"Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception" opened recently at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York and visitors will find that the show delivers poetics and politics in equal doses. Alÿs is a globalized artist with sensibilities to match. Hailing from Belgium he set up shop in Mexico City in 1986 and his work reflects the development divide between those two nations.
The piece that strikes you upon entering the exhibition is Cuentos Patrióticos (Patriotic Tales). It is a black and white video of a man (Alÿs) walking in a circle around a flagpole or monument in a public square. He is accompanied in his circulation by sheep that trace his same path. The video is hypnotic and repetitive. As the sheep enter and leave one by one the viewer finds that sometimes the sheep are following the man, sometimes the opposite. The plaza depicted is the Zócalo in Mexico City, and while this knowledge adds a layer of meaning, the video is rich as a timeless meditation on the cycles and rituals of leadership.
Another captivating video is Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), where Alÿs starts pushing a large block of ice around town in the morning, only to have it dissipate into nothing by early evening. While the piece echoes the myth of Sisyphus, as many have noted, I see in it one fundamental difference: the element of choice. The labor of Sisyphus was a punishment whereas Alÿs has chosen to demonstrate a work ethic of focus and endurance, and this theme unites him with On Kawara's Today series and the performances of Marina Abramović. Another crucial difference is that the Sisyphus story gains its potency and absurdity from the infinite, whereas Alÿs connects us to the post-mythical hubris and heuristic of praxis: Yes, you will dissipate like an ice cube one day, so throw your back into what you're doing now.
By far the most complex and provocative work in the show is Politics of Rehearsal. In it an exotic dancer rehearses on a stage with an incongruously operatic musical accompaniment. Mixed with this is footage from Harry S. Truman's 1949 inaugural speech where he sets forth the capitalist case for development aid and democratization. Alÿs describes the piece as "a metaphor of Latin America's ambiguous affair with Modernity, forever arousing, and yet, always delaying the moment it will happen." A narrative voice-over is added in Spanish to flesh out some of the political ideas behind Latin America's constant flirtation with development policies. Central to this text is the sense that a history without victories is dispiriting, and that in such a situation productive work is reduced to mere labor.
We thus start to see a chain of concepts running throughout Alÿs: Rehearsal, Effort (maximal), Result (minimal), Repetition, Reenactment. They lead us not to absurd despair, but rather to a way of life and a means to reflect on it: art as a political science.
The most charming aspect is that while remaining high concept Alÿs exhibits a democratic minimalism. The materials he employs are available to most: shoes, walking, coins, the city, shovels, the natural elements. Friday nights are free admission at MoMA—perhaps the perfect time to see his show. Make sure to catch Tornado.