Francis Alÿs: Rethinking Boundaries
Francis Alÿs: Wet feet_dry feet: borders and games
Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong
28.10.20 – 16.02.21
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
The Straits of Gibraltar are 7.7 nautical miles wide ( 13 km ) and separate Africa from Europe. If a line of kids leaves Europe towards Morocco, and a line of kids leaves Africa towards Spain, will the two lines meet in the chimera of the horizon?¹
It is with a bold vision that Francis Alÿs ( born 1959, Belgium; based in Mexico since the 1980s ) presents Wet feet_dry feet: borders and games, his first Hong Kong solo show at Tai Kwun. In the main hall, the first thing the viewer sees on entering is 64 Shoe Boats ( 2007 – 8 ), a string of adorable, lovingly made model sailing boats paired with a mirror that makes the boats seem to stretch out infinitely. We can imagine a group of mischievous, curious children lined up, holding their little boats and walking into the deep ocean. This was part of Alÿs’s 2008 situational work Don’t Cross the Bridge Before Getting to the River, a work performed simultaneously in Morocco and Spain, which envisioned an ephemeral human bridge over the Straits of Gibraltar. However, the children, laughing and playing, transform this serious performance art into an ocean game, shutting out the tragic reality of the countless migrants who fall overboard trying to make the journey.
Alÿs’s first boat bridge project took place during the 9th Havana Biennial in April 2006. He brought together more than a hundred private and commercial boats from Havana and Key West, Florida, to create the one-off performance piece Bridge/Puente. The inspiration for the piece came from a news article he read in 2005 about the United States’ ‘wet feet, dry feet’ policy for Cuban migrants. If the migrants successfully made it to land, they would be given the right to stay, while those intercepted on the water would be repatriated to Cuba. In this context, was a bridge between parts of the Florida Keys water or land? What if you had one foot on land and one foot in the water?
During the two years of exhibition preparation, Alÿs created several concept drawings for bridges, which represent his thought process and create a dreamworld in pale blues and greens. Land masses are connected by an extended leg, a snake, a ladder, a boat, a line of people, and even a couple of forks. This reminded me of the ancient Chinese myth of the Cowherd and the Weaving Maid, or the dream before the Buddha’s enlightenment. According to the continental drift hypothesis, the seven continents and four oceans are the natural results of movements in the Earth’s crust; narrow strips of ocean between continental plates became zones of trade contact and commercial prosperity, but they also became places of frequent conflict and war. With these considerations in mind, Alÿs focused on the Straits of Gibraltar. However, it was impossible simply to transfer a piece from Havana to the Straits, because the institutional communication required was akin to that needed for a military action. This communication was part of the entire art project, because in the end, a bridge-related performance piece demanded the collective engagement of the participants. When the artist saw a group of children skipping pebbles on the water by the beach in Tangier, Morocco, he transformed this boat bridge into a piece about a child’s game, entitled Children’s Games #2: Ricochets.
Children’s games are another long-term focus of Alÿs’s work. As he has travelled around the world, he has recorded children’s games from an onlooker’s perspective. These games are played in military conflict zones as well as ordinary streets and alleys, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal, Jordan, Mexico, Venezuela, France, Belgium and Hong Kong. In a child’s world there are no military conflicts, political antagonisms, essential livelihoods, existential threats or other thorny problems of the adult world. Children use their imaginations, easily transforming streets, fields, empty houses and other public spaces into havens for play. Given just a piece of sky and a small stone, they can play for quite a while. The exhibition presents a room of children playing games, reminiscent of a hall of mirrors, showing games that transcend time and space. Viewers see a child in Balkh, Afghanistan, wearing a pink outfit and flying a kite, children in Iraqi refugee camps absorbed in hopscotch, Venezuelan children catching grasshoppers and Belgian children building sandcastles… When all these scenes are presented on different screens in the same exhibition hall, Alÿs creates a world of children’s games without national boundaries, which temporarily makes the viewer forget that this world has war, bloodshed and conflict: these children’s games transcend conventions, languages and borders. Friedrich Schiller once said, ‘Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.’ However, children can also be seen as half grown-up, and a child’s world could be considered an imitation of an adult world; here, Alÿs represents injuries ( the grasshoppers ), territories ( the sandcastles ), gun battles ( the branches and sticks ), and other elements from the adult world. Are children really as pure as adults imagine?
Alÿs’s thoughts on boundaries can be traced back to a performance piece he did, walking and dripping green paint along the armistice demarcation line created at the end of the 1948 – 9 Arab–Israeli War, to produce The Green Line ( 2004, Jerusalem ). In When Faith Moves Mountains ( 2002, Lima ) he invited 500 volunteers to move a 500-metre-long sand dune about 10 centimetres from its original place – a futile and spectacular form of resistance. The French Situationist theorist Guy Debord believed that experiencing various situations in the city in a playful way would attenuate psychogeography. Alÿs has said, ‘Sometimes doing something poetic can become political, and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.’
Many theories about boundaries, within the framework of the nation state, emphasise that boundaries are fixed, rigid lines, but globalisation has normalised the scattering and flow of people. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ( 1980 ), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari proposed the idea of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation, which sees boundaries in a more fluid and utopian way. Boundaries are natural, but they can also be man-made, such as those between the land and the sea, between continents, between nations and between people. Boundaries such as the Straits of Gibraltar, a boundary between Europe and Africa, formed naturally as the tectonic plates moved. However, it is people who give those boundaries significance, reflected in the flourishing trade and bloody conflicts that once occurred in the Straits of Gibraltar. Boundaries can also be artificial, as shown by the boundaries left by the colonial era, such as those between African nations and between India and Pakistan. Borders cause prosperity when they bring cultures together and disputes when they are ambiguous.
Map of the Straits ( Gibraltar ) ( 2008 ), which uses two forks to bridge the Straits of Gibraltar on a map, is a very special work of art. Do the forks, as everyday eating utensils, suggest the interaction of food cultures between Europe and Africa? With human migration, the customs and cultures of different groups interact and fuse, so when will humanity move towards the Great Harmony? If it cannot be realised in real life, then can it be redeemed in the world of children’s games? Here, ‘children’ refers to the childhood of humanity, and not simply the children around us in our real lives.
Francis Alÿs’s poetry and sensibility are ‘anchored by geopolitical concerns and individual possibilities while being grounded in a spontaneous everyday life’.2 With these three interlocking projects, he prompts viewers to rethink the social issues of migration and borders, which can be extended to the concept of boundaries in a general sense, and the breaking of boundaries through children’s games.
1. Wet feet_dry feet: borders and games, exhibition wall text.
直布罗陀海峡 宽7.7海里（ 13公里 ）， 将非洲和欧洲隔开。 如果一群孩子排成直线， 向着摩洛哥的方向远离欧洲， 而另一队孩子 向着西班牙的方向远离非洲， 这两队人 会在天海的嵌合交会吗？
带着这个大胆的设想，1959年比利时生、1980年代起定居墨西哥的艺术家弗朗西斯·埃利斯（ Francis Alÿs ） 在大馆当代美术馆呈现了他的首个香港个展“水限_陆界：边境与游戏”。大厅中首先进入观众视线的是一连串精致可爱的人字拖帆船模型《64只鞋船》（ 2007至2008年 ），镜子将帆船引向无限。可以想象一队顽皮好奇的孩子排成一条直线，托举着他们的小帆船，依次走入海的深处。这是2008年弗朗西斯在摩洛哥和西班牙同时进行的一次情境艺术《遇河之前莫过桥》，幻想着直布罗陀海峡瞬间出现了一座人桥。但孩子们欢笑、嬉戏将这个严肃的行为艺术变成了一次出海游戏，消解了无数难民落水的悲惨现实。
在项目准备的两年期间，弗朗西斯创作了一系列关于桥的概念图，这是艺术家的思考过程，也是用淡青色彩构筑的梦幻世界。这些作为陆地之间“连接物”的形象有：一只伸出去的脚、蛇、梯子、船只、人列、甚至刀叉等。这让人想到中国古代神话牛郎织女鹊桥相会，以及佛陀开悟前的梦境。根据板块漂移学说，七大洲和四大洋是地壳运动的自然结果，而大陆板块之间的狭窄海域成为贸易往来和商业繁荣地带，也成为冲突和战争频繁的地区。因此，艺术家关注到直布罗陀海峡。但将哈瓦那的艺术移到直布罗陀海峡简直是不可能的，需要沟通的部门简直无异于一场军事行动，这些沟通也是整个艺术事件的一部分，因为最终进行一场桥的行为艺术，需要参与者的共同心愿。当艺术家在摩洛哥丹吉尔的海边看到一群孩子拿着鹅卵石打水漂时《儿童游戏之二：片石仔（ 打水漂 ）》，他将船桥变成了儿童游戏。
儿童游戏也是艺术家长期关注的项目。在世界各地游走时，他用镜头记录下世界各地孩子游戏的场景。这些游戏的地点和场所包括军事冲突区，以及寻常的街道小巷，包括阿富汗、伊拉克、尼泊尔、约旦、墨西哥、委内瑞拉、法国、比利时、中国香港等。在儿童世界中，没有军事冲突、政治对立、日常生计、生存危机等成人世界的棘手问题，他们可以运用想象，轻松地将街道、田野、空房子等公共空间变成游乐天堂。对孩子来说，只要有一片天空，一块小石子，他们就能玩半天。展览呈现了一个儿童游戏的镜像大厅，多屏幕展现了超时空下的游戏场景。观众看到了阿富汗巴尔赫穿粉红裙式长衫的孩子在练习放风筝，伊拉克难民营的孩子在专心地跳房子，委内瑞拉的孩子在捉蚂蚱，比利时的孩子在堆城堡……当众多场景在同一个展厅不同银幕上出现时，这是一个没有国界的儿童的游戏世界，这个世界让暂时忘记了世界上还有战争、流血、冲突。超越常规，跨越语言，没有边界。席勒认为，只有游戏的人才是完整的人。但从另一角度，儿童也可以被看作half-man （ 半个成人 ），儿童的世界是对成人世界的模仿，这里也有伤害（ 蚂蚱 ），有领地（ 城堡 ），有枪战（树枝和木棍）等成人世界的元素。所以，儿童真的如大人想象的那样纯真吗？
弗朗西斯关于“边界”的思考可以继续追溯到他在印巴边境拿着一个绿色油漆滴罐行走，形成了艺术作品《绿线》（ 2004，耶路撒冷 ）。在《愚公移山》（ 2002，秘鲁利马 ）中，他请了500名志愿者将一座长500米的沙丘从它原来的位置移开10厘米。他用这样徒劳的奇观方式抗争着。法国情境主义理论家居伊·德波认为以游戏的态度体验城市中的各种情境，弱化地理心理学。弗朗西斯说：“有时，诗意的行为可以是政治性的。有时，政治性的行为也可以是诗意的。”
在许多关于边界的理论中，强调在民族国家框架中边界是一条固定而僵硬的线，然而随着全球化使得流散成为一种常态。德勒兹和瓜塔里在《千高原》中提出反领地化（ re-/deterritorialization ），以更为流动和乌托邦式的态度看待边界。边界是自然的，也可以是人为的，是大陆与海洋、大洲与大洲、国家与国家、人与人之间的界限。边界是板块大漂移中自然形成的，如欧洲和非洲的边界直布罗陀海峡。但边界的意义在于人所施加的意义，比如历史上直布罗陀海峡带来的贸易繁荣与冲突流血。边界也有人为划分的，殖民时代遗留下来的，如非洲版图国家间的边界、印巴边界。边界因为不同文化的交汇而繁荣，也因为模糊性而存在争议。
用刀和叉连接直布罗陀海峡《〈直布罗陀〉海峡地图》（ 2008 ）是最特别的一件艺术品。因为刀叉是日常饮食的工具，刀叉是否暗示着欧洲和非洲在饮食文化上的交流。伴随着人口迁徙，生活习俗和文化也在不同群落之间交流融合，人类将在何时走向大同？如果不能在现实生活中实现，那么在儿童游戏世界中得到救赎。这里的儿童并非单指现实中的儿童，而是指人类的童年。