BY Elvia Wilk in One Takes | 30 MAR 22
Featured in
Issue 226

Francis Alÿs’s Games without Frontiers

Elvia Wilk on the artist’s understated and poignant series ‘Children’s Games’ (1999-ongoing)

BY Elvia Wilk in One Takes | 30 MAR 22

Is there anything universal about childhood? In Francis Alÿs’s understated yet poignant video series ‘Children’s Games’ (1999–ongoing) – comprising around 20 works to date, with the latest due to premiere at this year’s Venice Biennale – the artist depicts young people at play. These short films (the longest is just over eight minutes) begin mid-action, without preamble: in the first, Caracoles (1999), a young boy kicks a plastic bottle up a sloping road in Mexico City. In the second, Ricochets (2007), three boys skip stones on the surface of a body of water on a grey day in Tangier. In all videos, the kids are largely without adult supervision and use whatever materials they have at hand. A group of very young children in Iraq’s Sharya Refugee Camp, for  instance, improvise a game of hopscotch against the backdrop of an industrial fence topped with barbed wire (Hopscotch, 2016). The kids bicker, laugh, goad each other on, compete and learn. They have fun. The shots are intimate, but don’t feel voyeuristic; the children are clearly aware of the camera, and many seem to enjoy showing off.

Alÿs, who was born in Belgium but has lived in Mexico City for several decades, trained as an architect. Since he began his art practice at the end of the 1980s, his projects have often focused on navigating the urban landscape or bringing the latent violence and power structures of the built environment into focus. Well known for his own public interventions – such as heaving a melting block of ice through the streets of Mexico City for Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) (1997) – over the past two decades, he has made several works about the lives of children in places marked by turmoil. The playful behaviour shown in Silence of Ani (2015) – in which the artist gave bird-call-imitating instruments to a group of adolescents living on the Turkish-Armenian border to enliven their landscape with song – is contrasted, as in many iterations of the series, with the implied violence of their circumstances.

Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #29: Nzango, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich

Almost all the works in ‘Children’s Games’ were shot in the Global South. In a 2020 interview with Medium, Alÿs remarked: ‘I could go from Argentina to Iraq and find essentially the same mechanics and meaning of the games.’ Despite this touching commonality, however, the strength of the series lies not in its universalist implications, but in the subjects’ wonderful specificity. These children are neither reduced to products of grim circumstance nor glorified as innocents. They are portrayed as participants in the creation of their own worlds, starting with a game of hopscotch or musical chairs.

Francis Alÿs's ‘The Nature of the Game’ is on view at the Belgian Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale from 24 April to 27 November 2022.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘Games without Frontiers’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #23: Step on a Crack, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich

Elvia Wilk is the author of Oval (2019) and Death by Landscape, a collection of essays forthcoming this July from Soft Skull Press.