Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Opens Francis Alys: A Story of Deception

Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, on view at The Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 beginning May 8, draws upon MoMA’s unique and important collection of work by artist Francis Alÿs (Belgian, b. 1959), who uses poetic and allegorical methods to explore the social realities of political concepts, including the cyclical nature of change in modernizing societies, the urban landscape, and patterns of economic progress. Alÿs’s personal, ambulatory explorations of cities form the basis for his practice, through which he compiles extensive documentation reflecting his process, producing complex and diverse bodies of work that include video, painting, performance, drawing, and photography.

Organized in collaboration with Alÿs, the presentation at MoMA is conceptually grouped around three major recent acquisitions— Re-enactments (2001), When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), and Rehearsal I (Ensayo I) (1999–2001)—each on view for the first time at the Museum. Using the mechanics of rehearsal and re-enactment in urban environments, Alÿs comments on the politics of public space with both solitary actions and large-scale collaborations, where the culmination of many small acts achieves mythic proportions. Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception is on view at The Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 from May 8 to August 1, 2011. The exhibition is organized by Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA’s Chief Curator at Large and Director of MoMA PS1; and Cara Starke, Assistant Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, The Museum of Modern Art.

Francis Alÿs studied architecture in Tournai and Venice before moving to Mexico City in 1986, where he has lived since. While this displacement has provided him with a unique vantage point on the country, Alÿs’s awareness of his outsider status is reflected in several of his projects. Alÿs’s works frequently begin with an action performed or initiated by him that can be witnessed in real time but also discovered through its documentation after the event. Large-scale installations such as Re-enactments, When Faith Moves Mountains, and Rehearsal I (Ensayo I) contain each of these aspects: the conceptualization and planning of the piece and action, the action itself, the distillation of the action, the video documentation, and the related materials.

In 2001 in Mexico City, Alÿs performed Re-enactments, for which he purchased a 9mm Beretta handgun and proceeded to wander around the city’s downtown with the loaded gun in hand. After 11 minutes of walking, Alÿs was detained by the police and eventually released. With the co-operation of the Mexican authorities, Alÿs re-enacted the very same scene one day later. Within MoMA’s galleries, a two-channel video of the original action and its re-enactment are projected side by side, while related drawings, maps, newspaper clippings, and photographs accompany the videos. The video presentation of the action alongside its re-enactment underscores the ambiguities between reality and fiction, while anticipating the way public safety came to dominate the social and political debate within Mexico during the first decade of the 21st century.

For When Faith Moves Mountains, 500 volunteers in Lima, Peru, were equipped with shovels and asked to displace a 550-yard-long sand dune, moving it four inches from its original location. This work—Alÿs’s contribution to the 2002 Lima Biennale—stages a collective exercise in futility in which hundreds of people attempt to move a mountain. The work raises questions about the outcomes of social actions, highlighting how substantial efforts can be out of proportion with the gains achieved. MoMA’s installation includes videos of the action, drawings, maps, and storyboards.

For Rehearsal I (Ensayo I), Alÿs staged a scene in which the driver of a Volkswagen Beetle repeatedly attempted in vain to scale a dusty slope on the outskirts of Tijuana. The driver listened to a tape recording of a musical rehearsal by a Mexican brass band and mimicked the recording, starting and stopping as the band did. The installation includes several videos, paintings, and drawings.

Additional bodies of work are also on view at MoMA, including Tornado (2000–10), which was acquired by the Museum in 2011. For Tornado, Alÿs visited the highlands south of Mexico City throughout the past decade in a repeated effort to chase the whirling dust storms that occur annually in the region. With camera in hand, the artist attempted again and again to run directly into a tornado to penetrate the eye of the storm. Culled from footage recorded over a period of 10 years, the video symbolically combines the sublime with the unattainable and can be considered a metaphor for failed pursuits of utopian ideals, an unstable balance between order and chaos, and man’s repeated attempts to persist despite inevitable consequences. Challenging the powers of nature in a perplexing one-on-one confrontation, Alÿs recognizes human persistence and emphasizes the necessity to pursue ideals however unattainable or seemingly absurd.

Image: Francis Alÿs. Untitled, from When Faith Moves Mountains. 2002. Color photograph. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Speyer Family Foundation, Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro, The Julia Stoschek Foundation, Düsseldorf, and Committee on Media Funds. © 2011 Francis Alÿs

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