BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 09 SEP 02
Featured in
Issue 69

Walk on the Wild Side

Jörg Heiser on the work of Francis Alÿs.

BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 09 SEP 02

 Nobody seems to take any notice until, after 11 minutes - as the timer on the video camera following him indicates - a police car pulls up. The man tries to run away but the two officers catch him, bundle him into the car and drive off.

What sounds like something from a local TV news report is in fact Re-enactments (2000), one of Francis Alÿs' 'walks'. Among the earliest of these works was The Collector (1991-2), for which the Belgian-born artist pulled a magnetic toy dog on wheels through the streets of his adopted home town, Mexico City, until it became covered entirely in coins, bits of old tin cans and the like. He followed this exercise in self-ridicule - imagine his neighbours' reaction to the sight of the tall gringo dragging a mechanical puppy around with him - by crossing the city wearing a knitted sweater that gradually unravelled as he walked, like Theseus leaving the trail of thread that allowed him to retrace his steps from the Minotaur's lair (The Winner/The Loser, 1995). In 1996, in The Leak, he wandered through the streets of San Paulo, letting a leaking can of paint dribble a thin blue line on the tarmac.

With Re-enactments the aim was apparently to see how long the artist could get away with walking the streets with a gun, but the work was a test not just of courage but of reality itself. After he was arrested, Alÿs got the police officers to take part in a re-enactment of the scene. The 'original' first version is projected side by side with the simulated version, which differs only in the choice of close-ups and in having a few extra cuts that add to the suspense. The credibility of the first version suddenly seems undermined: what if that too was not authentic but staged? And conversely even the second, 'pretend', version seems dangerous: what if an unwitting passer-by had violently tried to stop the gunman? Either way, any vestige of pathos, any idea of the artist fearlessly risking his life à la Chris Burden (who famously got himself shot in the arm for Shoot, 1971) disappears in the gap between fact and fiction, between two similar versions of what seems to be one event.

It's easy to imagine that in a place like Mexico City - where class conflict is stretched to breaking point - characters such as tramps picking scraps of metal out of the rubbish, drugged drifters and crazed gunmen are familiar figures. These loners certainly feature in Alÿs' work, but any temptation to romanticize them, to see them as exotic, is undermined by his use of repetition and slapstick. Re-enactments makes this almost didactically clear with its juxtaposition of two versions of a single event. Other 'walks' resulted in a series of paintings called 'The Liar, the Copy of the Liar' (1997), which was made in collaboration with a group of commercial sign-painters (still a common profession in Mexico). Like a visual version of Chinese whispers, a single motif is treated in several radically different styles. Oil on canvas can become smooth enamel on metal, the dosser becomes a sleek businessman; a Magrittean Surrealism gives way to comic artist Hergé's iconic simplicity or the awkwardness of Erwin Wurm's 'One-minute Sculptures'. An arbitrary detail from a walk - for example, a sheet of paper wrapping itself around a leg - is turned into a motif that looks like an excuse to highlight a pair of shiny shoes (The Copy of the Liar No. 37 and 38, 1996). The artist's status not just as originator but also as the subject of his own work is undermined, and the loner is multiplied and allowed to mutate into the anonymous and ubiquitous man in a grey suit.

Comparisons with Walter Benjamin's flâneur seem tempting, but are misleading. According to Benjamin, for the flâneur the 'crowd is the veil through which the ordinary city offers itself as a phantasmagoria'. 1 With Alÿs it's the other way round: he 'offers' himself to the beholders of his pieces - through the 'veil' of the crowd, which notices or ignores his actions - as 'a phantasmagoria', or rather a sort of conceptual alien. Even Narcotourism (1996), for which he wandered around Copenhagen for seven days under the influence of seven different drugs, is not so much about the artist's own psychedelic perceptions of the city as about the speculation he creates by merely reporting those actions.

A comparison to the Situationist's dérive may seem more appropriate, but is still not quite right. According to Guy Debord's definition, drifting through a city like Paris is an experimental act meant to map the immediate effect of different surroundings on the drifter's perception. He distinguishes this from early Surrealist experiments with 'aimless wandering'; rather than being purely random, a Situationist approach requires a systematic choice of departure point and basic direction. 2 It becomes clear that Debord's dramatis personae are like a cross between town planners doing a serious piece of research and adolescents killing time. In this respect Alÿs' work is similar in its mixture of conceptual rule and open-ended performance. He is, however, not just drifting through and analysing the environment but actively constructing - en route - a fable about the possible ways of interacting with it, even if he takes this endeavour, almost literally, to a Minimalist low: the video Paradox of Praxis 1 (1997) shows him pushing a block of ice through Mexico City until it has melted away. The idea of the artist as hyper-sensitive to his surroundings is frozen in a self-contained, absurd act, but this piece of Minimalist imagery literally melts away, releasing the artist to take part in a less demanding game, as he lazily kicks a tennis ball-sized piece of ice around until that too turns to liquid.

With The Last Clown (1999) Alÿs seems to poke fun even at the idea of strolling as a pastime inherently 'unproductive' in a capitalist sense. The sketchy watercolour animation shows a man walking through a park to a soundtrack of circus music, until he gets his foot caught in the curly tail of a little dog that crosses his path, making him stumble and fall, while the music cuts to canned laughter. The whimsical incident is shown in a loop, like action replays of a spectacular goal. Repetitive slapstick beats authentic experience, Jacques Tati beats Guy Debord. It's as if Alÿs lets the flâneur fall down to make him aware of life at ground level.

In his series of slides of stray dogs and homeless street dwellers (Sleepers, 1999-2001) Alÿs keeps literally to this ground-level perspective, avoiding sharp angles and voyeuristic close-ups. With this formal show of respect he prevents the portraits from becoming patronizing demonstrations of pity. Taking a nap in doorways, on benches or on the sunlit pavement, the protagonists become strangely noble, sleeping the sleep of the just. For a brief moment the equation of dogs with humans seems like an antidote to the trope of humans being treated like dogs.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's ground-breaking, Oscar-nominated film Amores Perros (Love is a Bitch, 2001) takes this equation of dogs and humans and transforms it into a fable about the class system. The protagonists of three separate plot lines, told simultaneously backwards and forwards in time, are brought together by a devastating car crash in Mexico City: the handsome owner of a loyal but murderous Rottweiler, which he hopes will earn enough money from dogfights to enable him to escape from the ghetto; a magazine editor's blonde mistress whose beautiful legs are badly damaged in the crash, while her little lapdog is attacked by the rats living under the floor of her new flat; and a tramp who used to be a left-wing terrorist but now makes a living as a hit man. The tramp saves the injured Rottweiler from the scene of the crash, but his act of charity rebounds on him: after the dog has recovered, it kills the tramp's entire pack of beloved street dogs. The nouveaux riches, the ghettoized and the homeless - lapdog, fighting dog and stray - are all caught up in a huge, delirious downward spiral.

At Kunst-Werke in Berlin, Alÿs collaborated with González Iñárritu on an elaborate installation entitled Amores Perros - El Ensayo (Amores Perros - The Rehearsal, 2002). The scenes shown on numerous monitors and projections were not from the film itself but from hours and hours of crude research video, casting clips, acting rehearsals and discarded rushes. Alÿs ploughed through this material to recover a stuttering struggle to form dense fiction from dreary reality.

In the film the dogfights are simulated, as required by the film industry's animal protection laws. The location research videos, however, show real dogfights, more disturbing than the fictional ones precisely because they lack any drama. Meanwhile another set of monitors reconstruct the series of rehearsals for one of the most powerful scenes in the film. The tramp, who has been paid by a businessman to kill his brother, confronts his client with the consequences of this plan: he leads him into a room where the brother crouches in a corner, tied and gagged but still alive, and presses the gun into his client's hand. As the actors rehearse again and again their expressions of anger and fear, using a pen instead of a gun, the repetition emphasizes the ruthlessness of the fight for survival.

The use of video loops leading up to, but never reaching, the 'actual story' suddenly seem like an allegory for Mexico's double-edged encounter with modernity: forever approaching and then delaying the breakthrough to prosperity. The video installation Cantos Patrióticos (Versión Mariachi) (Patriotic Songs, Mariachi Version, 1998-9) translates this cycle of advance and retreat into a game of musical chairs played to the soundtrack of a Mariachi band performing a song about a snake biting its tail, while another monitor shows them trying to get cars to stop on a busy street for a serenade. The formal link between interruption and repetition turns into an allegory for economic struggle. The Rehearsal, the first part of an as yet unfinished three-part video piece shot in 1999, finds a simpler and possibly even stronger image: a static long shot of a green VW Beetle driving up the slope of a dirt road in a shantytown while we hear musicians rehearsing a song. Every time they stop, the car rolls backwards down the hill, as if running out of petrol, but when the music starts up again, the car starts driving up the hill once more. At one point, as the Beetle rolls back, it almost hits another car. Just as with the gunman in Re-enactments, the possibility of accidents is not excluded.

Alÿs could not get much more ambitious in terms of Sisyphean struggle than with his project for this year's Lima Biennial: turning Land art into a joint social effort. When Faith Can Move Mountains (2002) in collaboration with Cuauthemoc Medina and Raphael Ortega, involved 500 volunteers with shovels who helped move a giant sand dune - located in a grimly poor shantytown area outside Lima - about four inches. The Maoist imagery of cultural revolution, of masses moving the earth - an imagery that Peru's Shining Path terrorists have stuck with for so long - was turned back on itself: after the task had been fulfilled the landscape had not been changed perceptibly, or to any purpose. Still, over time, word of mouth might transform this apparently senseless act into a utopian fable - 500 people actually did move a mountain.

Sisyphus and Theseus: ancient myths of repetition and struggle, interruption and connection, reoccur like dreams in the work of Francis Alÿs, but they do so not to reveal the radically new as being the perennially old. On the contrary, the function of these
Ur-fables is to act as a yardstick by which to measure changes in the modern world.

1. Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, vol. I, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1983, p. 54.

2. Situationistische Internationale 1958-1969, vol. I, MaD Verlag, Hamburg, 1976, p. 58.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.