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Issue 201

From a Desert Mirage to Tornado Surfing, Artist Francis Alÿs Searches for Exquisite Futility

The artist’s first large exhibition in China at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, captures how hope and disappointment can co-exist in the same frame

BY Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva in Reviews | 07 FEB 19

How do artists find material for their work? How do they choose the right media to convey their point? In the case of Francis Alÿs, despite having points to make, the creative process seems naive. (See his project When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, in which 500 volunteers shovelled together a sand dune merely to move it by a few inches – a metaphor for Latin American society’s mammoth efforts that only ever bring marginal economic results.) Alÿs’s work focuses on action, effort and repetition, rather than a specific outcome.

Taking over four floors of the art-deco Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, the exhibition – the artist’s first large-scale solo show in China – highlights several works. Their settings are quiet and tranquil, except for the film Tornado (2000–10), which is projected on the second floor. Here, Alÿs repeatedly runs towards a tornado with camera in hand. His heavy breathing and footsteps alternate with the camera dropping in the eye of the dust devil, sporadically cutting off image and sound. The action has the irresistible thrill of an extreme sport: the artist himself compares it to surfing and catching a wave.

Francis Alÿs, ‘La dépense’, installation view, 2018. Courtesy: Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

The futility of some actions reveals itself, not without a pinch of dark humour, in the looped, silent film A Story of Deception, Patagonia (2003–06). Here, Alÿs films a mirage on a desert high-way. The road, itself a suggestion of moving forward, offers but a continuous self-updating image of the mirage as its sole destination. Infinite, the utopian journey remains visually appealing, signalling that hope and disappointment can co-exist in the same frame.

In this show, fruitless efforts are like an echo on a loop. In the installation Exodus (2014–18), an animation shows a girl hand-combing her hair into a bun that drops almost immediately. The video is preceded by nearly 1,000 study drawings. Somehow charming and sensual, but also slightly laborious – I didn’t feel the need for the drawings to understand the challenges of animating hair’s fluid mechanics – the work’s aesthetics are dated, as if retrieved from a childhood archive. But, in that sense, it fits with the dreamy and whimsical aura that the exhibition exudes.

Francis Alÿs, The Loop Paintings, 1997, oil on wood in 6 parts, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner, London/New York/Hong Kong 

The fifth floor hosts a series of miniature paintings, ‘Le Temps du sommeil’ (Time to Sleep, 1996–ongoing). The series, which serves as a visual journal for the artist’s work, impressions and visions, is composed of 111 oil paintings on canvas that he has revisited over the years. The surfaces are thick and rich from the repeated additions, their earthy-toned backgrounds giving way to bubbles showing small characters, scenes and objects. Presented in a single line along the wall, the series reads as a travelogue. Poetic – in one bubble, two wooden ladders are interlaced as if in an embrace – and polished, it contrasts with the incomplete appearance of the many sketches that abound throughout the show.

Like doodles made while talking on the phone, yet deceitfully full of hidden labour, Alÿs’s work elevates details to the rank of protagonists. In reference to Georges Bataille’s 1933 essay, ‘La Notion de dépense’ (The Notion of Expenditure), the title of the exhibition, ‘La dépense’, refers to Bataille’s concept of unproductive consumption, which is not for survival or rational growth but rather responds to our unconscious selves. This invisible current holds the exhibition together and is flexible enough to metaphorically represent the hidden labour of the masses or the fruits of the artist’s unconscious. Alÿs invites us to be more in our heads while also being attentive to the unremarkable around us. Like chasing the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, this attitude is one of exquisite futility.

Francis Alÿs, 'La dépense' runs at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, until 24 February 2019.

Main image: Francis Alÿs, A Story of Deception, Patagonia, Argentina, 2003 – 2006, film still. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner, London/New York/Hong Kong

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art writer based in Hong Kong. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Pipeline magazine.