Review of Francis Alÿs: A Story of Negotiation, Tamayo Museum, Mexico City

The ideal of art as an experience has been a subject of reinterpretation by several artists and philosophers throughout the years. It is a concept that faces constant reinvention both in and out of the books, partly due to the fact that in most cases it’s up to the audience to determine the process of the work with their involvement and subsequent reflection. The participation of an external element within the process of the artwork can broaden the artist’s perspective and allow for his/her concept to reach new ends that hadn’t been previously considered. Carrying an advocacy for sociopolitical projects that transcend the limits of what is considered art in this contemporary context, Francis Alÿs is constantly reinventing his work and finding new ways for it to create a dialogue within itself in order to be progressively reinterpreted by the audience.

A Story of Negotiation is the title of Alÿs’ newest exhibition, which was curated by his longtime collaborator Cuauhtémoc Medina and is currently running at the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City. This exhibition is a sort of retrospective on the artist’s last decade of work and represents the embodiment of one of the characteristic elements of his work: the process of negotiation within the actions he performs. As ambitious as it is charming, this grand exhibition of Alÿs’ oeuvre allows the audience to witness a brilliant conjugation of the sociopolitical language that is applied throughout his career. Always based in different settings that respond to a certain socio-geographical issue, Alÿs’ work is somewhat based upon the premise that every culture has its own collective individuality that can be used to create a dialogue both within itself and with the audience that is interpreting the work.

It seems like Alÿs finds his inspiration within marginalised societies and places where conflict prevails in one way or the other. This idea brings to mind a specific phrase from the godfather of relational art, John Dewey: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at nothing and contriving. Conflict is a “sine qua non” of reflection and ingenuity”. It is from this je ne sais quoi within society and conflict that Alÿs is able to create a theatrical masterpiece that turns the political into the profoundly poetic, leaving the external world to ponder upon the hidden meaning of his actions, which are presented in the form of skillfully edited videos that are accompanied by intricate diagrams, drawings, sculptures and exquisite paintings.

For Alÿs, painting is merely a means to an end, something he does prior to the performance in order to lay out his “plan of action” and in some cases even finance it. The artist stated that he “needs to draw, paint and write in order to advance in the production of a determined action in a determined site. They’re activities that bounce off each other but that are nevertheless necessary because paintings help him take decisions and even finance actions which are not lucrative”.

The first piece that is encountered upon arrival is a painting that was sawed in half while hanging on the museum’s walls, a performance that depicts the “separation line” that is portrayed in various works throughout the exhibition. The next display of works from the artist belong to a series titled Don’t cross the bridge before you get to the river, which was an action performed by swimming children across the stretch of Gibraltar  in 2008 (this was a continuation of the Puente project that Alÿs developed in 2005 between Cuba and Florida using alignments of fishing boats to simulate a bridge between the two countries). If something stands out within the artist’s overall aesthetic it is his modest use of materials and simple ways of depicting the actions that are aching to be brought out of his head and into performance. One great example of this concept is a pair or forks that are placed leaning against each other on a map, each one is placed on opposite ends of the stretch of Gibraltar, simulating an embrace between the two lands.

The next major series of works belongs to the Tornado series ( 2000-2010). It is a dangerously experimental body of work where the artist places himself inside a tornado while carrying a camera to reenact living within the chaos that is society. This video is accompanied by a series of drawings and diagrams that depict various concepts of the state of mind that one can encounter at any given situation within disorder. If chasing tornados doesn’t sound dangerous enough, the next body of work that is presented in the exhibition belongs to the Reel-Unreel series where Alÿs did a number of actions in Afghanistan during the occupancy of British and American soldiers in 2011. The title of this series is an obvious allusion to the “real/unreal” concept that is related to Afghanistan in large part due to the fabricated depiction of the country by the western media. Interestingly, the media also serves as a literal background for the video as it shows a couple of children pushing film reels that were accidentally destroyed during the conflict across the decayed streets of Kabul.

The three series presented here are the coalescence of Alÿs rules of engagement, a vivid recollection of experiences that have led the artist throughout the world in search of new dialogues that question the boundaries of language. Another piece that expresses the subtlety and discerning taste of Alÿs’ creations is a reenactment of his Drip performance in Israel in the form of a connecting trail of paint between the Tamayo Museum and the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros where the artist is presenting another smaller exhibition that goes by the title of Hotel Juárez. If art itself is a political act as Alÿs says, then its aesthetic experience should be one based upon its integrity in order to continue pushing our buttons and forcing us to reconsider our roles in society.

Francis Alÿs: A Story of Negotiation until 16 August, Tamayo Museum, Paseo de la Reforma No. 51, Col. Bosque de Chapultepec, Del. Miguel Hidalgo, C.P. 11580.

Rodrigo Campuzano

1. Francis Alÿs: A Story of Negotiation, courtesy of Tamayo Museum.