi suggested a possible genealogy for Guards, and also recalled Alÿs’s ambivalent relationship to Minimalism. (His 1997 work Paradox of Praxis, in which he pushed a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City, seems in part a parody of Donald Judd et al.)

Yet for those who noticed it amidst the profusion of artifacts and documents, the most powerful element of “Seven Walks” was probably an e-mailed RSVP from the Coldstream Guards’ sergeant major, explaining that the soldiers couldn’t attend the Artangel opening because they were now stationed in Basra. If an installation can be said to have a punctum, this was it. The communiqué shattered the assumption that the guards are merely the Queen’s parading playthings. Suddenly you realized that they were active soldiers after all. While perhaps obsolete in London, they were in mortal danger abroad.

On account of the supplementary materials, Guards’s meanings were never secured. Like a kind of floating signifier, the video was blown this way and that by the force of the things surrounding it, no matter how inconspicuously they were displayed. Alÿs’s simultaneous, unhierarchical presentation of modest and complex pieces was extraordinarily refreshing in a context in which so many artists simply present one grand masterwork after another. The tactic of letting works interpenetrate each other, suggesting, by turns, each other’s playful or critical characteristics, also operated in the service of Alÿs’s main ambition: to achieve a balance of politics and poetics. This is an equilibrium the artist has sought for years. To take one early example: For his contribution to the exhibition “inSite,” held at various venues in Tijuana and San Diego in 1997, Alÿs made a work called The Loop, for which he traveled between the two aforementioned cities via what might be called, with some understatement, the long way round. Electing not to cross the US-Mexico border, he followed an itinerary that took him from South America to the Pacific Rim to Alaska to Canada and finally to the West Coast. This ludicrous detour reflected the difficulties Mexicans face at the border while also (as Lynne Cooke has noted) parodying the excesses of “nomadic” ’90s artists. The work was concise in that it could be summed up in one sentence and a line on a map, but profligate in terms of the length of the journey and the vast collection of travel ephemera Alÿs exhibited in a Tijuana library after his trip. Thus The Loop addressed the politics of art and of life but avoided dogmatism, instead foregrounding a poetics that turned on the dynamic interaction of economy and excess.

The balance that Alÿs attempts to strike is necessarily precarious, and in the course of his career it has sometimes tipped. In 2003, in collaboration with Ortega, he made A man traces a line as he walks through the city of Athens shooting a flare every thirty steps, a DVD that alternates between footage of the artist and views of the city shot from a hilltop. Watching the chaotic street scenes, with Alÿs dodging this way and that, it’s impossible to judge the relationship between the flares, but their locations along a straight line are apparent in the panoramic views, and even clearer in a stunning photograph for which Alÿs digitally combined the shots taken from the hill. As elegant a project as this was (or rather, as elegant a juxtaposition of chaos and elegance), one wonders whether it might have struck the artist as excessively lyrical, particularly as one compares it to his next project, conducted in an equally ancient but far more contested city: Jerusalem.

Though it required no feats of organization, Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, 2004—commonly referred to by the artist and others as The Green Line—is one of Alÿs’s most challenging projects to date. Two years ago, the artist, long interested in the history of Jerusalem and in the wider circumstances of the Arab-Israeli conflict, revisited an old work, The Leak, 1995, to address this entirely different context—“a case of trying to protect myself by quoting myself,” as he has said. For The Leak, Alÿs walked around São Paulo with a pierced paint can in hand, spilling a line of blue like a snail’s trail behind him. Nine years later, he simply exchanged blue paint for green and, over two days, walked through Jerusalem, loosely following the “green line”—the armistice boundary that Moshe Dayan determined by drawing on a map with green pencil at the end of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Alÿs (as we see in the video component of the work) walked quite casually, starting at the southern end of the route and proceeding along roads and up hillsides, over grass, tarmac, and dusty rock, swerving to avoid lampposts, making split-second decisions to walk on this side of the street or that as, all the while, bewildered passersby looked on. At the end of day one he washed his hands clean of green paint, setting off again the next morning around the Old City and north in the direction of Ramallah.

Though this work had been initiated outside of any commission structure, the Israel Museum exhibited the video last year. In a wall text at the entrance to the show, Alÿs posed some extremely difficult questions:

Can an artistic intervention truly bring about an unforeseen way of thinking, or is it more a matter of creating a sensation of “meaninglessness” that shows the absurdity of the situation? Can an absurd act provoke a transgression that makes you abandon the standard assumptions on the sources of conflict? Can those kinds of artistic acts bring about the possibility of change? In any case, how can art remain politically significant without assuming a doctrinal standpoint or aspiring to become social activism? For the moment, I am exploring the following axiom: Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.

With these queries in mind, the viewer confronted the video. Its politics seemed at first quite easy to decipher: In the manner of Walter Benjamin’s historical materialist, Alÿs elected to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” This was fall 2005, when Ariel Sharon was erecting the “separation wall,” and when even those on the left of Israel’s political spectrum advocated a “united Jerusalem”—meaning a city fully under Israeli control. “United Jersulem” rhetoric tends to gloss over the fact that Jerusalem was, in fact, divided from 1948 until 1967. The Green Line reminds viewers of this elision, as if to propose it as an alternative starting point for negotiations. Meanwhile, as he literally re-created the green line, Alÿs simultaneously managed to forge an unspectacular representation of Palestinian and Israeli life in Jerusalem. Contra CNN images of Arab children applauding 9/11 or ultranationalist Jews baying for Arab blood, in Alÿs’s video civilians are shown simply going about their daily lives—and dealing with the everyday crises of poverty that the ongoing conflict does little to alleviate.

But what rescued the action from appearing to stake out a “doctrinal standpoint” was, again, its poetics. Alÿs’s gesture was characteristically economical, absurd, and inherently ambiguous. Since he remained mute throughout, the resolute quality of his walk was matched by the opacity of its meaning. His line suggested an alternative course to that of the wall, exchanging the vertical concrete permanence of that structure for a horizontal, liquid, and transient boundary. But while advocating for the memory of the green line, Alÿs critiqued it at the same time by mimicking its near-deranged arbitrariness. When he drew the boundary, Dayan had paid little attention to the way it split properties and communities, and his blunt pencil sometimes described an area some two hundred feet wide. Alÿs’s green dribble was much thinner, but just as impervious to facts. All borders, Alÿs seemed to intimate, are this absurd.

Whereas in London Alÿs had let preparatory documents inflect the viewer’s encounter with Guards, at the Israel Museum he chose a different strategy, presenting material collected after the completion of his Jerusalem walk and the video documenting it. Sitting down before a computer and donning headphones, exhibition visitors could select any of eleven interviews conducted in the months just before the show, when Alÿs screened the video for Israelis, Palestinians, and Britons, and asked them to comment on their understanding of the green line and of his action. A journalist, Amira Haas, said approvingly that the artist was “putting demands on Israel,” while Eyal Weizman, an architect, declared that because Alÿs walked unchallenged, his project “doesn’t really register the complexities of this conflict.”

Alÿs’s decision to include a sample of critical responses to his walk within the exhibition was certainly brave, but it might have suggested the limits of his project. Though it had been the artists’s intention to “bring about an unforeseen way of thinking” or to raise “the possibility of change,” everyone interviewed, despite the fine distinctions between their positions, was on the left. “I’d actually invite the right-wingers to this exhibit,” said Ruben Aberjil, a Sephardic interviewee described as an “activist.” However, the audience at the Israel Museum was in all probability drawn from the same political camp as the interviewees. Those who would find the most to disagree with in the video probably never saw it.

And yet, to conclude that Alÿs was preaching to the converted would of course ignore one of the most salient aspects of the piece: Just as the inclusion of the interviews raises the question of how to identify Alÿs’s work (was the work the walk? The video? The total installation, including the videos?) so too did it underscore the multidimensionality of its audience. The interviewees and the exhibition visitors might well share basic political outlooks, but the same cannot be said of the initial witnesses to Alÿs’s walk. Arabs and Jews alike stared into the camera as the tall Belgian walked by. Perhaps, out of frame, some looked to the ground, saw his trail, and grasped its implications. Perhaps some let this utterly strange sight permeate their consciousness and perhaps, via this route, “something poetic” did indeed “become political.” Admittedly, the scenario is utopian. But Alÿs’s practice depends on maintaining such optimism. Maybe in the end though we should not judge The Green Line on the basis of whether or not it changed any one viewer’s opinion. We might instead applaud Alÿs for raising questions about the political efficacy of art so vividly, for these issues are relevant to all sorts of contexts, not just the tortured situation in Jerusalem. And though many artists are concerned with such questions, few are generous enough to ask them in public. Alÿs was prepared to expose himself, knowing all along that his wall-panel quandaries would not be resolved.

As a kind of temporary border, The Green Line seemed to evince the wild desire to bring mutually hostile communities together through the questioning of every kind of boundary. In many places along the painted line’s length, this wish to see boundaries disappear was made physically manifest, as the line actually disintegrated after mere hours, erased by wind and rain and treading feet. Since finishing this work, Alÿs has pushed the concept of transience into new territory in projects that revolve on his attempts to “catch” the most evanescent of visual phenomena. Earlier this year, the artist grew interested in the fact that the Tehuelche people of Argentina hunt ñandú (a kind of ostrich) without spears, simply following the animals at a measured pace until their harried quarry drop from exhaustion. For the Tehuelche, as for Alÿs, walking is a weapon—hence his attraction to the subject. Alÿs traveled to Argentina, planning to film himself pursuing the birds (though ultimately his research resulted not in a film but in an edition of postcards). While in Tehuelche territory, he noticed the mirages on the highways and realized that the pursuit of these chimera, rather than of ñandú, could serve as a metaphor for Latin America’s push toward modernity. A Story of Deception is a three-minute loop showing the artist chasing a shimmering, ever-receding heat wave along a seemingly endless Patagonian road.

His latest project, executed on March 29 of this year, not only continues this pursuit of the horizon but also extends the line of thinking begun in Jerusalem, turning borders into bridges. Working in Havana with curator Taiyana Pimentel while a second collaborator, curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, was stationed ninety miles away in Key West, Alÿs arranged for two fleets of boats to be assembled, one in Cuba and the other in Florida. The plan was for the boats in each group to be arranged one in front of the other, beginning on the shore and extending into the ocean, so that their trajectories described two straight lines pointing at each other. This was yet another organizational feat: The artist had to work hard to secure the necessary permits and, with Medina’s aid, also had to persuade local fishermen to participate (all told, 150 boats were involved). Once everything was in order and the weather conditions grew suitable, the action began. Starting at the water’s edge and moving outward, one boat rowed into place, then the next, anchoring a few feet behind the previous one, and so on for four hours until, viewed from the shore, the completed line appeared to continue to the horizon and, as far as one could tell, beyond. At this point, representatives of the different fishing communities involved began to step from boat to boat, starting at the shore and moving out to sea. Once they reached the end of their respective lines, the boats dispersed.

Bridge-Puente, 2006, is perhaps Alÿs’s greatest synthesis of the poetic and the political to date. Not only does the work ask us to imagine the bridge of boats linking opposite shores, it conjures an image of cooperation between two populaces kept apart by state conflict. Importantly, this image was formed by members of the participating communities, raising the possibility that people can overcome great cultural and economic divides. At the same time, Bridge-Puente recast historical works, most obviously Spiral Jetty, 1970: Alÿs exchanged Robert Smithson’s involuted spiral for an oustretched line and, instead of filming himself stepping along the jetty, showed the fishermen themselves traversing his creation. Bridge-Puente also alludes to that most yearning and romantic of Conceptual works, Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous, 1975. Whereas Ader’s fateful journey was carried out without an audience, Alÿs’s project addressed the thorny question of international relations through the participation of individual Cuban and American citizens.

Unlike the string hanging from the ceiling in London, Bridge-Puente required no decoding: The metaphor was completely clear. Yet in many ways the work was as fragile as the London piece, dramatizing the impossibility of the dream it articulated—most literally, through the incompleteness of the “bridge”; through the slightness of the line of boats against the immensity of the ocean; and, most significantly, through its own transience. Just as the string disappeared from view as one looked up and down its length to discern its meaning, so the boats formed their chains and then dispersed, leaving no trace. But all this is not to say that the work is finally a demonstration of the pointlessness of utopian dreaming, for, with the dispersal of the boats, the dissemination of their story begins. From now on, Bridge-Puente will have an afterlife as a fantastical fable, one whose impact on all who hear it told will be as unpredictable as the waves.

Mark Godfrey teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London.