Los Angeles

View of “Francis Alÿs: Politics of Rehearsal,” 2007–2008, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2007. Photo: Joshua White.

View of “Francis Alÿs: Politics of Rehearsal,” 2007–2008, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2007. Photo: Joshua White.

Francis Alÿs

THE COVER OF THE CATALOGUE for Francis Alÿs’s exhibition at the Hammer Museum announces “rehearsal” as the show’s organizing principle in more ways than one. Of course, the exhibition’s title, “Politics of Rehearsal,” is prominent. But it is the graphic treatment that signals the show’s status as one version among many potential others: An adaptation of the familiar Hollywood movie clapboard, the cover features a slatelike background and handwritten words (FRANCIS ALŸS for DIRECTOR, POLITICS OF REHEARSAL as the TAKE) overwriting what look like white chalk smudges of erased prior takes. The exhibition itself, in other words, is conceived as a preparatory and inconclusive effort, possibly even as a failed take.

The show, in fact, is quite successful in presenting Alÿs’s varied and ongoing explorations of rehearsal, or failed takes, as a consistent if not coherent project. Organized by the museum’s adjunct curator Russell Ferguson (who was chief curator until he became chair of UCLA’s art department last year), “Politics of Rehearsal”—the artist’s first large-scale museum survey in the US—consists of select works from 1990 to the present, most prominently in the medium of video. The content of some of these is rehearsal in the most literal sense. For example, Essay on the Movie Amores Perros, 2003–2007, is a multimonitor video installation comprising different looped footages of run-throughs and outtakes of scenes from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2000 film, Amores Perros. Likewise, Politics of Rehearsal, 2005–2007, a thirty-minute black-and-white video, intimately presented on a small TV set, next to a coffee table and a sofa, that greets viewers at the exhibition’s entrance, represents three performers practicing, although not necessarily together. On a cramped stage in a dark and empty burlesque bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a soprano and a pianist work their way through a classical song, stopping frequently to discuss and to go over certain passages. Meanwhile, a stripper, also in starts and stops, and sometimes taking cues from a person offstage, goes through her languid and seductive motions, circling a chair, slowly undressing, enticing an imaginary audience. A still photographer (Paula Court), a man with a video camera (Alÿs), and another man overseeing the proceedings (Alÿs’s frequent collaborator Rafael Ortega) discreetly move in and out of the frame, at times interacting with the performers, simultaneously documenting the scene and becoming part of it.

Other works on view do not represent rehearsal as content. Instead, they incorporate into their structural organization the halting, try-and-try-again repetitive logic one associates with the activity. For instance, in the video Rehearsal I (Ensayo I), 1999–2001, produced in Tijuana, Mexico, an old red Volkswagen Beetle attempts to climb a steeply inclined dirt road. The VW’s movement is synced to a raucous sound track of a group of musicians practicing a lively tune—a kind of honky-tonk number with touches of a processional and a tango. Driven by Alÿs, the car goes forward up the hill when the band plays the tune, then shifts to reverse and rolls back down when the band stops to make corrections and adjustments. Following the band as it musically comes together and falls apart, the VW revs up the hill only to roll back down again, over and over. The video ends with the car backing completely out of the frame after thirty minutes of trying, as if it has given up on the task of reaching the top of the hill.

Similarly, in Rehearsal II (Ensayo II), 2001–2006, the actions of a lone stripper undressing (in front of lurid red velvet curtains that exaggerate the theatricality of the situation) are coordinated with a sound track of an unseen singer and pianist rehearsing a somber Franz Schubert song. Although reminiscent of Politics of Rehearsal in some ways (stripper, classical song), Rehearsal II is not so much a rehearsal as an already-rehearsed performance of one. The progress of the stripper’s disrobing, projected at life size and thus likening the audience’s art viewing to voyeuristic sex-show gawking, is explicitly keyed to the musical rehearsal, which interrupts her act again and again. Cued by the starts and stops in the sound track, the stripper, like the VW in Rehearsal I, repetitively freezes, reverses her steps (gets dressed), and goes forward again (undresses), a process involving multiple delays that frustrates the anticipated reward of beholding her fully naked body. (Although, unlike Rehearsal I, this video arrives at a coy “ending”; the stripper slips behind the curtain as soon as she discards the last bit of her clothing.)

The concern with rehearsal, however, is not bound to the content and structure of the “finished” works only. The aforementioned videos share space with an extensive archive of notes, sketches, correspondences, doodles, Post-its, clippings, diagrams, models, and other fragments of the thinking and working-out process. These items are presented on large workshop tables under sheets of Plexiglas, like flattened vitrines or gigantic scrapbook pages. They are arranged casually but carefully to reveal false starts, incomplete thoughts, technical-problem solving, projected outcomes, communication with interlocutors and collaborators, cross-referencing between works, recurrences of ideas, etc. The point of including these flatbeds of accumulated bits and pieces from Alÿs’s trove of preparatory material and according them a major presence in the exhibition may be, in part, to provide access to the artist’s “creative process,” a common institutional mandate. But in this exhibition, their function is not supplementary; they are not relegated to the status of mere background information or prehistory to the “real” works on view. These are works on view. Consequentially, the archival display relativizes the “finished” works so that, despite their physical prominence, the video projections do not dominate as the exhibition’s conceptual center of gravity. In fact, the more one pays attention, the less one can tell where and what the definitive “work of art” is for Alÿs. There is no clear sense of when the rehearsal stops for him, and this uncertainty is largely the point of the show.

For instance, the video Maquette, 1999, is a study for the Sisyphean drama of Rehearsal I, realized with a toy VW on a scale model of a hillside made of fabric and paper. In addition to exploring the physics of the scenario, Maquette is also a test of the timing of the forward/upward and backward/downward movement of the car in coordination with the starts and stops of a man and a woman practicing a Latin song on the sound track. The fact that Maquette is displayed as “a work” (with a proper wall label) but is situated among the archival materials renders its status somewhat ambiguous. Although the later completion date and bigger scale of Rehearsal I would seem to make it the most successful or accomplished outcome (of, paradoxically, representing the failure to succeed), the simultaneous presentation of multiple iterations of this project in archival notes and drawings, in Maquette, and again in Rehearsal I, foreground how, in Alÿs’s practice, what looks to be the final work is likely only one moment, one take, undercutting a unidirectional and developmental understanding of the artist’s production. Against the linear logic of progress and the deadening regularity of seriality, and distinct from other paradigms of repetitive returns—Freud’s theorization of the “fort-da” game and of the uncanny come to mind, for instance—Alÿs proposes the circular repetition of rehearsal as a countermodel for imagining the condition and temporality of making. This countermodel structures the exhibition itself: The works at the end of the show recall those at the beginning, as if the viewer were inside a loop, not unlike the water that is transferred back and forth from one glass to another in the animation piece Song for Lupita, 1998, or the dog that plays fetch forever in Dog and Ball, 1999.

Indeed, efforts that seem to go nowhere (produce nothing), that constantly take you to a prior point or all the way back to the beginning (regression, no development), that endlessly posit the possibility of a new outcome this time (deferred conclusion or satisfaction), are at play in all the works in the show. Take, for instance, Caracoles, 1999, a large-scale video projection in which a young boy walks up a roughly paved steep hill while kicking a partially filled plastic soda bottle. The boy’s action, although performed with concentration and persistence, is nonetheless without much purpose. If anything, the game slows the boy’s progress, hampering his ability to reach his destination in a timely and efficient manner. The video ends with the boy misjudging his timing and the bottle rolling far down the hill with the boy chasing after it. Like the little red VW engine that couldn’t in Rehearsal I, the absurdity of which is both funny and sad, the boy in Caracoles fails to triumph over his situation.

Alÿs himself engages in a similar kind of fruitless labor in the well-known Paradox of Praxis 1, 1997, presented here as a five-minute video showing the artist pushing a hefty block of ice through the streets of Mexico City over a nine-hour period. At first, the artist is hunched over a formidably large cube, straining to move it. Later, as it slowly melts and shrinks in size to that of a brick, then an ice cube, then a pebble, Alÿs is able to maneuver it much more easily, kicking it along the streets as if playing a game, until finally it disappears into a small and abject puddle of water on the sidewalk. Thus the artist ends up with nothing to show for his day of labor but the record of his “wasted” time and energy (although this is “production” for an artist, so that even when he loses he wins, and vice versa). The seeming futility of effort is more grandly, even spectacularly, staged in another well-known work, When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, in which five hundred volunteers move in a single-file line with shovels in hand across an immense sand dune on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, displacing the dune, which measures more than fifteen hundred feet in diameter, by a mere two inches or so. Conceived as an allegory of the ways in which “underdeveloped” Latin American countries are forever teased by modern “developed” superpowers, particularly the United States, with promises of economic and social progress that are never fulfilled, When Faith Moves Mountains explicitly shifts Alÿs’s engagement with unprofitable or inefficient effort, the dynamics of failure, and, ultimately, rehearsal to the register of geopolitical discourse. But what is this event a rehearsal for—a crisis of exploitation or the coming of revolution?

This is the riskiest extension of the notion of rehearsal—when work that yields nothing, when nondevelopmental circular repetition involving constant interruptions and stoppages, is proposed as a metaphor for “Mexican time” or, more generally, for the temporality of modernity as experienced in underdeveloped areas of Latin America. Such an outlook is in fact established at the outset with the burlesque-club video at the show’s entrance, Politics of Rehearsal, in which an epigrammatic statement in the video announces the work as “a metaphor of Latin America’s ambiguous affair with Modernity, forever arousing, and yet, always delaying the moment it will happen.” The rehearsal of the singer, pianist, and stripper is framed by a voice-over in Spanish by critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, who offers impassioned thoughts on the history of the imposition on and internalization of the ideological discourse of (under)development and modernity in Latin American countries since the cold war. He additionally expounds on the political significance of Alÿs’s art, specifically on how it mobilizes rehearsal as a means of challenging the hierarchical division that such a discourse, based on a competitive developmental model, implements. Alÿs’s repetitive returns are seen to stymie the linear temporal framework that allows some countries to consider themselves in historical terms as developed, or advanced, and to identify others as underdeveloped, or backward.

But the critical capacity of rehearsal in this regard becomes confused when the global sociopolitical and economic dynamics of modernity under discussion are analogized to an erotic or sexual relationship. Because in this line of thinking, the progressive model of modernity becomes an object of desire instead of an object of critique, tantalizing, seducing, and arousing the “underdeveloped” to seek it as an ideal. The fact that this object of desire—the promise of fulfillment, a better life, “the moment it will happen”—is personified as a female stripper in two works, Politics of Rehearsal at the start of the exhibition and Rehearsal II as a return or repetition at the end of it, is unfortunate. For not only does it seem too literal, but it repeats rather than troubles the all-too-familiar use by male artists of the sexualized and commodified female body as an emblematic sign of modern life that registers their profoundly ambivalent relationship to it (recall Manet’s Olympia).

This particular point aside, I appreciate the way in which Alÿs asserts activities that are preparatory and anticipatory as the primary site of his artistic inquiry in order to focus on the effort toward rather than the fulfillment of a goal. It is the movement of aspiration that is of concern. This is perhaps why walking has been so integral to the artist’s practice over the years. In fact, what is most compelling about the walking, the climbing, the reaching (for the top of the hill), the repeating, the starting anew, and the rehearsing of the same thing over and over in Alÿs’s work is that these actions materialize or give form to the structure of hope. (This is the point that connects “Politics of Rehearsal” in Los Angeles with Dia’s 2007 presentation at the Hispanic Society of America in New York City of “Fabiola”: Alÿs’s extensive collection of found portraits of a Christian saint manifests the force of devotional aspiration that animates the effort of the mostly amateur portraitists in the collection, as well as of the collector himself.) As psychoanalytic theorist Adam Phillips put it in his book On Flirtation (1994), “you can only travel hopefully if you ensure you never arrive (hope is only ever false in retrospect).” To put it another way, the capacity to hope requires that you fail to reach your destination, goal, or ideal. Reaching the finish line means the killing of aspiration. In this regard, the failure of Mexico, or Latin America in general, to outgrow the status of “underdevelopment” may be considered a success. To become a member of the club of developed nations could be the real failure.

Distinct from other types of repetitive activity, a rehearsal is an embodied effort, individual or collective, that is directed toward an ideal accomplishment of some kind. Rehearsals are driven by projections, both in terms of an imagined perfection (of a song, of a dance routine, of a dramatic rendition) and in terms of an anticipation of a future when this perfection will be achieved. To propose a work of art, or even a museum exhibition, as a rehearsal, then, is not simply to refuse conclusions and completions in favor of impermanent forms or open-ended experimentation as an aesthetic preference. It also does more than challenge the conventional hierarchy of value that attends process (low) versus product (high). It questions the very nature of making a work, the struggle to accomplish something, anything.

Phillips goes on to say: “We police ourselves with purposes. Our ambitions—our ideals and success stories that lure us into the future—can too easily become ways of not living in the present, or of not being present at the event, a blackmail of distraction; ways, that is, of disowning, or demeaning, the actual disorder of experience.” Alÿs’s art seems to me to be an effort to avow the present, the actual disorder of experience, as a means of maintaining hope. Rehearsal, after all, is not a passive waiting, but an active practice of keeping alive the wish for something better.

Miwon Kwon is associate professor in the department of art history at UCLA and the author of One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (MIT Press, 2002).