Francis Alÿs’s work was the subject of two presentations in Shanghai. On view from November 9 through February 24, 2019, at Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), the solo exhibition La dépense ("consumption") was his first large-scale presentation in mainland China. Curated by Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and professor of curatorial and art theory at the city’s Tama Art University, and Larys Frogier, director at RAM, the show is framed in terms of resisting the onset of digital experience with manual action. Among the works on view were the video pieces Tornado (2000–2010) and A Story of Deception (2003–2006), the installations Silencio (2003–2010) and Exodus, 2014–2018, and small-scale paintings from the ongoing series Le Temps du sommeil, begun in 1996.
On view through March 10, 2019, Alÿs presented three video works and a maquette in the 12th Shanghai Biennale. The biennial was titled Proregress: Art in an Age of Historical Ambivalence and was organized by Cuauhtémoc Medina, who has been a long-time collaborator and curator of Alÿs’s work on projects including the major solo exhibition A Story of Negotiation, which traveled to museums in North and South America from 2015 to 2017.
Alÿs, who travels widely and has produced work in many countries, has described his practice as "a sort of discursive argument composed of episodes, metaphors, or parables." Exploring anthropological and geopolitical contexts in different places, he uses media including public actions, installations, video, paintings, and drawings. Alÿs first made work in China in the late 1990s, examples of which were included in La dépense; this was the artist’s second official participation in the Shanghai Biennale after presenting his work in its 9th edition in 2012.
Reflecting on the itinerant nature of his activities in the book accompanying A Story of Deception, a critically acclaimed survey of his work shown at Tate Modern in London, Wiels in Brussels, and The Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York from 2010 to 2011, Alÿs has said: "My own reaction to the place [where I arrive to make a project] is itself subjective: it is a bit of a dance in between my own concerns or obsessions that I carry with me over there and their meeting with that place, that clash that will eventually lead to a concrete reaction, a piece, or nothing. And it is never just about the place. . . . It is more because my own concerns at the time happen to coincide with the concerns of a certain place at a certain moment of its history." Arriving in Shanghai in 1997, the artist’s observations took the form of poetic fragments as he noticed "the crude reality of a mutating Shanghai. Pure present."
In a 2011 interview, Alÿs describes coming to culture "empirically," an approach that intersects with the context outlined by this year’s Shanghai Biennale curator. Medina’s observation that the "structural production" which proliferates in the contemporary moment "involves a distancing from the processes that connect with our immediate experience, making it almost impossible to have empirical access to anything" suggests a fertile environment for Alÿs’s work, which in both of these exhibitions was the result of—and appeals to—direct experience. "Alÿs’s performances query the relationships between people and their geographical and sociopolitical environments, implicitly creating a flow of life through acts such as drawing, walking, moving objects, and building bridges," Hasegawa writes in a text accompanying La dépense; "Here you will find direct encounters and physical involvement of the sort gradually being threatened by and forgotten by our digitized world, and suggestions that make us aware of, or recognize anew, manual work."
Image: Francis Alÿs, Le Temps du sommeil, 1996–ongoing (detail)
August 31–November 4, 2018
The Logbook of Gibraltar at Art Sonje Center in Seoul was Francis Alÿs’s first solo exhibition in Korea. Among other works, the show included Don’t Cross the Bridge Before you get to the River (2006-2008), an important example of the artist’s engagement with anthropological and geopolitical contexts using poetic means. Presented as a multi-media installation encompassing painting, drawing, sculpture, and video, the project documents how, as Alÿs explains, "A line of kids each carrying a boat made out of a shoe leaves Europe in the direction of Morocco, while a second line of kids with shoe-boats leaves Africa in the direction of Spain. The two lines will meet on the horizon." This public action organized by the artist, which took place on August 12, 2008, represented not an actual attempt to bridge the Strait of Gibraltar, but instead an imaginative one in which shoes become mythical vessels, and children are giants.
Image: Installation view, The Logbook of Gibraltar, Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2018
June 20—September 9, 2018
Knots’n Dust traveled to Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK from Beirut Art Center, where it was on view from January 31–April 22, 2018. Exploring both early and recent works by Francis Alÿs, the exhibition included a series of photographs taken in Beirut during a sandstorm in 2015, as well as videos, paintings, and an animated film which is being exhibited for the first time.
The exhibition's title referred to zones of turbulence in connection with both Alÿs's work and the identity of the city of Beirut.
June 8–July 8, 2018
The multi-part installation The Silence of Ani (2015) by Francis Alÿs was included in Groundwork, an annual program organized by CAST (the Cornubian Arts & Science Trust), in Cornwall, England. Taking place across West Cornwall and curated in 2018 by Teresa Gleadowe, Groundwork presented new commissions and acclaimed works with an emphasis on sound, moving image, and performance.
First shown in the 14th Istanbul Biennale and now part of the Centre Pompidou collection, The Silence of Ani relates to a project Francis Alÿs undertook along the Armenian-Turkish border in 2015. The installation is composed of a monochrome video with a diptych, a painting, a drawing, and an archive consisting of seventy birdcalls, as well as ephemera including notes, studies, and photos. "Once upon a time Ani was one of the most important cities of the Middle Ages," Alÿs explains, "People called it ‘The City of the 1001 Churches’ and it competed in size and beauty with Constantinople and Jerusalem. But at the turn of the first millennium nomads coming from Central Asia invaded Ani. Sieges, sackings and more invasions followed . . . People started abandoning the city, until all life left and silence fell upon Ani. This all happened many years ago, what are we to do now? Is there something other than silence?"
Francis Alÿs has won the 2018 EYE Art & Film Prize. Awarded annually since 2015 by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam with the Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor Arts Fund, the prize recognizes an artist or filmmaker whose work unites art and film, and demonstrates quality of thought, imagination, and artistic excellence. The prize funds the making of new work.
The jury for the 2018 edition was chaired by EYE CEO Sandra den Hamer and included the French fashion designer Agnès B., Andrea Lissoni, senior curator of film and international art at Tate Modern in London, and the Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The EYE Prize has previously been awarded to Wang Bing (2017), Ben Rivers (2016), and Hito Steyerl (2015).
Read more in Artforum.
Image: Francis Alÿs in Iraq, 2016. Photo by Akam Shex Hadi
May 13–November 26
Francis Alÿs presented new paintings and a video created in Mosul in the exhibition Archaic in the Iraqi National Pavilion in Venice.
In 2016, Alÿs travelled to northern Iraq on the invitation of the Ruya Foundation, an organization founded in 2012 with the aim of aiding and enriching culture in Iraq. Alÿs spent nine days on the frontline in Mosul with the Kurdish Army, or Peshmerga, an experience which continued his exploration of the role of the artist in situations of conflict. He wrote about the experience for Artforum:
"There is something peculiar about the times we live in, and with them, a different expectation of the artist's role. When the structure of a society collapses, when politicians and media have lost credit and terror invades daily life, society turns toward culture in pursuit of answers. The painter is expected to look at its reality without any filters…Yet, is the artist able to assume those roles from a moral, intellectual, and emotional point of view?"
Read more: a featued interview with the artist in Artsy about the Mosul project. A conversation with the Iraqi Pavilion curators Tamara Chalabi (co-foundation of the Ruya Foundation) and Paolo Colombo in ArtReview.
Image: Untitled, Mosul (selfie), 2016.
A Story of Negotiation presented significant projects from the last two decades by Francis Alÿs, and travelled from the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City to the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The exhibition centered around three large-scale video works which reflect Alÿs's distinct sensibility towards anthropological and geopolitical concerns. Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (2008) documents an event in which local children stood in the sea at either shore of the Strait of Gibraltar holding boats made from shoes; the aim was to create the illusion of a bridge on the horizon. In Tornado (2000-2010), Alÿs chases dust-devils in the Mexican outback. REEL-UNREEL (2011) depicts a street game played by children in Kabul who follow a reel of film as it unravels through the old part of town.
"As ambitious as it is charming, this grand exhibition of Alÿs's oeuvre allows the audience to witness a brilliant conjugation of the sociopolitical language that is applied throughout his career." — Aesthetica Magazine