Francis Alÿs

Martin Gropius-Bau/Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg

Francis Alÿs was recently named the first recipient of the new blueOrange Prize, and much to the surprise of its funders, the German Cooperative Banks, he announced that he was donating his 70,000 Euro purse to an aid organization for homeless children in his Mexico City neighborhood. It’s an act typical of the artist—a beau geste, to use his own terminology—ducking the pressure of the prize and denying the institution its expected role in funding further art while still celebrating and making use of the reward in an artful way. To be a conduit and switching station between art and daily life: This is Alÿs’s modus operandi and the key to his elusive body of work.

The prize also came with an accompanying exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. During its opening, a lone hammock hung in the center of the immense, dim, and otherwise empty atrium, alerting visitors that, for this artist, sleeping, dreaming, boredom, and killing time are important ways of being. The exhibition’s centerpiece was Rehearsal I, 1999–2004, the first video in a new trilogy. Speakers and rolling office chairs were loosely grouped around the projection, which shows a Volkswagen Beetle laboring up a steep, sandy hill on the outskirts of Tijuana, only to falter and roll back to its starting point, accompanied by the stop-and-go rehearsal of a village band on the sound track. The carefully staged scene recalls Jeff Wall’s photograph An Encounter in the Calle Valentin Gomez Farias, Tijuana, 1991. The hill’s far side—across the US border—may promise freedom and wealth, but these are “delayed | embraced | eluded | edited | aborted | adapted | disguised | resisted | imposed,” in the words by which the artist characterizes modernity in Mexico.

In contrast to the themes of temporality and recursion in Rehearsal I, Alÿs’s exhibition in Wolfsburg, essentially a midcareer survey, had a distinctly spatial emphasis. Unusually for such a show—more delaying, eluding, editing, disguising—Alÿs laid out seven strolls he’s taken through the neighborhood around his studio, represented here by photographs, drawings, objects, and videos. Makeshift wooden platforms with stairs were built in the exhibition halls, and work was to be found there as well as on tables, in corners, and on screens. The Collector, 1991–92, for instance, was displayed on a high shelf, somewhat perversely for a series of low, rolling toy dogs that were magnetized and then “walked” daily, gradually collecting layers of metal street-debris. Installed in vitrines, and claiming more space than the “pieces” one might expect to be the focus, were the preparatory notes and sketches for each work, offering narratives behind the projects—albeit open, evocatively indeterminate narratives that enter the realm of fable. Alÿs believes that all art operates in the space of myth, and he aims to counter the myths of materialism with his own fables, inserting himself into both the discursive and the colloquial fields.

Alÿs’s themes converge in the video Zócalo, May 20, 1999, which offers a dawn-to-dusk, bird’s-eye view of Mexico City’s main square. We mark time by following the slowly sweeping shadow of the Zócalo’s towering flagpole-turned-sundial, which, as often occurs in Alÿs’s work, is not only a formal figure, here offering a spatial illustration of time’s circularity, but also a social figure: It shelters an ever-changing micro-community of people lined up to avoid the sun. The work insists on the potentials of public space, temporal as well as figurative, aesthetic as well as theatrical and social, in which fable becomes possible. Alÿs plays an unusual double game, at once performing the eternal return of the same and engaging in social explorations that yield poetic allegory.

Bettina Funcke