Conceptual art with humor, humanity
Small exhibit at Davis contains enough to capture the large ideas of Francis Alÿs
WELLESLEY — Born in Belgium and resident since the mid-1990s in Mexico City, Francis Alÿs is an enchanting enigma. He specializes in making the weighty seem light-headed and the flimsy seem profound. He’s one of the best contemporary artists at work today.
Taken individually, his works can seem slight, almost fey. But cumulatively, they have tremendous, brain-tickling impact.
Sadly, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center’s Francis Alÿs show doesn’t really allow for the possibility of feeling this cumulative energy. Cobbled together on the occasion of a new acquisition of a 1996-97 work by Alÿs, it’s a small, one-room show with just a handful of pieces, mostly short videos.
But the pieces in question are signature works, and, slight as they initially appear, they have a marvelous tendency to break down resistance, to disarm skepticism.
One of them — a favorite of mine — is called “Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing).’’ It’s a video that shows Alÿs — a tall, rangy man with a long stride — pushing a large rectangular block of ice around the streets of Mexico City’s historic center.
The ice is heavy, and at first he’s forced to bend over it, pushing with both arms and legs. Gradually, the ice melts, and eventually, he wanders along kicking it ahead of him like a tennis ball or a hockey puck.
Mercifully, the video is edited, so the whole quixotic endeavor is condensed into just a few minutes. But always in the background are the streets and storefronts of the city. And the final scene, which shows the ice deliquescing into a puddle, concludes with three young boys poring over it, then smiling up at the camera.
Alÿs’s work is full of these humorous touches, which convert potentially cold conceptual pranks into warm, whimsical human experiences. He has an intelligent and inquisitive attitude toward the social contract — which is another way of saying he qualifies as a “political artist.’’ But his work is also about futility and uselessness. Politically, it oscillates between a level of conviction that suggests “Here I stand!’’ and one that’s more like, “Oh boy, I might just go for a walk.’’
Endearingly, much of his work centers on walking. The show’s title, “The Moment When Sculpture Happens,’’ refers to two transparencies that are part of a larger work called “Centro Historico (Historic Center),’’ which show someone’s shoe lifting off the pavement and, in the process, stretching out a piece of discarded chewing gum.
Very droll. But what’s the idea?
Part of it is the notion — already explored by Duchamp, by the artists of the Fluxus and Arte Povera movements, and by Alÿs’s Mexican contemporaries Gabriel Orozco, Gabriel Kuri, and Damian Ortega — that sculpture can be anything; that it can be accidental, fleeting, even abject; that it should be liberated from the suffocating rhetoric of heroism and permanence.
But there’s more to it than that. In almost all his work, Alÿs is constantly getting at the notion that actions don’t always coalesce and turn into something greater; that things don’t always arrive at a point where they are more than the sum of their parts. Very often, they’re less.
Indeed, huge numbers of actions, decisions, and happenings are simply useless and without point. They cannot be understood in terms of political or economic frameworks. They cannot be yoked together and mobilized in the name of change and progress. They are simply what they are.
Alÿs celebrates the potential for poetry — and poetic humor — in all this. That’s the likable aspect of what he does (likable because, like a truant schoolboy, it is liberated and full of improvised mischief). But if his insight stopped there, we would probably smile and call him naïve.
What makes Alÿs compelling is that he is constantly reinserting his poetic sensibility — call it his feeling for futility — back into the realities of social and political life, into the workaday experiences of Mexico City’s street vendors, its sign painters, its musicians, and street cleaners.
One of the works here consists of two carousel slide projectors showing photographs of street vendors taken between 1992 and 2006. The transportation devices improvised by these vendors, or “ambulantes,’’ are at once utilitarian and whimsical, sometimes quite beautiful. It is hard to resist reading them as sculptures. And yet, of course, they are not. They are tools for eking out an existence.
Another video, “Perro Durmiende (Sleeping Dog),’’ shows a dog sleeping outside what we infer to be a theater or rehearsal hall, because at the edges of the frame we see guitar cases and loitering men in performer’s costumes. (Rehearsing — the whole idea of going through the motions yet constantly postponing the next step, the decisive action, the actual performance — is another leitmotif of Alÿs’s work).
The camera registers these peripheral figures incidentally. It is focused instead on the curled-up dog, which twitches occasionally and, at the end of the film, stirs, opens its eyes, and sits up. That’s it. It’s disarming, delicious, without point, like a perfect short story.
The Davis Museum’s new acquisition, displayed in the hall outside the gallery, is in fact a triptych. Alÿs painted a nondescript cityscape onto a rough-edged block of wood, smaller than a postcard. It depicts the tops of a few buildings, a billboard, and the sky, in three drab colors — nothing more.
He then commissioned two “rotulistas’’ — Mexican sign painters — to make copies of his cityscape according to their own interpretation and style. Alÿs’s small and battered original fades into insignificance alongside the two larger works, one painted with an airbrush, the other with a traditional brush. The rotulistas have added color, atmosphere, and personal touches such as telegraph poles and wires, a shop sign, even new buildings.
So which is the study, the rehearsal, and which the final product? And if one is by a famous contemporary artist and the others by mere craftspeople, how does that change the equation?
Such questions, to be honest, are only briefly diverting. I find Alÿs’s “rotulista’’ series less interesting than his videos. It’s nice to see the brilliant “Paradox of Praxis 1,’’ but it’s a pity we don’t see more of the things Alÿs has got up to over the years.
Some of them have been pretty crazy — and very funny. He has, for example, walked the streets of Copenhagen each day under the influence of a different drug.
Another time, he ran frantically around the streets of Mexico City holding a cocked pistol until he was stopped by the local police. The footage of this episode is shown alongside a second video showing similar scenes, this time labeled “reenactment.’’ So here again, we’re invited to think not just about the poetry and politics of walking the streets, but about the artist’s interest in originals and copies, rehearsals and finished actions.
On another occasion, Alÿs, holding a hand-held camera, ran repeatedly into a series of tornadoes in the Mexican desert.
Alÿs alternates such quixotic solo activities with group actions that are often no less nutty. He has filmed palace guards marching in arbitrary directions through the streets of London until they all meet up in formation, then disperse. He has shepherded sheep around the giant flagpole in Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitución. And he has organized hundreds of students and locals in Lima, Peru, to try to move a huge sand dune with hand-held shovels.
Futility, entropy, accident, disorder, death: Just as these things characterize large swathes of our lives as individuals, so too do they characterize social and political life. Acknowledging this is liberating (apprehensions of truth usually are). And in the hands of this ambulant Belgian expatriate, it’s also surprisingly poetic.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.