Tuesday, November 13, 2007


November 11, 2007


Much of Francis Alÿs' work is the result of
paradox, indirection and purposeful wandering. He
seeks the unpredictable, the dramatic.

By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mexico City - Francis Alÿs is doing something
pretty extraordinary, for him. He's sitting
still, more or less.

But this relative stasis probably will be
short-lived. The gangly Belgian artist already
looks restless, dragging on a cigarette, his
6-foot-4 frame scrunched into the corner of a
packed cafe surrounded by a quintessential Mexico
City scene: barking dogs, a TV fútbol match
blaring in the background, an old man playing
harmonica for spare change, a dozen conversations
bouncing off the walls -- the relentless,
seductive chaos of contemporary urban life.

It's the kind of purposeful disorder that Alÿs
relishes, a situation rife with the sort of
unpredictable, dramatic possibilities that he's
constantly itching to see unfold -- and to goose
along, when necessary. This is an artist, after
all, who gets his kicks by running into killer
tornadoes with a rolling video camera. Who
stalked the elusive ñandú, a South American
ostrich, across Patagonia like some big-game
hunter bagging exotic metaphors. Who wandered
around Copenhagen for a week stoned each day on a
different drug. And who once loped through the
streets of this hair-trigger metropolis dangling
a loaded 9-millimeter Beretta from one hand, just
"waiting for something to happen," as he put it.

It did too: Several members of the Mexican
constabulary, understandably mistaking Alÿs for a
homicidal lunatic, threw him in the back of their
squad car and took him away. The next day Alÿs
went back and explained to the cops that he was
an artist, then asked them to restage the
incident exactly as it had occurred, while a
collaborator filmed the reenactment with a Sony
HandyCam. Using reality as a dry run, an
aesthetic calisthenic, Alÿs fashioned a startling
dual-screen urban parable in which physical
peril, like verisimilitude, lies in the eye of
the beholder.

"The first bit was pretty tense," Alÿs recalls in
his gentle French-accented English. The police
officers "still were pretty upset about the whole
scenario. And then at one point the word 'art'
came in, and then it was fine, because art wasn't
serious. You know, you couldn't mean it to be
dangerous if it was an artistic kind of

Of course, there's a double-barreled irony in the
cops' perception that art is harmlessly absurd, a
perception that gets scrutinized in "Francis
Alÿs: Politics of Rehearsal," which runs through
Feb. 10 at the Hammer Museum. Curated by Russell
Ferguson, professor and chairman of the UCLA
department of art, "Politics of Rehearsal"
examines how Alÿs takes a calculatedly
off-the-cuff approach to art-making, seizing on
momentary opportunities and embracing

"He's very interested in things that are
ephemeral or impromptu or improvised," says
Ferguson, who in his catalog essay compares Alÿs'
approach to that of an actor preparing for a role
that is always, essentially, a work in progress.
Alÿs regards this seemingly ad-lib approach to
art-making as "a better solution," Ferguson says,
than some overarching system that tries to bend
everything in its path to a fixed set of
principles or objectives. "He loves to create a
kind of situation or a mini-narrative or a set of
events and then set that loose and let it
reverberate around him."

Between intent and result

In spite of, or rather precisely because of this
methodology, Alÿs' conceptual interventions and
their video byproducts give memorable, if
transient, form to the scattershot nature of
contemporary existence, particularly as it plays
out in sharp-elbowed hyper-cities like this one,
the artist's home for most of the last two

He arrived in the Mexican capital at an
auspicious moment for artists. It was the
mid-1980s, shortly after the city had been
leveled by a magnitude-8.0 earthquake that left
at least 10,000 people dead. In Mexico City's
devastation, Alÿs, an aspiring architect at the
time, witnessed first-hand the literal
destruction of what he calls "blind Modernism,"
the secular faith of the 20th century Western

Practically on the spot, he dropped architecture
and decided to become an artist. Apart from a
brief European sojourn in the early 1990s, Alÿs
has remained here ever since.

Not only Mexico, but other parts of Latin America
such as Peru and Patagonia have become his
creative milieu, and his work often alludes to
the region's incessantly cyclical problems: the
gaping economic disparities, the entrenched
political corruption, the glacial pace of reform
and the grinding repetitiveness of daily life
among the working poor.

This idea of an entire hemisphere afflicted by a
collective sensation of déjà-vu-all-over-again,
condemned to keep repeating its historical
traumas and setbacks, informs the stop-and-go
tempo of much of Alÿs' art. The Mexican art
critic and curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, who has
collaborated with Alÿs, has observed that the
artist's political interventions expose and
comment on Latin America's "general problem of
the entropy of daily economic life, that is, the
unimaginable effort we all make in getting

Few of his projects have expressed this idea with
more succinctly humorous eloquence than "Paradox
of Praxis 1" (1997), in which Alÿs spent more
than nine hours pushing a large, rectangular
block of ice through the streets of Mexico City's
historic center, a complex public space whose
grimy baroque grandeur encapsulates all the
contradictions of Mexican society. By nightfall,
the monumental glacial mass had been reduced to a
dinky frozen chip, kicked along by the artist in
his trademark Converse high-tops.

Odysseus or Sisyphus? A mytho-poetic journey of
discovery, or a ludicrous, anti-heroic exercise
in futility? Much of Alÿs' art questions what, in
the end, is the difference between the two, while
simultaneously smudging the boundary between
artistic intent and result.

It would be a mistake, however, to get the
impression that Alÿs simply lets his art sneak up
on him or his viewers.

Once he develops a rough concept for a project,
he typically storyboards the idea on paper, as if
he were scripting a movie. He gathers props and
materials together, orchestrates the action up to
a point and documents the effects with photos and

Then, at some crucial, unforeseen moment, the
gesture acquires its own momentum and takes on
its own life. Usually, no one is more surprised
at what happens next than the artist himself.

"As much as I'm clear why I'm doing something,
when I'm stepping out I very quickly lose
understanding of why I was doing it," Alÿs says.
"Whereas while I'm in it, it's crystal clear. And
that's probably what helps the . . .
'improvisation' is not the right word. But on the
base of a very simple plot, sometimes a quite
complex and sometimes a quite long action can
start developing without any strict rules, but
there is a clear pattern which I'm following,
although it is pretty much built up every other

He compares his artistic method to a swimmer
watching the riverbank steadily recede from him.
"The more I'm developing the narrative, the
further I am from what I'm trying to say."

Yet many of those who have observed or
participated in his narrative-building projects,
or both, have found that Alÿs' work speaks with a
deceptively simple, blank-verse elegance that
translates into many languages and across many

One of his most publicized and representative
projects took place five years ago in Peru, as
part of the Lima Biennale. He, Medina and a small
team of collaborators recruited 500 volunteers
armed with shovels to the outskirts of a desert
shantytown, where they attempted by collective
spade-work to shift the top of a sand dune by 4
inches. The resulting performance piece/political
intervention, "When Faith Moves Mountains" --
which shared certain affinities with the Earth
Art of the 1970s but implicitly subverted its
grandiose ambitions -- functioned as a subtle
symbol of how ordinary Peruvians, their country
rived by years of guerrilla-backed civil war and
brutal government reprisals, could unite around a
common purpose, however ultimately

"I think what I'm trying to do is twist the plot,
slightly, so that people can look at the
situation from a different perspective," Alÿs

"The little you can do as an artist," he
continues, is to "offer for a few minutes or a
few seconds the possibility of another reading or

"It's kind of bizarre, but you can physically
feel the shift, if you want, around you, the way
somebody just creates a moment of doubt."

In that moment, he believes, lies the potential
for gaining some small understanding of a place,
a culture or an idea that once might have seemed
utterly alien and impenetrable. Alÿs' style is to
arrive at that moment not by taking the shortest
distance between two points, but through
indirection, paradox and purposeful meandering.

In "The Green Line Walk" (2004), Alÿs ambled
through Jerusalem carrying a dribbling can of
green paint, roughly retracing the boundary that
Israeli commander Moshe Dayan drew on a map with
a green grease pencil when he partitioned the
city after the November 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
"The reason I went there, it wasn't clear to me,"
Alÿs says characteristically, "but probably
because I found it such an archetypal situation
of human conflict over thousands of years."

'A fable or an urban myth'

Given the politically charged, physically risky
character of some of his projects, Alÿs
occasionally can seem to be less involved in a
"politics of rehearsal" than in playing Russian
roulette with a loaded allegory. But as Ferguson
notes, Alÿs' approach is as much poetic as
political. His interventions are "not agitprop in
the traditional sense," Ferguson says, "they're
just things that get into your mind the way a
poem may get into your mind, and you can turn it
over a number of different ways."

Accordingly, his absurdist beaux gestes aren't
insider-ish, Dadaist quips but relatively
straightforward jokes that most everyone can get
-- for instance, the time that he sent a peacock
to represent him at the Venice Biennale. (The
creature obligingly strutted around showing off
its fine plumage to the assembled glitterati.)

Alÿs says that his narratives aspire to pass from
the temporal realm of action into stories spread
by word of mouth, however vaguely recounted, that
can outlive their "artistic" genesis. He has put
it this way: "If the script meets the
expectations and addresses the anxieties of that
society at that 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."

There's another key to many of Alÿs' projects,
whether they involve traipsing past Israeli
military checkpoints or charging into the middle
of a natural disaster. "You learn to walk fast,"
he says. A man in motion stays in motion, and
Alÿs is eager to head back to work at his studio,
a 40-minute walk away, in the city's historic

But before he leaves, he agrees to stand still
long enough to have his picture taken. As it
turns out, the photographer is on her way to
cover a hurricane that's blowing into Mexico from
the Caribbean. Alÿs smiles and pleads, only
half-jokingly, "Can I come?"

Isn't running into cyclones kind of dangerous? he
is asked. Alÿs considers this.

"You wait 10 hours for two tornadoes to pass," he
says, as if tedium were a greater threat to
mortal flesh than 100-mph winds.

"Sometimes it's very tense," he concedes. "But then, it just suddenly clicks."

Slide Show @ <http://tinyurl.com/yrtqv7>

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times



By Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, November 11, 2007

New York -- In the far reaches of uptown
Manhattan, beyond Harlem, there's a suite of
wood-paneled galleries hosting work the like of
which they've never seen before: 286 portraits of
the same female saint, crafted by artists ranging
from skilled hacks to ungifted amateurs, all
showing their subject in the same pose, in the
same clothes and in general as much alike as they
could make her.

Over and over and over again.

Your jaw drops, your eyes pop and you can't
suppress a chuckle. Here, in a museum as
venerable as any, you're up against what's not
supposed to be in a museum: The unculled, the
unprecious, the unlovely, the unvaried. It's so
much business-as- un usual, it can only be
contemporary art.

And it is. All those look-alike portraits make up
"Francis Alys: Fabiola," an installation mounted
by the Dia Art Foundation, one of New York's
leading supporters of the avant-garde. The
antique galleries it has borrowed belong to the
103-year-old Hispanic Society. It's known mostly
for its holdings in Goya, El Greco and Velázquez.

Alys is a 48-year-old Belgian long based in
Mexico City. He is a major player in contemporary
art, with work that varies more widely than most.
It ranges from a video that shows him kicking a
huge block of ice through his adopted city (we
watch it melt to the size of an ice cube) to a
12-hour documentary of the city's main square (it
shows locals crowding into the shadow of a huge
flagpole, and moving with it as the sunny day
wears on) to paintings to snapshots to delicate,
hand-drawn animations with an almost sentimental

Fabiola is a Catholic saint who died in Rome in
399. Born into a wealthy family, she was the
subject of a scandal in the early Christian
church -- she dared divorce an abusive husband --
but later renounced all worldly goods and became
a chum of Saint Jerome. Fabiola was mostly
ignored until 1854, when a sentimental novel
about her life became a bestseller. She got
another boost in 1885, when a French artist named
Jean-Jacques Henner painted what became her
iconic image. Henner's painting hasn't survived.
But over the past 120 years, thousands and
thousands of copies of it have been made by
professionals, part-timers and faith-filled
outsider artists.

"Francis Alys: Fabiola" simply presents the horde
of Fabiola pictures Alys has been able to
accumulate, at flea markets and wherever else
they have turned up, in the 15 or so years since
he started his collection.

Lots of important artists have built major art
collections. How many have set out to build a
determinedly minor one, made up of insignificant
copies of an unimportant lost original? Alys's
collection is in a class of its own, with
holdings more interesting than many.

Given the mania it launched, Henner's original
Fabiola was surprisingly staid: A
head-and-shoulders profile of a woman looking
left, shown wearing a red wimple against a plain
dark background.

Most derivations keep that basic format intact:
At most, Fabiola's head may veer from profile, or
it may look right instead of left. But otherwise,
the copies can play fast and loose.

There's a Fabiola meticulously inlaid in precious
woods. There are Fabiolas carved or cast in low
relief, and others almost in 3-D. Fabiola is
rendered in sophisticated needleworks that come
surprisingly close to what the original painting
might have looked like (they seem as if they were
all made from the same stitch-a-Fabiola kit).
Other sewn panels are crude home-drawn affairs
that barely capture her outline. There's a
surprisingly proficient Fabiola done entirely in
grains, beans and seeds -- a kind of farm-house
pixelation -- and another done by backing glass
with colored foils.

Most Fabiolas clearly reveal when they were made.
In 1920s pictures, the dour saint has a hint of
the flapper about her; by the '40s she's a bit
Lauren Bacall. She can be rendered with the thick
impasto of impressionism, the slick surface of
Victorian sentiment, or even, in a rare modernist
moment, in a portrait floated on an almost cubist

That last picture is signed "Iemus" and must date
from the '30s, but that's just a single Fabiolist
among several whom we know by name. The saint was
also painted by a certain Jos. Bissehops in 1922
(his Fabiola has some silent-film-star verve), by
"Arely" in 1976 (that artist makes Fabiola
doe-eyed but with a kewpie-doll-pert mouth) and
by a guy called Fred who didn't date his work but
managed to stick the saint with an echo of his
own masculine features.

Some artists, whether signing their works or not,
clearly put everything they had into their
pictures. Others did a very cursory job; they
must have felt that having the image at all is
what mattered, not its look or the labor it took.
Much contemporary art has striven for precisely
what each of these modest Fabiola pictures has
achieved: A power that is purely in the thing it
shows, not the manner of its showing -- content
absolutely dominating form.

That, maybe, is one of the crucial insights of
this installation: Thousands of people have
wanted -- needed -- to bring Fabiola into their
homes, in whatever form she took. The exhibition
pamphlet notes in passing that she is the patron
saint of battered and abandoned women. But it
doesn't dwell on that unnerving fact: on what the
amazing spread of her image might tell us about
the state of Catholic womanhood. Even Fabiola's
distinct second-billing in the pantheon of saints
hasn't quashed her picture's popularity, given
the huge and continuing call for her area of
saintly expertise.

But once you've come to grips with what this
quantity of Fabiolas might mean, there's still
much thinking left to do about the qualities
particular to each avatar of her. Where most
installation art lets you into the mind of one
artist at one time and place, this piece yields
insights into how art plays out over time and
around the world. It doesn't ask you to look into
the mind of Alys, so much as through his eyes at
the art of others.

As the saint changes from artist to artist, place
to place, date to date, she gives a kind of easy
lesson in all the ways that art can intersect
with what it shows, and with its viewers. A fine
carving in wood gives the saint almost Incan
features, perhaps so she can work more
effectively for an Andean clientele. Or, as we've
seen, she can take on movie-star good looks,
maybe for the American faithful. Did the hint of
testosterone she got from "Fred" serve a
particular end, or is it the kind of happenstance
that's bound to happen when you're making any
work of art? That's the kind of question Alys
gets us asking as we ponder his peculiar theme
and variations. As we try to sort a picture's
signal from its noise, we always end up
wondering: Which part's the deliberate art, and
which the accident?

On the walls of the Hispanic Society, for
instance, we get to watch a twisting fold in
Fabiola's wimple start out as something captured
from the world of living nuns, then become, in
its colored-foil version and in several others,
an almost purely decorative swirl without much
meaning to it -- a significant detail becomes an
empty artifact of copying. Something similar
happened to the realistic highlights on the
drapery in Greek and Roman painting, which became
streaks of ornamental gilding when medieval
artists took them up, as demonstrated years ago
by the great art historian Ernst Gombrich. That
change spanned hundreds of years; Alys lets us
see the same process speeded up.

Or we can watch things go the other way: In some
of the later Fabiolas here, the look of portrait
photographs exerts a force, pushing Alys's
Fabiolists ever further from the Renaissance
stylings of Henner's original.

In general, looking at all these Fabiolas, we
realize there's no such thing as a "standard"
realist portrait. There are about as many ways to
render reality in art as there are ways to paint
and sculpt and inlay -- or to glue down beans. We
see the same sighting of the saint rendered in
thick dabs and thin glazes, on black velvet or
crude plywood, outlined in black or colored in.
And it's never clear that one is simply "better,"
or even more straightforwardly realistic, than
another. It's not nearly enough, as is often
claimed, for realists to look extra closely at
the world they're copying. Even when they've got
the narrow goal of reproducing someone else's
painting, they've got options, options, options.

Pic @

Francis Alys: Fabiola runs through April 6 at the
Hispanic Society of America in New York, on
Broadway between 155th and 156th streets. Call
212-926-2234 or visit http://www.diacenter.org.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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