David Zwirner is pleased to present an exhibition of recent work by Francis Alÿs, on view at the gallery's 525 and 533 West 19th Street spaces in New York. REEL-UNREEL includes a film the artist made in Kabul, Afghanistan, depicting a street game played by local children, as well as a series of paintings of color bars. The film will be screened throughout the duration of the show.
Belgian-born Francis Alÿs’s multifaceted actions and works in various media occupy a unique position within the contemporary art world. Widely known for his distinct and poetic sensibility towards social and geopolitical issues, the artist has described his practice as "a sort of discursive argument composed of episodes, metaphors, or parables." His works, as Mark Godfrey has observed, are defined by their "fantastical absurdity…their transience or incompletion, their imaginative imagery, and most of all…their enigmatic openness to interpretation." The artist's numerous projects have involved pushing a melting block of ice through the streets of Mexico City, circumnavigating the globe in order to avoid crossing the border between Mexico and the United States, walking through Copenhagen under the influence of a different drug each day for a week, and filming his attempts to penetrate the eye of a tornado.
Produced for dOCUMENTA (13), the video REEL-UNREEL (made in collaboration with Ajmal Maiwandi and Julien Devaux) takes its point of departure in the classic street game in which children keep a hoop in continuous motion with the help of a stick. Yet, in Alÿs’s version, the hoop is replaced with a film reel. The camera follows a flock of boys as they excitedly chase the reel down the hills of Kabul, with one boy unrolling the strip of film and leading the way, while another follows him, rewinding it. The title REEL-UNREEL alludes to the real/unreal image of Afghanistan conveyed by the media in the West: how the Afghan way of life, along with its people, has gradually been dehumanized and, after decades of war, turned into a Western fiction.
While the video offers an alternative to the habitual mainstream media coverage of Kabul, a series of accompanying paintings by Alÿs reminds us of the difficulty of representing the daily reality of war through any medium. Deceptively looking like abstract geometric paintings, these works show a repertoire of color bar combinations that the artist came across between 2010 and 2012, the period during which he was scouting, preparing, filming, and editing the video in Afghanistan. Used by video engineers as test patterns in between televised programming, color bars are electronically produced to correct chrominance and luminance on TV screens. Alÿs's painted versions, thus, are bound to fail as illustrations. Yet more so than challenging the issue of medium specificity, they reflect the artist’s impossibility of converting his experiences in Afghanistan into images. As he has noted, "Over those two years, the activity of obsessively painting color bars became an indispensable pendant to my travels in Afghanistan. Whether they reflect my difficulty to translate what I felt, or whether they simply became a therapeutic exercise at home in order to digest the flood of information received upon each visit, the viewer can decide."