Francis Alys - Selected Press | David Zwirner
Francis Alÿs: Selected Press

Is there anything universal about childhood? In Francis Alÿs’s understated yet poignant video series ‘Children’s Games’ (1999–ongoing) – comprising around 20 works to date, with the latest due to premiere at this year’s Venice Biennale – the artist depicts young people at play. These short films (the longest is just over eight minutes) begin mid-action, without preamble: in the first, Caracoles (1999), a young boy kicks a plastic bottle up a sloping road in Mexico City. In the second, Ricochets (2007), three boys skip stones on the surface of a body of water on a grey day in Tangier. In all videos, the kids are largely without adult supervision and use whatever materials they have at hand. A group of very young children in Iraq’s Sharya Refugee Camp, for  instance, improvise a game of hopscotch against the backdrop of an industrial fence topped with barbed wire (Hopscotch, 2016). The kids bicker, laugh, goad each other on, compete and learn. They have fun. The shots are intimate, but don’t feel voyeuristic; the children are clearly aware of the camera, and many seem to enjoy showing off.

Alÿs, who was born in Belgium but has lived in Mexico City for several decades, trained as an architect. Since he began his art practice at the end of the 1980s, his projects have often focused on navigating the urban landscape or bringing the latent violence and power structures of the built environment into focus. Well known for his own public interventions – such as heaving a melting block of ice through the streets of Mexico City for Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) (1997) – over the past two decades, he has made several works about the lives of children in places marked by turmoil. The playful behaviour shown in Silence of Ani (2015) – in which the artist gave bird-call-imitating instruments to a group of adolescents living on the Turkish-Armenian border to enliven their landscape with song – is contrasted, as in many iterations of the series, with the implied violence of their circumstances.

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In 2001, Francis Alÿs responded to an invitation to the 2001 Venice Biennale by sending a peacock in his place. Such playfulness is characteristic of the artist's practice, which will be presented in its full scope for the 59th Venice Biennale (23 April–27 November 2022), where he will represent Belgium.

Alÿs was drafted by the Belgian army to Mexico in 1986, where he has developed an interdisciplinary practice centred on dynamics in urban space and geopolitics. Having completed work with an NGO on recovery efforts towards the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Alÿs drifted towards an artistic practice, leaving his previous training in architecture behind.

Confronted with the density of Mexico City, Alÿs began making sense of the city through its local residents, capturing their 'presence on the urban chessboard.' Between 1993 and 1997, the artist collaborated with sign painters, including Rotulistas Juan Garcia, Enrique Huerta, and Emilio Rivera to copy his oil paintings. The project called into question the myth of artistic originality, further explored in The Fabiola Project, made up of a growing collection of over 600 reproductions of Jean-Jacques Henner's 1885 portrait of Fabiola.

Such expansions are indicative of an artist who moves beyond the confines of the studio. Through the 1990s, Alÿs activated his own position in urban space through performances such as Fairy Tales (1994), where he moves through the city as a blue strand from his jumper unravels behind him; or Paradox of Praxis 1 (1997), which sees him push a block of ice across Mexico City, before it gradually disappears, recalling the ephemerality of works by artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton.

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Francis Alÿs and I meet at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London on a rain-sodden Thursday. Heavy traffic means I arrive 20 minutes late, but the Belgian-born contemporary artist greets me with a lazy smile that crinkles his hazel eyes. “Don’t worry, no one is rushing today. I have jet lag, so we’re taking it very slow.”

Alÿs’ laconic warmth is soothing. Unfolding to his full 6’4”, the artist, his beanpole frame swathed in a voluminous olive jumper, explains that he is hoping to shake off the effects of his flight from Mexico City.

The metropolis has been his home since 1986. Alÿs, then 27 and working as an architect, had been sent there as part of a Belgian civil service project. He had no thought of making a major relocation but found himself stuck there because of, as he puts it with striking understatement, “a sort of bureaucratic loop”. In the year that it took to untangle himself, he decide to “try something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I hesitate to call it ‘art’ . . . ”

More than 30 years since he took those diffident steps — “small street interventions, some photography” — no one can doubt Alÿs’ right to use that word to describe his activity. Our meeting is occasioned by the decision to honour Alÿs with the Art Icon award, an annual prize made to an international contemporary artist by the Whitechapel Gallery in partnership with Swarovski, the jewellery maker. It is now in its seventh edition and previous winners include Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long and Mona Hatoum.

Over his career, Alÿs has had solo shows at major institutions, including London’s Tate Modern, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. He has participated at documenta and the Venice Biennale, and his work is held in public collections worldwide.

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The Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts has named Belgian artist Francis Alÿs the winner of the Rolf Schock Prize in Visual Arts. The nearly $40,000 award is one of four prizes that were established and endowed by a bequest from Swedish artist and philosopher Rolf Schock (1933–1986). Administered by the Schock Foundation, the Rolf Schock Prizes were first bestowed in 1993 and have been awarded intermittently ever since. They also honor contributions to the fields of music, mathematics, and logic and philosophy.

Born in 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium, Alÿs lives in Mexico City. He studied architecture at the Institut Saint-Luc in Tournai and technology at the Istituto di Architettura in Venice before settling in Mexico in 1986. Through his practice, which encompasses painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, film, and performance, he uses allegory to address political and social realities, national boundaries, power and vulnerability, and conflict and community.

The prize citation said that Alÿs was selected for a “body of work that is as profound as it is extensive.” It stated: “With seriousness and acuity, [Alÿs] addresses real, tragic situations and circumstances which in his poetic renditions become universal and find their way into our hearts. His extensive projects, such as moving mountains and building bridges between continents, always denote the individual human step or measure. In this way [Alÿs] makes a space for us as participants rather than viewers when we are confronted by his works.”
 
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A cryptic question appears in one of Francis Alÿs’s many studies for Tornado, 2000–10: "What relationship can one build with a tornado?" The words "pure present," hastily scribbled underneath, are far from a full-fledged response but offer an important clue for understanding the microcosm that is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Lebanon. Above all, the phrase suggests an unadulterated sense of being in the moment, the pursuit of a self momentarily yet perfectly suspended, or, in the words of art historian Michael Fried, the "primacy of absorption."

To what end does (self-)absorption function in Alÿs’s work? In the forty-minute video Tornado, the artist chases or keeps watch over dust devils with a handheld camera. Once inside the tornado, all sense of direction is obliterated: Ubiquity of motion, recorded by the camera as a billowing brown monochrome, becomes the only reality to which one is beholden. Dissolution of extremities—in this case, conceptual, not physical—also takes place within the minimal visual economy of the video Do/Undo, 2008, in which Alÿs nimbly flicks papers inscribed with the words "DO" and "UNDO" back and forth. This repetitive act allows the words to melt into each other despite their meanings and perhaps serves as a blueprint for Exodus 3:14, 2014–18. Titled after the biblical verse in which God says to Moses, "I am that I am," this new work comprises six hundred and thirty-nine drawings and the stop-motion animation derived from them. Here, the U-shaped spatial configuration of the drawings, hung or suspended in a grid, gently evokes the whirl of a tornado and guides the viewer through the incremental movements of a woman trying to make a knot out of her own hair. In the video, projected onto a blank paper among these drawings, the woman shows no sign of fatigue or frustration with her task. Doing immediately leads to undoing, keeping her entirely, and forever, absorbed.

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Francis Alÿs is best known for his films, installations, and performances called paseos in which he wanders through urban streets. For the past three decades, however, the Mexico City-based, Belgian-born artist has also been quietly painting en plein air, sometimes in extraordinarily remote or conflict-ridden locations. But these artworks have never been given their own show—until now.

Later this year, the Liverpool Biennial will present a selection of his delicate paintings, its organizers announced. Alÿs completed some of them when he was embedded in northern Iraq with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who were driving ISIS out of Mosul. 

The Liverpool Biennial is the largest festival of contemporary visual art in the UK. This year, with an exhibition titled “Beautiful world, where are you?,” it celebrates its 20th anniversary. The event will take place from July 14 to October 28 in the port city in the north west of England.

Alÿs is one of more than 40 artists from 22 countries chosen by the biennial’s co-curators Kitty Scott, the curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and Sally Tallant, the director of Liverpool Biennial.

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