Some contemporary artists approach cities in the same way as their predecessors approached landscape. They love the idea, say, of a figure moving through a city as earlier painters loved brushstrokes. Choosing the right city has become as important for an artist as choosing a palette or a studio once was.
Francis Alys was born in Belgium in 1959. He has been crowned by his discovery of the chaos and the variety of Mexico city; his sensibility has been both set free and set on fire by the place. Mexico city, in all its sprawling vastness and variety, is odd. It is not obviously or openly glamorous; it is too busy and chaotic to be self-conscious. The bars where artists and bohemians gather are ordinary, often shabby places; the street life has a lovely, ordinary, almost provisional feel. The city, even the more solid, monumental parts, lacks solemnity.
There have been moments in Alys’s art, on the other hand, that seem a great mixture of the solemn and the silly. In 1994, for example, he placed himself in the Zocalo, the heart of Mexico city, beside men looking for a day’s labour, each with the name of his own trade written below him; Alys’s card said ‘Turista’. I am sure he was making a really interesting point. At the Venice Bienalle in 2001 he allowed a peacock to strut in the streets, calling it ‘The Ambassador’. I suppose it spoke for itself.
On the other hand, his photographs from 2002-2006 ‘Ambulantes’, which shows people in Mexico city pulling things along the street behind them, have a wonderful humour, subtlety and poetry in them. So, too, his ‘Sleepers’, from around the same period, which show people (and some dogs) asleep on the street are almost beautiful.
I don’t know what to think about his ‘The Mouse’ from 2001, other than it would have won the approval of other figures such as the novelist Roberto Bolano who have been nourished by the undercurrents of disruption, transgression and sheer disrespect in Mexico city. (Alys freed a mouse in the storage space of the largest collection of contemporary art in Mexico. It must have been fun for both the art and the mouse, not to speak of those artists whose work was not in the collection.)
Alys, who studied architecture, has been deeply preoccupied by the mixture of randomness and design in cities. Five years ago, in collaboration with Artangel, he arranged for sixty-four Coldstream Guards to enter the City of London one by one; when two met, they fell into step and marched together, looking for more Guards. When they all met, they marched towards the nearest bridge and dispersed.
In Venice in 1999, two men arrived, one by sea, one by air, each carrying parts of a tuba. On meeting, they re-assembled the instrument. In ‘Fairy Tales’, from 1995-1998, Alys went for a walk letting the wool of his pullover slowly unravel behind him. In Sao Paulo in 1995 he performed a walk with a leaking can of paint. In 2002 in Peru, in ‘When Faith Moves Mountains’, Alys got a shower of people, working as volunteers, to move a sand dune.
This is all tremendous fun, half-ludicrous, wonderfully light and gratuitous, mostly hilarious. The trick would be not to add weight to it by over-charting it by too much use of video and photography. Just let it happen, let it float. Alys does not do this enough. And Alys’s art lends itself to pure foolishness, amply displayed by the critic Jean Fisher who wrote about the moved sand dune: ‘The very play of grounded and groundlessness, materiality and immateriality in the work conjures up that abyssal gap between the burden of every day existence and the weightlessness of the imagination, in which the sheer gravity of the former in most regions of the world, including Peru, lends the latter at times an air of the frivolous.’
Alys is actually at his best when he is ludic and frivolous. At his worst he is heavy-handed and self-important. In 2004, he decided to walk through Jerusalem with a leaking can of green paint. Instead of using Auden’s ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ as his mantra, he said: ‘And when the poetic operation manages to provoke that sudden loss of self that itself allows a distancing from the immediate situation, then poetics might have the potential to open up a political thought.’
Somebody in Mexico city should let a mouse loose in Francis Alys. And soon. Before he says anything else.