The Perception of Concept:
Francis Alÿs’s Poetic Politics
Francis Alÿs: La dépense
Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai
09.11.18 – 24.02.19
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
At the 12th Shanghai Biennale, Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs’s video work Politics of Rehearsal features the mysterious connection between two scenes: one is a red sedan climbing up a slope, and the other is a symphony rehearsal. The music begins and the car starts to climb. When the music cuts, the car loses its momentum and starts to slide backwards. As the rehearsal stops and starts, the little red car climbs and retreats.
Conservatism is one of the various critical threads in the Biennale. Proregress has been misconstrued as ‘one step forward and two steps back’, and criticised as a ‘solipsistic dialectic’ that rationalises regression and provides self-deluding comfort about the rise of global conservatism, represented by Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. What remains unspoken in this castigation is the suggestion of the politics of resistance, as well as the suggestion that contemporary art should side with the resistance and become a strong force within it. Fortunately, conflict and resistance are the difficult knot that the curators attempt to untie. In Alÿs’s work, the old red British car is amusing and childish, creating an absurd and humorous contrast with the serious atmosphere of the symphony performance, suspending the fabricated myth of ‘progress’ within the tireless work of an old man moving mountains and the humorous self-mockery of futile efforts. Using the unique methods of art, these works respond to the current political predicament. In the context of the Biennale, yubu, the ancient dance step, is an allusion to this perceptual wisdom. The work was placed in a low-key space on the third floor of the Power Station of Art, but it better conveys the curators’ intentions than the tired slogan ‘one step forward, two steps back; two steps forward, one step back’, in cardboard on the first floor.
Perhaps because of the unique political climate in South America, the Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina and Alÿs, who has likewise spent his career in Mexico, reflect a clever coincidence: they chose one another. During the Biennale, the Rockbund Art Museum held La dépense, Alÿs’s first major solo exhibition in China. Curator Yuko Hasegawa extended ‘repetition’ into ‘repetitive consumption’ with Alÿs’s Rehearsal, which echoes Medina’s concept for Proregress.
The concept of la dépense comes from the idea of ‘non-productive expenditure’ that Georges Bataille proposes in his The Notion of Expenditure ( 1933 ). In Alÿs’s work this is expressed as the expenditure of humanity’s internal energy, the consequences of political conflict and resistance in today’s world, and the circumstances of expending immense energy to no avail – but all of these heavy ideas are presented in perceptive and poetic ways.
Exodus includes a 16-second, hand-drawn animation and a myriad of sketches made for its production. The title comes from the Bible’s Book of Exodus. The English text ‘I am who I am’ is translated into Chinese and extended as ‘I am who I will always be.’ This redundant self-reflection builds an equivalent bridge between the consuming repetition of futile work and free, self-evident existence. In the exhibition hall, the artist displayed the 820 drawings used to make the 16-second animation to present the idea that ‘in the expenditure of time, we obtain our own existence’. The drawings are hung on the fifth floor, separately from the animation, and the nature of animation means that every drawing is almost identical to the one next to it: what we see are almost identical images, the changes being very subtle and difficult to discern with the naked eye. The massive dimensions and layout of the piece make this installation a memorial extolling repetition.
Tornado is a 40-minute video recording of the artist chasing a tornado on the outskirts of Mexico City, as he attempts to get inside the eye of its vortex. For the last ten years, with a Sisyphean spirit, time after time he has taken the risk of chasing and attempting to approach tornadoes. He is simply striving to briefly enter the tornado, or have it pass him by. For the artist, this is a ‘physical addiction’. The tornado here is a metaphor for Walter Benjamin’s ‘storm of progress’. Its immense power destroys everything, leaving behind the ruins of civilisation. The artist charges towards a ‘storm of progress’ in a quixotic, utopian act. In addition to the fact that this expenditure of bodily energy does not show any benefit, we can feel the collision between the energies of the body and those of the outside world in the act of consumption. A Story of Deception, Patagonia, Argentina is a film that features a figure constantly walking towards a mirage in the desert, but never reaching it. Is this expenditure of energy a form of sublime heroism or unfounded futility?
The map hanging in the exhibition hall comes from Alÿs’s 1997 performance piece, The Loop. For this, the artist circled the entire Pacific Ocean to travel from Mexico to San Diego in the United States, all the while avoiding the US–Mexico border. Visitors were free to take postcards with a picture of a puddle of seawater on them. This was reminiscent of Alÿs’s previous performances. In Mexico City he spent seven hours pushing a massive block of ice through the streets and alleys, until it finally melted. In Peru he arranged for 2,000 migrant workers to move a 500-metre-long sand dune just 10 centimetres. In Jerusalem he carried a leaking can of paint along the 24-kilometre Israeli–Palestinian ceasefire line from the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, leaving behind a 24-kilometre-long Green Line. In these projects, he expends immense amounts of energy simply to obtain the smallest return, using perceptual and poetic methods to echo the predicaments that humans have created for themselves through social conflict. This is Alÿs’s trademark artistic method.
With a casual, amusing absurdity and aestheticism, Alÿs’s conceptual art extends the spirit of Surrealism and Dadaism. In the critical context of all contemporary art, its critique is clear: his performances are not works of art that have ambiguous double meanings or that slide between aesthetics and politics. Instead, beauty and poetry are vehicles of political expression. Transforming abstract political disasters into perceptions suspends political discourse in the same dimension as general knowledge and everyday experience, transforming this discourse into fact. Absurdity and mercilessness in concept and theory amplify actual absurdity and mercilessness; the perceptions and poetry of life will finally be engulfed by it. The poetic deconstruction of hegemonic politics through lived perceptions is one of the cunning things about Alÿs’s conceptual artistic methods; he employs a method of resistance that has no interest in meeting violence with violence in these circular predicaments.
In defining conceptual art, Sol LeWitt said, ‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’1 This definition plays down the implementation of the artwork’s concept, just as the art critic Lucy Lippard further proposed the dematerialisation of art. Both particularly emphasised the attenuation of the formal perception of conceptual art, which further diminishes the importance of perceptual experience. To a certain extent, Alÿs’s exhibition both satisfies and violates LeWitt’s definition. With rich and deep artistic insights, he presents poetic perceptions that echo the biases of conceptual art.
A large-scale work entitled Le temps du sommeil, comprising 111 small paintings hung in a row, was placed in a circular space. Formally, this series still relies on repetition: the paintings are all a similar size and all have a Venetian red undertone, each with a green circle applied on top. Inside the circle, he has painted different people, events and scenes that can only be seen upon closer inspection. These are ongoing works that he has been creating since 1995. The number of works will not increase, but the artist is always modifying these paintings on the basis of his life and art. Each time he changes one he marks the day with a date stamp. Certain paintings have been changed multiple times and thus bear several date stamps. Over the decades this work has appeared different every time it has been exhibited, because Alÿs constantly layers new changes onto the original paintings, thereby changing the image. The original image is lost for ever, and the viewer cannot tell with the naked eye which parts have been added. Only the stamp reminds us that the images before us have grown over time, giving these pictures life.
In the exhibition, traces of different historical periods are juxtaposed in the present time and space. In browsing these pieces, the viewer strolls through traces of micro-histories. The interwoven repetitions and variations poetically and keenly suggest to us that, with the passage of time, certain things are unavoidably and invisibly expended. The material traces of the process of completion are the works themselves; it is only in specific implementation that the added actions lead to loss and establish the meaning of the work.
1. Sol LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Artforum, 5:10 ( Summer 1967 ), pp. 79–83.
第十二届上海双年展中有一件比利时艺术家弗朗西斯客埃利斯的影像作品《排演的政治性》（Politics of Rehearsal），其内容是两个场景的神秘关联，一边是一辆红色小车爬坡的过程，另一边是交响乐的排演，音乐响起，车子开始攀登，音乐中断，车子就失去动力下滑倒退，随着排练演奏的时断时续，小红车也在攀登和倒退之间周而复始。
作品《出埃及记3：14》包括了一段16秒的手绘动画和上千幅为动画制作的手稿。作品的题目取自《圣经客出埃及记》，它的英文字面意思为“我是我”（I am who I am）,中文翻译则取了这句话的引申义“我是自有永有的”，赘言的自反性在徒劳无功的消耗性重复与自在自明的存在之间建起了等价的桥梁。展览现场，艺术家用这16秒动画的820幅手稿来呈现“在时间的消耗中，我们获得自身的存在”这个观念。820幅手稿悬挂于展厅的五楼，动画手稿的属性决定了每一幅素描都与相邻的作品几乎一样，这意味着在视野所及的范围之内所看到的皆是几乎相同的形象，变化非常细微，肉眼难以分辨。巨大的作品尺幅和展陈设计使得这一装置成了歌颂重复性的纪念碑。