Francis Alÿs

Lisson Gallery | 27 Bell Street | London

School’s out in London, and children walking down Lisson Grove are especially well placed to spot the one element of Francis Alÿs’s show that’s clearly visible from the street. Sleepers, 1999, projected onto a two-way projection screen modestly taped to the gallery window at ground level, displays eighty 35 mm slides of people and dogs sleeping on the streets of Mexico City. Curled up in doorways, slumped on benches, prostrate on sunlit sidewalks, many of Alÿs’s human subjects are clearly destitute, provoking that familiar, inevitable attack of conscience in the relatively privileged gallerygoer. But the artist’s subtle aesthetic judgments (avoiding close-ups of faces, frequently shooting from the same level as the sleeper) prevent the piece from becoming a document of pitiful dereliction; with each regular clunk of the projector’s rotating carousel, it proposes a hypnotic, even soporific, homage to the survival skills of the alfresco napper.

Alÿs’s work gently but thoroughly divests viewers of their assumed dominion over what they see. Back in 1992 he devised a work using snails, whose peregrinations around the gallery walls and ceiling were restricted by barriers of soap. At least one critic was moved to wonder whether the snails or their human spectators constituted the real subject of the piece. Likewise, in Sleepers, the subject is not solely the hardship of the Mexican poor. Watching the piece from the Lisson’s interior, grinning at the umpteenth child to wave manically through the window or dodging the gaze of some less gregarious passer-by, one sees this live urban spectacle conflated with the photographic work. Then, in a humbling moment, you perceive yourself as a part of the exhibit. It’s a case of Snails Revisited: Viewers are quietly reminded of their membership in the social collective.

Away from the street, the twelve-hour documentary video Zócalo, May 20 1999, 1999, is being screened. In it an almost static camera records strollers meandering through the giant main square (zócalo) of Mexico City. The camera’s position shifts a fraction with each passing hour, and the sun strolls too, converting the square’s monumental flagpole into a sundial’s gnomon. Why do people habitually unite in a single neat line in the flagpole’s shadow? Simply to escape the heat, or because they just like to? The quiet fascination of people-watching, along with an atmospheric sound track composed of traffic noise, snatches of music, echoing voices, and great clanging bells—plus (it must be said) the presence of a comfortable sofa—make this another installation in which one’s hurried timetable loosens its punishing grip.

Selectively revisiting modern art’s histories of urban mapping, Alÿs the city stroller lives, subtly, in tradition. He “drifts” with the purposeful aim of recording, but without some overbearing plan to “assemble data.” Following Baudelaire, he banishes the voyeuristic, omniscient aristocrat-flâneur, hinting instead at the figure of the diffident, inconspicuous, maybe weak or tired artist-child. This show’s final key work, 61 out of 60, 1998–99, visits the theme of the resistance of the vulnerable with added urgency. Displayed next to a computer linked to the Chiapas EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) website, at, are tiny plaster guerrilla figures. Sixty of these have been chipped and battered so as to produce enough debris for the assembly of the sixty-first. Misshapen, riddled with cracks––what hope is there for this tiny new recruit? And what can the gallery visitor do? Apparently lulling, relaxing, quieting its audience, Alÿs’s work has the unexpected effect of waking one up.

Rachel Withers