Francis Alÿs: Biography

Throughout his practice, Francis Alÿs consistently directs his distinct poetic and imaginative sensibility toward anthropological and geopolitical concerns centered around observations of, and engagements with, everyday life, which the artist himself has described as “a sort of discursive argument composed of episodes, metaphors, or parables.” His multifaceted projects including public actions, installations, video, paintings, and drawings­ have involved traveling the longest possible route between locations in Mexico and the United States; pushing a melting block of ice through city streets; commissioning sign painters to copy his paintings; filming his efforts to enter the center of a tornado; carrying a leaking can of paint along the contested Israel/Palestine border; and equipping hundreds of volunteers to move a colossal sand dune ten centimeters.

Born in 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium, Alÿs originally trained as an architect. He moved to Mexico City in 1986, where he continues to live and work, and it was the confrontation with issues of urbanization and social unrest in his new country of adoption that inspired his decision to become a visual artist. Since 2004, the artist’s work has been represented by David Zwirner, where he has had two solo exhibitions at the gallery in New York in 2007 and 2013. In 2016, Ciudad Juárez projects marked his first solo presentation at David Zwirner, London and, in 2021, the solo exhibition Don't Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River was on view at the gallery's Paris location. 

At Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, Francis Alÿs: Children’s Games, 1999-2022 is presently on view. A solo exhibition of the artist's work is on view at Copenhagen Contemporary until April 10, 2023. In 2022, Alÿs represented Belgium at the 59th Venice Biennale with the solo presentation, Francis Alÿs: The Nature of the Game. At the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, Switzerland Francis Alÿs: As Long As I'm Walking, was on view in 2021. Also in 2021, Francis Alÿs: Salam Tristesse was on view at Fragmentos, Espacio de Arte y Memoria, Bogotá, Colombia. In 2019 to 2020, solo shows were on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, as part of the 16th edition of the MOMENTA | Biennale de l’image, and the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

In 2018, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami presented a selection of the artist’s paintings, which are based on three important multi-panel works from the museum’s permanent collection. Also that year, solo exhibitions of Alÿs’s work were held at the Art Sonje Center in Seoul; KANAL – Centre Pompidou in Brussels; and Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. In 2017, the artist unveiled new work at the Iraqi Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, resulting from his recent trips to the country. Additionally, a major solo museum exhibition, A Story of Negotiation, featuring the artist’s three projects Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River, Tornado, and REEL-UNREEL, was presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The show was first exhibited at the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City in 2015, followed by the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) - Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana in Havana.

In 2014, Alÿs’s video REEL-UNREEL, which depicts a street game played by local children in Kabul, Afghanistan, was on view alongside related drawings, paintings, and research materials at Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina Napoli, Naples. The exhibition traveled later in the year to the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. REEL-UNREEL was produced in 2012 for documenta 13, where a selection of paintings was installed in a former bakery in Kassel's city center and the video was screened at a satellite venue in Kabul. 

The artist’s work was the subject of a major survey, A Story of Deception, which was on view from 2010 to 2011 at Tate Modern, London; Wiels Centre d’Art Contemporain, Brussels; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York and MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York. Over the past decade, he has had several solo exhibitions at prominent venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (traveled to the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, both 2013); Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2010); The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (2008); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2007); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2006); and Portikus, Frankfurt (2006).

Work by the artist is found in public collections worldwide, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan; Art Institute of Chicago; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and Tate, London.

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