Francis Alÿs at the Bonnefanten: Perfecting the Art of Understatement
February 1, 2011 1 Comment
Captivating yet subtle in its impact, both the work and curatorship of the current Maastricht exhibition by Francis Alÿs reflect his position as the master of understatement. Restrained and often disorienting, Francis Alÿs proves a pleasant alternative to the often grandiose, but altogether less engaging attempts made by many contemporary artists in stimulating expression and debate.
Paradox of Practice (1997) by Francis Alÿs
A silent presence in his film The Paradox of Practice (1997), Francis Alÿs is documented travelling through the hot streets of Mexico City pushing a melting block of ice. The scene shows the strikingly painful exertion of the artist pushing the slowly diminishing block, bending down further as it gets smaller and gaining some relief in resorting to using his feet, finally rendering it the size of a small pebble. In the end, Alÿs kicks it forward as if he was taking a gentle afternoon stroll.
Often noted for his politicised work, Alÿs deals with the ideas and realities of life in the city in which he lives, works and gains constant inspiration. In this case, it demonstrates how hours of strain have vanished with no lasting physical result, perhaps an echo of economic struggle, where many may give everything only to end the day with very little.
Francis Alÿs (1959), an artist born in Antwerp but resident of Mexico City for the past two decades, does though offer much more than references to economic plight and discourses of Central American turbulence. His work questions urban identity and economy, labour and globalisation, through thoroughly universal tales which often become strangely mesmerising in their power and subtlety.
Presented at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, poetic narratives are expressed within a series of entirely engaging visual art, including a selection of films, painting and sculpture. Displayed across three floors of the gallery, the exhibition reflects Alÿs’ status as BACA Laureate 2010 – the only international award for visual arts in the Netherlands, held in 2008 by John Baldessari – and is intertwined with other works throughout the building. Whether they are old Flemish Masters or little known contemporary artists with whom he worked as part of his newly acquired status, Alÿs manages to marry his work within the predetermined structure of the gallery space in a thoroughly unimposing manner.
Mirroring such restraint in display, is his subtle presence and expressions within the work itself. Indeed Alÿs is almost a constant presence in his films, which are certainly the triumph of the show. Whether it is Choques (2005-06), a series of nine clips displaying the same event from different perspectives, or marching Beefeaters in empty London streets in his 2004 work Guards, his dialogue-free work is almost musical in its narrative, rich, humorous and engaging.
The documentary does much to introduce these works to an unknowing audience, exploring the nature of our expectations of the places in which we live and the way in which we interact with people and spaces. Much of it refers to the relationship Alÿs has with Mexico City, as a tourist perhaps, an outsider able to blend in and become part of the city landscape. In this case Alÿs himself acts as curator. In emphasising the central theme ‘the street as a space filled with ambiguities’ the artist explores his role in the city, at once as an outsider, yet one certainly able to merge with his surroundings as a welcome but often unnoticed presence.
He begins before we even enter the gallery space, where two of nine perspectives capturing the artist tripping and falling over a street dog are present at the foot of the stairs leading to the gallery, and could be easily overlooked. Comprising Choques (2005-06) the remaining seven are elsewhere, appearing around corners at carefully selected intervals. One is shot from the perspective of the dog, disturbed by the incident only a moment before the same scene is repeated over our shoulder, though from yet another perspective.
Circularity and recurrence again are present in his déjà vu (1996-present), a series of almost miniature paintings and sculptures and their copies distributed throughout the gallery. Whilst some sit alone amongst vast empty white walls, others hang in the shadow of the likes of the Old Flemish Masters, Gilbert and George and Franz West.
No bigger than an A4 sheet of paper, paintings of solitary figures moving within a mostly empty space, but for the presence of de Chirico-like edges of buildings, could easily go unnoticed. Dwarfed by Pieter Brueghel or the Durer inspired Jan Mandijn, they do nothing to take away from the splendour of their larger, brighter neighbours, but aim to very subtly unnerve the visitor through repetition and placement.
Again challenging our expectations, Silencio (2003-present), an installation of brightly coloured rubber mats, each with an image of a finger pressed to lips, prompts us to both walk across the art-work and make noise with our feet, perhaps usually unfitting in a gallery environment. The placement of this work at almost a dead end in the exhibition space does though perhaps take something away from the intended response.
The exhibition does rely rather heavily on the documentary to introduce a lot of his more well known works, leaving the visitor yearning to see more. Perhaps due to his BACA Laureate status one would expect several more of his films to be incorporated within the space. Largely, the integration of what work there is within the museum is both inspired yet restrained. Alÿs is an artist capable of making incredibly clever observations and social commentary. The understated way in which his work is presented only serves to reflect his position as collaborator; at the same time able to participate in the landscape of Mexico City as an outsider, whilst being equally capable of an elusive presence amongst the Old Masters.
BACA Laureate 2010: Francis Alÿs can be seen at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht until the 27th March.
By Clare Canning
Clare Canning is currently studying towards a Master degree in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management and Education at Maastricht University.