Francis Alÿs

by Carla Faesler

Francis Alÿs, still from Untitled; Video documentation of an action; Culiacán, Sinaloa; March 22, 2011. Photo by Natalia Almada. Special thanks to the Coppel Collection, Culiacán. Courtesy of the artist.

After a lunch consisting of meatballs, rice, and lemonade, Francis Alÿs coordinates the afternoon plans for his son Elliot. The main activity is soccer practice, but Alÿs determines it’d be best to get to homework right away. “What is democracy?” is the question in Elliot’s notebook. A minute later we are explaining simple etymologies to him. They bounce off the walls, resonant with the fraught political and social environment of Mexico, Alÿs’s adopted country since 1986. His video Rehearsal I (Tijuana, 1999–2001), for which a Volkswagen Beetle attempts to climb up a hill over and over—to no avail—comes to mind. I imagine a kid playing with a toy car. The to-and-fro in the dust is the game. I think also of the art action Patriotic Tales (1997) with its multiplying sheep circling a giant flagpole at the Zócalo—Mexico City’s main square—under Francis’s lead. The metaphor literally weaves the absurd with the cadence of the animal’s pacing and the Metropolitan Cathedral’s tolling bells. The rhythm is severe, almost ceremonial, its sadness that of a religious procession—a tame sacrificial herd. I recall the sound track for the animation Song for Lupita (1998): “mañana, mañana . . . ”

From the first time I saw his work up until now, Alÿs’s art has triggered a host of sensations in me: it’s a temporal disconnect, naive emotion, and intellectual wink, I’d say, because what I see, listen to, perceive, and discern seems to come from a different time. It’s something very ancient, remote even, which for the most part goes straight to my solar plexus, sidestepping mental filters. What remains is the impression of a piece that hits its target—the medium and the idea conjoined in a simple task emitting a highly effective vision.

We get up from the table to look for and test the recorder. Francis serves coffee. The intimacy of these domestic chores is in sharp contrast with his recent traveling retrospective, currently on view at MoMA and PS1, and the preparatory research I did on the web, where there is a deluge of interviews, critical essays, and reviews of his work. He who emanates a powerful and evocative imaginary is present in front of me. He opens the refrigerator, pokes around, grabs a little box, and offers me a piece of Belgian chocolate.

Francis Alÿs, Les Temps Du Sommeil, 1996-present, 111 paintings, oil, encaustic, and crayon on wood, 4 ⅓ x 5 9/10 inches.

Carla Faesler Once at Embajada Jarocha [a restaurant in Colonia Roma in Mexico City where the diners can dance to a live orchestra], you told me all you were doing lately was writing, remember?

Francis Alÿs You’re right. What year was that?

CF Before you went to live in London for a while, in 2009. You said that you were stripping things down to such a degree that you hardly went to the studio anymore.

FA I went through a phase of that.

CF That made me like you even more.

FA Looking at my notebooks, I realized there was a subtle but constant evolution from spare annotations to proper notes. Rather elaborate drawings became simple sketches accompanied by words. If I look at all my notebooks to date, written notes constitute about two thirds of them and the remaining third, at most, is drawings. I think this has to do with a temporal economy: to register an idea or a found situation, it’s sometimes easier to write, say, three words, than to draw a sketch or a scene.

CF We’ve talked about interdisciplinarity and how artistic languages contaminate each other. There’s that cliché that Marguerite Duras turned on its head: to her, each word contained a thousand images. Are your working methods in keeping with her remark?

FA It’s a mix of words, sketches, and drawings that throughout the pages form a rebus, a hieroglyph. When I can’t find the word I’m looking for, I substitute it with a figure or a visual sign, but when I can’t express something through pictograms, then words take over.

CF So there’s a lot of poetry.

FA It’s a constant dance between words and images.

Francis Alÿs, still from Patriotic Tales; Mexico City, 1997; video documentation of an action. In collaboration with  Cuauhtémoc  Medina and Rafael Ortega. Total running time: 24 minutes, 40 seconds.

CF I haven’t forgotten that time in Tepoztlán when you said that one of the things that most struck you about Mexico was that there were still poets here. What were you implying by the word still?

FA No, I said something subtler. I think I said that in Mexico you still found people who told you they were poets. Through a friend I met a circle of people who were all proud of being poets. If you go to Paris or New York and you say you’re a poet, people will think you wait tables.

CF What was your idea of poetry at the time? Was it positive or negative?

FA I was getting a postgraduate degree in architecture in Venice back then. People there relate differently to poetry. While Dante is their great hero of literature and culture in general, in Italy, in the 1980s, with the exception of Umberto Eco, cinema and the visual arts dominated—it was the era of the Transvanguardia, a highly figurative school that was skeptical precisely of the power of words.

CF Did you enjoy reading poetry back then?

FA Just like any European teenager would. I rediscovered literature through Beat poetry when I was around 20. I dug it for a while. Later I stopped reading it pretty much until I arrived in Mexico, where through my poet friends I discovered Latin American poetry.

CF What did you read?

FA The classics . . . .

CF Vicente Huidobro?

FA Yes, but until then I had never read Julio Cortázar, for instance—it was a whole new universe for me. Later I read Augusto Monterroso’s fantastic short stories.

CF In fact it was one of Monterroso’s fables that inspired your action When Faith Moves Mountains [2002].

FA Actually, reading his flash fiction “Faith and the Mountains” after I had done the action at the sand dunes confirmed that I was heading in the right direction. I sort of felt validated.

CF How did you become interested in fables?

FA I discovered fables in the early ’80s, while studying in Venice. My interest was related to certain urban contexts, places which I felt were impossible to intervene in physically, whose history felt untouchable. It seemed that the only way to have any interference or dialogue with their history and their daily life, of stirring up their inertia, was by introducing a narrative or a fable as if it were a verbal virus. The idea came up to intervene in the place’s imagination without adding any physical matter to it, but instead playing at the level of metaphor or allegory. I think the first experiments with that concept were my walks for The Collector, from 1990–92. I’d walk around the streets of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico with a toy of sorts made of magnets on wheels. After three days people started talking about the crazy gringo walking around with his magnetized dog, but after seven days, the story, the anecdote, had remained even though the characters were gone. That’s how I started developing the idea of introducing tales and fables into a place’s history at a particular moment of its local history. This became a potential method to interact with places that I stumbled upon during those years, mainly in Mexico City, but also outside, as when I tried to spread a rumor in the town of Tlayacapan, Morelos.

CF About the man who left a hotel and never returned, for The Rumor, in 1997. You started asking the townspeople about the man, until a true rumor, almost a legend about him, took form. People even started to describe this man who had never existed.

FA Yeah, the idea was to try to affect daily life in this town without leaving any physical traces. As a rule, the only elements in rumors are oral. As soon as physical objects associated with this particular rumor appeared, such as a sketch of the disappeared man that the police started posting after three days, my project was called off and I left the town. I think my resorting to fables is not related to poetry, it’s more about switching from words to images, and, when it comes down to it, to my conflict with images. Images sometimes betray you; they expose you.

CF Coleridge wrote that prose is words in their best order, and that poetry is the best words in the best order. I’m thinking of your creative process, in how you lay out your writing in your notebooks—there’s a process of refinement.

Francis Alÿs, notebook for Tornado, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

Francis Alÿs, still from Tornado, Milpa Alta, 2000–2010, video documentation of an action. In collaboration with Julien Devaux. Images courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery, NY, and MoMA except where otherwise noted.

FA If the script for a piece can be reduced to a few words, I have the sense that I’ve managed to join the maximal and the minimal at the same time, that I have arrived at the script’s essence. Take, for instance, Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing) [1997], for which someone (myself) pushes a block of ice out on the street all day until it melts into a puddle. The eventual success of such a script is that you do not need to witness this action in order to imagine it; you do not need to see photos, videos, or drawings of the event in order to more or less visualize what may have happened. This kind of method allows for the free circulation of the product, which is much more effective than any image, regardless of the fact that we’re in the digital era. You can immediately assimilate the narrative. Perhaps my goal has always been to strip down my scenarios to a few words only, so they can be liberated from the burden of documentation, of its physical weight.

CF This piece reminds me of Robert Frost’s “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”

FA That’s great!

CF Who knew you were illustrating the poem? (laughter) Before we began recording, we were talking about art theory in general and the criticism of your work. How do you relate to how theory tries to speak for the work versus the purity of imagination and the work speaking for itself, and issues around depicting the world versus inventing a new one, celebrating the world versus lamenting it?

FA It’s been hard for me to make a production phase and an absorption phase coincide. I became involved in the visual arts a bit late, which allowed for a long research period before that. It wasn’t until the ’90s that I did something productive.

CF What did you live on before?

FA On as little as possible. Since I trained as an architect, it was very easy for me to get jobs as a draftsman, then quit them and continue traveling. In Mexico I had some money I had saved when working for NGOs, but I also had contacts in Europe, so every so often I’d go over there and would work nonstop for about a month. They call that charrette. It’s highly concentrated work; you get paid relatively well and by the hour. That was my economy at the time. I could work 18-hour days for a month, and then live on what I made for five or six months. My needs weren’t many: I didn’t have a family, and I wasn’t very ambitious either. My only professional agenda was to enjoy life. The work-to-spare-time ratio was uneven, but it allowed me to get by for a long time.

CF Plus, there’d be plenty of parties where you were fed well. (laughter) Back to theory and the imagination.

FA Well, that lifestyle allowed me to read a lot—about semiotics, art history, contemporary art theory, etcetera—but as soon as I began a more productive stage, I stopped reading theory. I started reading more newspapers and crime fiction, which I continue reading.

CF How do you relate to critical writing on your work?

FA I always try to leave the work open to multiple potential readings; therefore all readings are valid. I’m sometimes interested, fascinated even, by people’s takes. They might spark ideas for new episodes of a narrative I may be developing, offer new perspectives from which to see the work, or they might raise questions in friction with previous pieces. I rarely read reviews. Mostly I read the criticism my close friends write, especially if what they’ve written sprang from a discussion we’ve had. I’ll often just be proofreading something they wrote on me (like I’ll do with this piece). Ultimately, I’m not obsessed with how people read my work. The highly intuitive way I develop ideas is one thing—there it’s almost a “negative” method in the sense that I might not know exactly what I’m looking for, but I’m very aware of when I’m stepping outside my field of interest. And its posterior interpretation—I almost said posthumous!—is quite another. The core of an artist’s narrative is rather limited. In the end you always return to a handful of obsessions and concerns. You just vary the angle from which you approach them. To manage to contain the argument and at the same time open it up to its ultimate consequences is the real achievement—it’s irrelevant if it takes five or 50 years. Obviously you might make a mistake in terms of choosing what your core argument will be, but, as you go along, you more or less know if it has the potential to continue to develop and sustain itself.

CF So many people say your work is poetic. What do you think about this as a category? A lot comes to mind. Ortega y Gasset, for example, said: “poetry is to elude the everyday name of things.” And regarding ambiguity, Paul Valéry argued that most people have such a vague idea of what poetry is that vagueness actually becomes the embodiment of the poetic. The openness of your narratives might reflect this dimension. You resist making political statements.

FA I’d say the majority of contexts with which I interact are very charged politically. I don’t see why I’d need to insist on this ingredient of the work. Rather, what I try to do is introduce some poetic distance into those particular situations so we can see them from the outside, from a new angle.

CF Of course. The goal is to create a hiatus in which there might be room for reflection and the possibility of change. But isn’t the belief in art’s ability to transform society a romantic notion?

FA I try to trigger a question or doubt about whether change might be possible, but it’s up to the audience to decide if things need to change and in which direction. I’m just opening up a space for these questions to arise.

CF What’s the place for emotion in all this?

FA How so?

CF Is there room for emotion as an aesthetic experience? Emotion before the force of reality or what’s deeply human, for instance.

FA I’m not sure I understand the question, but let’s see . . . If you’re asking about what excites me, well, an unknown situation, one that I may have provoked but which is outside of my control, where I’m testing how I might react and how far I can go, does. Performance art has that component—you come up with a script or an axiom and you enter a situation. It develops, but you don’t exactly know where it’s going. There are risk factors, issues of physical endurance too, your own and other people’s—on an emotional level this is all very interesting. I’ll give you a concrete example: the coming to an end of my vocho [a Volkswagen Beetle] last week in Culiacán, Sinaloa. For a variety of both rational and irrational reasons, I ended up driving my old vocho from my place in Mexico City to the Botanical Garden in Culiacán, about 750 miles away. I was curious about the classic road-trip genre and had serious doubts about the relevance of an artist intervening in a context as complex as Culiacán’s. As we know, the place is riddled with conflict due to the narcos there. So, I developed this rather absurd script for a road trip whose ending was that once I got to the Botanical Garden I would crash the car into a tree. When we presented the piece to the people running the garden, who had commissioned it, we said it dealt with empathy between nature and culture, or something like that. The plan was for the car to remain in the site and devolve into a sort of giant flowerpot for the garden’s flora and fauna, becoming integrated with the local ecosystem.

Francis Alÿs, still from Rehearsal 1, Tijuana, 1999–2001, video, in collaboration with Rafael Ortega, total running time: 29 minutes, 25 seconds.

CF There’s such a convergence of critical issues in certain regions of Mexico: arms, drug trafficking, a collapse of society, impunity. And there in Culiacán you also have the Botanical Garden, where curators have been inviting contemporary artists to come up with site-specific works to coexist alongside botanical displays.

FA I decided to prompt this empathy of sorts in part because I sensed that the omnipresent anger that had built up in Culiacán over the drug wars had to come out loud, be manifested materially or literally “performed.” It wasn’t enough to abandon my car there, simply making a poetic or ecological beau geste. So far, so good. What I’m getting at is that we had to act very fast because when the people of the garden realized what we were planning to do, they got worried (rightly so, I’d say). But as the saying goes, Más vale pedir perdón que pedir permiso [Better to ask for forgiveness than for permission]. So only a few hours after having arrived in Culiacán, there I am like a fool picking up speed in my vochito heading toward this pinche árbol, this wretched tree that keeps getting closer and closer. In that lapse of those final 65–50–35–20–10 feet, the absurdity of the human condition became so glaring to me, so absolute, that I am all shook up even as I’m telling you this. It hit me so much more than I expected, in part because I had no time to think.

CF So what did you feel when you were 50 feet away from the tree?

FA It was as if I’d been punched in the chest by the absurdity and tragedy of this art mission in this lost town of Sinaloa. I don’t know; a lot came to my mind . . .

CF Did you question yourself? Art? Reality?

FA All of this happened in a flash. My interfering furtively in this totally unknown territory, beyond any criteria of reason. I can’t say I’ve drawn any conclusions yet, because I haven’t even had a chance to digest what all of this meant, but I can say it transported me to another reality, in the space of 50 feet.

CF So did you smash the car into the tree?

FA Of course! It was a head-on collision, but I had two pillows covering my belly and was wearing my son Elliot’s skateboarding knee and elbow pads. A few scratches—that was it. When you mentioned the word emotions this story came to mind. I also had a similar experience in Israel when performing The Green Line [2004], though in that case the issue was physical and emotional endurance, since I had to sustain the pace for two days and a shitload of miles to cross the municipality of Jerusalem. To avoid the checkpoints I had to deploy a range of tactics and strategies. However, I’d say that in the action with volunteers shoveling sand at a sand dune in Lima, Peru When Faith Moves Mountains, we achieved the moment of the utmost “social sublime,” as Cuauhtémoc [Medina] and I called the collective emotion generated there. It lasted what it lasted, a minute, an hour, but those are the kinds of moments that you look for.

CF Moments that open that hiatus we were talking about, where meaning is suspended and the futility of a given pursuit is revealed and illuminated.

FA And that may stir up something in the participant or the spectator. You can’t count on this happening all the time, though. It happens or it doesn’t. I’ve undertaken equally ambitious pro-jects that failed, never attaining that moment of the sublime. I suppose that’s what you as a poet are looking for as well, although through the gathering of words. The medium doesn’t matter.

Francis Alÿs, Sleepers, Mexico City, 1999-present, slide projection.

Francis Alÿs, still from Children's Games, various locations, 2008–present, video.

CF When you were younger, were there any artworks that provoked in you this feeling we’ve been talking about?

FA Well, as a child in Belgium, a great retrospective of Bruegel the Elder left a lasting impression on me. Three or four years ago I started doing short documentary videos based on the games of street children, such as musical chairs Children’s Games, [2008–present]. Only recently a Belgian friend of mine noticed how much they relate to Bruegel’s Children’s Games [1560]—I wasn’t so clearly aware of the connection until now! It’s works in two different eras and different mediums, but the mechanics of the games are similar.

CF And as a young adult?

FA I was profoundly under the spell of pre-Renaissance painting during my years in Italy: from Lorenzetti to Fra Angelico. Even to this day, my iconography is a combination of that imagery and the language of Mexican sign painting. This blend allowed me to find my own language to materialize images. I’ve never been that interested in a painterly style. My images are almost completely resolved by the time they make it to the canvas. Painting then, for me, is a very technical, craftlike process, not a creative one, since all I’m interested in is for the image to function on the canvas. I’m not concerned with reinventing a pictorial language. If the language of Mexican sign painters works for me, I’ll go for it. And if I found the language of Egyptian reliefs useful, I’d go for that one instead.

CF You once recommended I listen to Satie’s Vexations while working. Were you into rock and roll as a teenager?

FA No, I was raised in a tiny town, in Herfelingen in Belgium. I didn’t listen to rock and roll until I left home. During high school and college, I was first exposed to jazz. Then I stopped listening to it—in Mexico there was hardly a jazz culture in the ’80s—but I’m back into it intensively.

CF And in terms of more recent art, what are you interested in?

FA Certain works more than any particular artist. Back to the issue of words, I’m a big fan of Vito Acconci’s poems and writings. I’m interested in artworks by Matta-Clark, some by Bruce Nauman, others by Sol LeWitt and Philip Guston. It may seem kind of disparate, but this is how I came to culture: empirically.

CF You mentioned that you’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction.

FA Not really. For the last 15 or 20 years I’ve been reading whatever crosses my path. Lately I’ve been spending time at the house of some friends who’ve gone on a long trip. They have the most phenomenal library—I’m reading all the books they’ve chosen to keep. I love this random reading method dictated by another person’s taste. When I’m done I’ll get started on someone else’s library . . .

CF So what are you reading now?

FA I read a bunch of books simultaneously. I’m reading Henry Miller’s Sexus, which I’d never read; a novel by Paul Auster that I can’t get into; a Russian thriller by someone whose name escapes me; Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others; Kafka’s Letters to His Father, a copy of which I bought for a dollar from a vendor at the metro; Qui Xiaolong’s La danseuse de Mao; Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad; and what else?

CF Before I forget, I also wanted to ask you about the time when a bunch of your friends, including myself, friended you on Facebook.

FA You mean my virtual doppelgänger?

CF Yes; we later realized it wasn’t you. Who was it? Did you ever find out?

FA No, I didn’t; what I did figure out is that it’s very hard to disappear on Facebook. It’s a whole operation. There’s a young Japanese guy who came up with a program to commit Facebook suicide. Now you can self-destruct.

CF So, did you manage to do this?

FA No, because there’s a lawsuit against this guy. It’s super interesting.

CF Ever since I’ve known you you’ve been difficult to reach. You’re terrible at cell phones. You’re not into social media.

FA Actually, I’m fascinated by how Facebook has facilitated the recent revolutions in the Arab world.

CF Do you use Twitter? I love the 140-characters constraint. It reminds me of what you were saying at the beginning, about reducing the scripts for your actions to a few words.

FA I barely keep up with the older communication channels. Email, the phone, text messages, Skype: I don’t get why I’d need yet another way to connect with people. I’d rather keep my critical distance as an outsider.


Translated from the Spanish by Camino Detorrela.


Carla Faesler is a Mexico-City based poet. Her books include Catábasis Exvoto (2010), of poetry and photopoetry; Anábasis Maqueta (2004), for which she received the Gilberto Owen National Literature Prize; No tú sino la piedra (1999); Ríos sagrados que la herejía navega (1996); and Lola Álvarez Bravo, cazadora de imágenes (2006).

Performance Art
Spanish language
Cultural history
mexican culture
BOMB 116
Summer 2011
The cover of BOMB 116