Francis Alÿs

Published on Artunlimited September 2015 issue

The Belgian artist Francis Alÿs (1959, Antwerp) living in Mexico studies engineering in Venice (1978-93), after studying history of architecture in Tournai (1978-93). In the wake of the big 1985 Mexico City Earthquake, Alÿs goes to Mexico City with a Belgian team. He works in rehabilitation and reconstruction projects for 22 months with a civil group. Following this process, Alÿs decides to live in Mexico City and begins his art career.

Alistair Hicks, in his book ‘The Global Art Compass’, says “If New York was not so powerful in the collective imagination of the art world Mexico City would be the most befitting center of the emerging art in the Americas.” *1. Moreover he adds; “it is a city geographically more centralized, intellectually more transparent, open and positive, with a better capability of understanding rhythm and time, and very apt for making art.” There are many public or private museums in this city which is cheaper almost by thirty percent than Istanbul. In many university museums, such as MUAC (Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo / Contemporary Art University Museum) in particular since Cuauhtémoc Medina is its curator, there is an open potential ranging from newly graduated artists to world stars and this is also true for curators. The fragmented architecture of MUAC is convenient for holding several exhibitions simultaneously. During the time I have been there, I had the opportunity to see important names such as Hito Steyrl, Raqs Media Collective, William Kentridge, Sarah Minter and many group exhibitions simultaneously. There are many art initiatives thanks to the funds provided to young artists or curators by the state, museums or universities; Soma, Biquan Wax, RATE, Lulu, Crater İnvertido were among the initiatives I could visit. Everyone I demanded a meeting with opened their doors and welcomed me in this city where artists and curators are extremely genuine, hearty and open; the art world was indeed really positive. It was not hard for me to guess Francis Alÿs’s reasons for leaving Europe to settle in Mexico City.


Francis Alÿs whose artistic practice varies from performance, to painting, video and animation is known for his poetic-political work. Alÿs addresses issues such as social practices, social hierarchy and conflict areas, border, immigration and refugee problems, by means of personal memory and collective mythology. Street as a place of production and the act of ‘walking’ to which he assigns a performative meaning, have an important role in Alÿs’s art practice. In the animation titled ‘The Last Clown’ (2001) the Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, with whom Alÿs worked together on many projects, is so preoccupied and pensive that he does not see the dog passing in front of him and falls to the ground. Alÿs’s performative walks have the characteristics of a reaction or resistance against bringing public space under control. He leaves us tête-à-tête with the contemporary interpretation of Charles Baudelaire’s concept ‘flaneur’ which was elaborated by Walter Benjamin.*.2 Alÿs, who uses the street as a space of ‘action’ like the Situationist activists, sees it also as a depository of images which sets the artist in motion. This idea manifests itself symbolically in his first performance ‘The Collector (Mexico City, 1991) in which he takes out on a walk in the street a toy dog equipped with magnets, and the dog collects the metal objects on the street. The artist has an impact on the street just like the street has an impact on him, and he leaves behind traces. Alÿs who walks on the street pulling the ropes of his sweater in ‘The Looser / The Winner’ (2006), walks on the armistice border in Jerusalem known as the ‘green line’ in his ‘ Green Line ‘(Jerusalem, 2005) performance and marks the streets with the green paint leaking from the paint can in his hand. In ‘Barrenderos’ (Sweepers, Mexico City, 2004), cleaning workers create a huge barricade out of garbage by sweeping the garbage on the streets. He drags a large block of ice that melts away to nothing in ‘Paradox of Praxis 1 (1997). Alÿs’s works have a fluid and slippery aspect. Objects and people are on the move and they transform themselves just like in the scene where paint pours out of its can into the street or that of the metal dog which enlarges as it collects objects, the scene of the dismantling sweater, of the melting ice or of the car hitting the tree. The relationship between transformation and movement reaches its climax in symbolic terms in the performance ‘When Faith Moves Mountains’ (Lima, 2002). With 500 volunteers, each relocating a shovel full of sand, Alÿs changes the location of a geographical dune by a few inches.


Alÿs’s video series ‘Children’s Game’ that initiates with # 1 Caracoles “(Snails, Mexico City, 1999) goes on in various cities of countries like Mexico, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Jordan. Alÿs who uses the street as an    indispensable ‘field’ of artistic production, this time gives the turn to perform over to the children. The gloomy atmosphere of cities surrounded by war, poverty or violence becomes invisible for a while thanks to the frivolous, pure and cheerful body movements of children flying kites, dancing, playing marbles and rolling hoops. The harsh scene of the real world becomes blurred in the company of children’s fantasy world. Children’s games are nourished by the relationship between the fantasy world and poverty. There is still hope for children in the wretched and miserable streets where poor lives prevail. Children still manage to play games even in all kinds of poverty, for the restricted and closed world of poverty triggers the imagination.

Nermin Saybaşılı touches upon the subject of ‘children and games’ in border regions, in her book ‘Sınırlar ve Hayaletler’ (Borders and Ghosts) in which she investigates the migratory movements of visual culture. Children in borderlands play the same type of games like all other children; but rather than toys they use completely different materials. For example, instead of playing the ball they throw homemade bombs to the opposite party or instead of playing hide and seek, they secretly watch the positions of the ‘enemy’ and observe his weak spots. *3 Indeed, in Alysia’s work ‘#15 Espejos’ (Mirrors; Juarez, 2013) from his series Children’s Games, children playing a game similar to hide and seek in abandoned houses hold up to the sun pieces of broken glass which they have collected from the houses and thus mark the enemy, when the sunlight hits the enemy’s body they pretend to be shot and fall to the ground.


We observe that in the film Reel – Unreel (Kabul, Afghanistan, 2011) which Alÿs shot for dOCUMENTA (13), the Children’s Games series turns into a visual feast. We discover the city through the eyes of two boys who unwind a reel of film through the streets of Kabul; we enter and exit the narrow streets of Kabul, pass bridges, blend in with the market crowd, enter the courtyards of mosques and madrasas and get out of the traffic. Showing children’s games in this film series in question, Alÿs maintains his relationship to daily life and the street while at the same time he gives an idea about the social and economic structure, the architecture and geography, the music and colors of the city in which the film is shot. ‘Children’s Games’ series is autobiographical in a sense; painting the streets in ‘Green Line’ correlates to ‘painting’ and children rolling a reel of film correlate to ‘video’ production.


Francis Alÿs refines and updates some of his performances by repeating them in different times and places. In his performances he and his players often change places. Children, street sweepers, sailors or fishermen take an active role in his performances. Alÿs (Paradox of Praxis 5, Juarez, 2014) who walks the streets of Juarez passing around a ball of fire, Mexico’s extremely dangerous city that comes to the fore with acts of kidnapping and narco-trafficking, replaces the child who was rolling a reel of film in Kabul. He often includes ‘line’ as a form in his performances, videos and paintings. Street vendors lined side by side in ‘Tourist’ (Mexico City, 1994), symbolic bridges he builds on the sea with fishermen or children, volunteers lined row after row in Peru on sand dunes and the marks he leaves behind with paint on the streets always consist of either flat or curved lines. These performances of Alÿs that oscillate between action and fiction are immensely pictorial; especially the last scene has been constructed in advance like a picture.

Working collectively is an indispensable part of Francis Alÿs’s artistic production. He has worked together with Cuauhtémoc Medina on many collaborative projects, for example, in works such as ‘Barrenderos’,’ Bridge ‘,’ When Faith Moves Mountains’ we see Medina leading the operations. The curator Medina goes into action just like an artist as he transports indoors modes of production, such as exhibition production and writing, to the streets and everyday life. The street and the life outside, as alternative to the museum, gallery or institution, are also places of production for Medina. During the interview we did with Medina, he told us that working with Francis Alÿs, for him, has the characteristics of a performance and that Alÿs is one of the artists who thrill him the most.

In the texts included in his book ‘A Story of Negotiation’ Alÿs mentions the names of artists such as Cándido López (Buenos Aires, 1840-1902) and Robert Smithson (New Jersey, 1938-1973) who has influenced him while visiting a gallery or museum, in the production stages of his works. In the same manner, he lays emphasis on collective production by writing in big letters the names of the director, cameraman, musician and sound designer he collaborates with on the walls of exhibition halls, and by including them in public sessions. His demeanor galvanizes, activates and excites one. The director Julien Devaux and the sound designer Félix Blume, the Belgian artists I met during my assistantship in Kars, Ani, have gone to Mexico City for one of Alÿs’s projects and never returned, having decided to stay there. Alÿs has attracted them to Mexico City as well, like the magnet in ‘The Collector.’


Alÿs’ exhibition at the Tamayo Museum opens with a landscape painting cut in half by a drill after it has been hanged on the museum wall, after the museum wall has also been scratched; this beginning hints at the fragmented narrative that we will come across later on. The dual-channel video ‘Do not Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River,’ (2008) in which children carrying small sailboats made out of slippers in their hands, swim across to each other from the opposite coasts of Morocco and Spain in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, welcomes you to the exhibition with an easy and fluent feeling, later on the tempo of the exhibition slows down. We come across first ‘Tornado’ (Milpa Alta, Mexico City; 2000-2010) and then ‘Kabul’ which Alÿs produced for dOCUMENTA (13), included in the Afghanistan series. In his ‘Tornado’ video, Alÿs runs towards a tornado which he sees from afar with a camera in his hand, in a desert in Mexico, and eventually he enters inside the tornado. Alÿs who has profoundly increased the dose of adrenalin, this time round enters the battlefield and describes himself as a ‘War Artist’ in his next ‘Afghanistan’ series. The artist who was passing around a ball of fire in ‘Paradox of Praxis 5’, was this time really ‘playing with fire’. *4 If we consider that the battlefield also looks like a tornado, these two successive series took one’s breath away. We bid farewell to the exhibition with the installation ‘Silence’ (2003-2010) which invites the audience to keep quiet and be silent. The ‘hush’ image on dozens of small rugs made out of rubber, invited us to silently contemplate on the reality of social contradictions which were presented to us with an intensely poetic narrative. I wondered whether ‘water, air, fire and earth,’ the four basic elements of the Earth came together by chance in this exhibition. The curator Medina told me that they noticed this with Alÿs while installing the exhibition together but that they had not planned it in advance, and told me that I had a point.


This exhibition which I tried to briefly explain reaffirmed and refreshed my faith in art. There was a significant distance, separation between the series of Francis Alÿs which he enriches with tiny paintings, drawings, photographs, maps and archival materials, and the insensitive world of the large, expensive and flashy installations which we see in biennials or art fairs. His works are not only poetic as it is much claimed, but their inquisitive and genuine approach to the subject matter also takes you much closer to Him. Alÿs is after a multiple narrative revealing to the audience, processes of research and thought taking place at the production stage of the works. Like in his performances, he had also a fluid, light and fragmented narrative in his paintings and his paintings as well many of his performances had no beginning or end. The narrative form of Alÿs, who contrary to the Modernist rational approach is against the whole, which he replicates by writings and drawings, reminded one of the reflexes of an author who jumps from one thought to another, from one image to another, constantly taking notes; and the small size of his paintings made one think that they were made during travels.


‘Silence of Ani’ video work which Francis c produced for the 14th Istanbul Biennial might be considered a continuation of his ‘Children’s Games’ series, but with a twist; this time the artist himself has set the game. The artist who came to Turkey after being invited to the Istanbul Biennial, visited the Turkey – Armenia border and he was intensely influenced by Ani’s abandoned appearance and its silence. With Alÿs who decided to build his work on the theme of ‘silence,’ we went to Kars during the last week of May to shoot his video titled ‘Silence of Ani.’ Our plan was to organize together with Özkan Cangüven the shootings and then return to Istanbul on the day of elections and vote. We started by rehearsing the music composed by the musician Antonio Fernández Ros with a group of students from the Kars Gülahmet Aytemiz Güzel Sanatlar Lisesi (Kars Gülahmet Aytemiz Fine Arts High School) and their teacher Seda Durukan Eren. The children were quite cheerful and they enjoyed spending time outdoors rather than crowding in classrooms. The fact that the team came outside of Kars furthermore thrilled them. I knew this feeling very well since I grew up in a small town like Van. During the summers, I waited impatiently for the days that our relatives from Istanbul would visit the town. Children from the West were more joyful, women more relaxed, men more friendly, or so it seemed to me. I believe this is how it felt to experience what is called ‘rural boredom,’ being in contact always with the same small circle of people.


The children became friendly at once with us, the girls were fascinated by Julien Devaux and Felix Blume, the director and the sound designer Francis Alÿs collaborates with, and the boys lined up just to have a brief chat with me. The children had Antonio Fernández Ros, with whom they worked, cornered at every opportunity, and while communicating pretty successfully with their poor English, they learnt by experience, perhaps for the first time in their lives, how important it is to learn a foreign language. We met in the early hours of the morning every day and worked until dawn for a whole week. After the team became friendly enough with one another, we began singing together on the way back home in the evenings and our trips together became quite entertaining. On the way to Ani, 40 minutes away from Kars, Alÿs would always ask questions, scribble notes and make small drawings on the papers he had in his hands. Pen and paper were tools that complemented/completed his thoughts. He kept writing and drawing at all hours of the day and night – while discussing something with Julien, Félix ve Antonio, during a meal or while sipping his coffee, on the way back home in the evenings – and he somehow managed to keep his notes orderly and organized. The picturesque image of the walks we took, in long queues following each other, on narrow pathways of Ani covered with green grass and church ruins is still in front of my eyes today. Sometimes Francis would stray away from the path and disappear just to appear again from behind another hill, and we would be walking, lined in rows, just like in His performances. On the last day, there was no end of the hugging and kissing, bidding farewell to one another and everyone was trying to conceal the tears in their eyes.


The historical city of Ani, which dates back to the 5th century, becomes the capital of the Bagratid Armenian Kingdom in the early 11th century and it is called the ‘City of 1001 Churches’ due to the large number of churches it has. The city which is an important commercial and cultural center on the Silk Road is repeatedly destroyed and besieged by the Seljuks, Byzantines, Mongolians, Persians and the Ottomans during the Middles Ages. In the middle of the 18th century, Ani is completely deserted. At the turn of the 19th century, Russian archeologist and orientalist Nicholas Marr rediscovers Ani and begins excavations. During that period Ani becomes a serious laboratory for researchers and first scientific restorations begin. Research and excavation works come to a halt during the battles of the World War I, and the city gets once again severely damaged and it is abandoned. While writing this article, I am listening to the album ‘Dance Das Cabeças’ by the Brazilian musician Egberto Gismonti.


The introduction of this album that begins with bird calls takes me, over over again, back to Ani. In the ‘Silence of Ani’ each child took the place of a bird and they began calling one another using the instruments in their hands which made bird sounds. For a while, the children, appearing and disappearing behind the hills among the ruins, would communicate with scattered and irregular sounds, but after a while the sounds they made would merge into a melody. Alÿs’ poetic style had melted down the sharpness of borders producing hostilities, and invited them to peace. The sound of birds crossed the border and reached Armenia, calling their friends back to the lands where they once lived in brotherhood/sisterhood….




  1. Hicks Alistair, The Global Art Compass, New Directions in 21th Century Art, 2014, p:15
  2. Heiser Jörg, “Walk on the Wild Side”, Frieze Magazine, September 2002, web. 24 Aug. 2011
  3. Saybaşılı Nermin, Sınırlar ve Hayaletler, Görsel Kültürde Göç Hareketleri, (Borders and Ghosts, Migratory Movements in Visual Culture ) Metis, 2005,p:66-67
  4. ‘Don’t play with fire!’ (‘Ateşle oynama!’) is a Turkish idiom told to those who take risks and put themselves at great danger.


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