Whether he is pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City, persuading 500 students to shift a mountain of sand, marching 64 Coldstream Guards through the City of London or releasing a fox into the rooms of the National Portrait Gallery at night, Francis Alÿs is an artist of unforgettable events. These can take place in cities, in the landscape or in oceans, they can play out along borders, across continents and even sit at the centre of tornadoes. Often simple but never simplistic, Alÿs’s multifarious actions address complex historical and political concerns that are always embedded in each particular site. Each piece is explored and recorded in a range of media including photographs, film, paintings, drawings and animation. Born in Belgium and trained as an architect in Venice, Alÿs has been based in Mexico for nearly a quarter of a century and, although he is now internationally acclaimed, he tends to eschew the trappings of success: when he was asked to take part in the 2001 Venice Biennale, he sent a peacock in his stead. However, with a major survey opening at Tate Modern this month which then tours to Wiels in Brussels and MoMA New York, it seems that this most self-effacing of figures will have to endure a certain amount of limelight.
The Art Newspaper: Will “A Story of Deception” be the same show in all three venues? How much will it change in response to each place?
Francis Alÿs: Originally the idea was to have three different readings of the same body of work so there will be changes from one venue to another. The spaces are very different and that will affect the content of the exhibitions and particularly in the case of MoMA and Tate it will also be affected by what is in their collections. Close to 40% of the Tate show will be new work that hasn’t been presented anywhere. It’s a mix of more ambitious productions with more discrete works, some studies on paper and some video pieces which function as “punctuations” along the show. But I don’t really have a scale of importance between the more ambitious works and the smaller more street-level productions, I consider them all as part of one larger narrative.
TAN: One hitherto unseen piece is the film that you have been making by running with a camera into the centre of the tornadoes that whip up outside Mexico City at the end of the dry season in March.
FA: I am still finishing it! In terms of the sequences of the images, I consider it to be a fiction of sorts, we tried to sabotage any sense of a structure when we were doing the editing. When I was thinking about the eye of the tornado I was thinking in terms of painting and that it was like the perfect monochrome—because there’s no left, or right, no up or down: you don’t know if you are sitting or standing. There is this complete loss of senses and it’s a very pictorial space that lasts a few seconds—there was a sense of sublime that I can sometimes sense in some of the great masters of abstraction.
TAN: Painting also plays a crucial part in your work. Will this be reflected in the show?
FA: I paint partly because it is the easiest way of stepping out of the speed and logistics of production, which can be a very down to earth part of the job: dealing with local politicians or airplane tickets or whatever. So it’s a way of staying in a more utopian state, a state of reverie that has no limits. There will actually be lots of paintings at the Tate. One of the series is Le Temps du Sommeil, this is a collection—I call it a polyptych—of 111 miniature paintings which I think of as apuntes, little sketches of pieces that I’m working on. They can prefigure, follow or be parallel to the making of a piece and the images are never final, I am adding to them and painting over them all the time. They are like palimpsests. These parallel activities of painting and producing events have allowed me to have quite an independent position in relation to the production of my [performance] works. The paintings finance most of the events and so it gives me the freedom to decide if I want to withdraw a piece, to postpone it or completely rework it.
TAN: You came to Mexico in 1986 and you’ve chosen to live and work in Mexico City pretty much ever since. What has made you stay?
FA: What kept me in Mexico in the beginning was my inability to understand the place. I grew up in the countryside so my relationship to the city has always been a mix of attraction and repulsion and I was finding it very difficult to read the codes and understand the mechanics of the metropolis. I think a lot of the early works were probably just an attempt to map the territory in a place which I fundamentally didn’t understand both for cultural reasons and because of the monstrous entity the city can be. Over time I started developing some kind of dialogue with the place and one way or another the main argument behind a lot of my work came out of analysing the city and to a larger extent the situation of a central or Latin American country in relation to the west, where I was coming from—the tension between those two worlds, the one where I grew up and the one I belong to. And as by now I have spent the largest part of my life in Mexico, I have lost that distance, that filter that was granted to me as foreigner.
TAN: In an early interview you said that you wanted to absorb from the city rather than put more in to it and that still seems to be the case. You continue to be an artist who leaves a light footprint and for whom the specificities of site are crucial.
FA: Absolutely, and the city renews itself so quickly that there are always new situations to confront and new material to work from. It’s not a secret that Mexico is going through a difficult phase and that also feeds a lot of debate and calls for some kind of comment or denunciation or intervention. The place calls for a different way of looking at things because otherwise you could easily fall into a kind of fatalistic despair. But somehow society does function, which is part of the mystery. On street level you could say that things are fairly normal but if you start scratching behind that skin you realise the whole malaise. Mexico is about to celebrate 200 years of independence but you come to the conclusion that as a nation they haven’t managed to create a sense of national identity. Between the city, the countryside, the north, the south and the centre it is still a extremely fragmented country and so it is a very awkward moment to celebrate.
TAN: You’ve stated that “sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic”—but overall you seem determined to avoid making work that is overtly didactic.
FA: It is always on a very thin rope—and you are always about to fall on one or the other side. In each work that has been produced in situations where there is some kind of tension, whether political, military, religious or social, it is always very difficult to find the middle and to take into account all the ingredients of a situation and yet not to intervene as a journalist or as an activist but to recall the nature of your own art. There is no recipe, each situation calls for a new answer and that’s partly what keeps the excitement alive for each new project, but each time you have to reformulate the equation so as not to fall into the obvious, what just appears on the surface of things.
TAN: You also seem to have quite an ambivalent attitude to the art world and the art market, whether sending a peacock as your personal “ambassador” to the 2001 Venice Biennale or commissioning commercial sign painters to make enlarged copies of your images which you in turn copied yourself and then had commercially copied again, for as long as there was a market demand for them.
FA: The sign painting project was a complete failure in challenging the market! After three years I realised that it was all I was doing and I had to stop: we were selling them for very low prices hoping to somehow sabotage the market by over-producing, but the market bit me back a decade later, when prices became much higher. Over the years I have figured out that the best answer—for the videos anyway—is to make two very distinct types of products. When I do a strict documentation of an event—like the ice piece or the street sweepers or the boat piece between Havana and Key West—I consider the priority the event itself, and the film is just the register of the action, and so it belongs to the public domain and is available to anyone. The other category of works is what I would call fictions, where there is a set-up situation like the film where the sheep go around the Zócalo [a main public square in Mexico City] or the rehearsal with the stripper, those I consider to be more like mini-fictions and they are commercialised through editions. So one is in the public domain and the other one is commercialised, and then in parallel to the production of these events I am also painting. To coincide with the opening of the Tate exhibition I am launching a website (francisalys.com) where you can access and download all the videos made between 1997 and today that have not been commercialised. There are quite a lot of them, about 20 in all.
TAN: Do you see a change in your work over the years?
FA: I think that when you are young you are more arrogant: you just do it without trying to justify it and sometimes you hit it right and sometimes you hit it wrong, it doesn’t matter. When I talk to young artists I am very envious of them: it’s very difficult to regain that moment, you lose that immediacy. It still happens, but it’s more of an effort to achieve and maybe the work becomes too complex, and I am afraid of that. There is a part of not understanding that happens when you are producing that is important: sometimes to name things kills the joke and you can lose that creative openness. This show could possibly have travelled to other places but I don’t want to do that, when you expose your work you step out of it and look at it from the outside, you have to analyse it and sometimes it’s not good to step out too much.