Renaissance Architect: Francis Alÿs brings Mexican-tinged conceptual art to Hyde Park

On one screen, two anonymous hands shuffle dozens of papers, each reading “REHEARSAL” or a truncation of it in handwritten bold capitals. Over and over, the hands attempt to flip the sheets in the proper order. On another screen, a striptease interrupts Harry Truman’s inaugural address extolling modernization for the developing world while an interview with a cultural critic, interviewer’s questions silenced, plays in the background. In all cases, an ultimate goal–the perfect shuffle, physical contact, social reform–remains tantalizingly elusive. These are the “Politics of Rehearsal,” one of two works by the Belgian-Mexican artist Francis Alÿs on display at the Renaissance Society.

Born in Antwerp in 1959, Alÿs moved to Mexico City in 1986 to avoid national service and has remained there since. The constant, nearly oppressive stimulation of the megacity environment has been an influence on his work from the beginning, when he abandoned his architectural background for a series of sabbaticals that ended in visual art. With no formal training, no artistic contacts, “and no witnesses,” as he puts it, Alÿs has developed a distinctively egalitarian oeuvre, from videos of stray dogs (“El Gringo”), to model guns made from wire, wood scraps and film cans (”Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political And Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic”). But the conceptual element of his work has always been prominent–two exemplary past works are ”The Paradox of Praxis,” in which he pushed a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melted, and ”When Faith Moves Mountains,” in which 500 volunteers attempted to move a Peruvian sand dune with shovels. Collaboration is another crucial aspect of his work. His friend Cuauhtémoc Medina’s decontextualized voice as the “Rehearsal” interviewee is perhaps a weak example, but the spirit of partnership appears throughout his works.

Alÿs never hesitates to point out that cooperation is behind his craft, whether their presence is audible, or invisible, as in the contributions of structural engineers to the Bergman Gallery-dominating ”Bolero (Shoe Shine Blues),” the show’s strongest piece. There, an industrial-looking wood and chicken wire structure supports a viewing area for a looping animation of hands shining a shoe, set to music. Beneath it a brightly-lit interior displays the more than 500 hand-drawn frames spliced together for the animation. The structure itself summons a prison camp watchtower, while Alÿs’ sparse, technical hand recalls engineering schematics; the resulting video rigorously dissects the motions of the shoeshine by synchronizing each to a different musical theme–a “musical script,” in his words.

On a table outside, a sculptural component of the piece uses foam balls bonded by dowels in the shape of a molecular model to present the shine as both independent process (the disembodied action of the shine, formed through connected movements) and component of larger economic system (which connects shoe-shiner, street vendor, and industrialist). Yet a single dowel is broken. Should this be interpreted as a comment or the result of bad packing? For Alÿs, either seems to work. “Bolero”‘s structural elements were first displayed in Europe, but responding to a question about their design at the Renaissance Society reception, he replied that he liked how they emphasized the natural division of the Bergman Gallery space into two vertical “moments.”

But ultimately it’s a lurking sense of depth that makes the Alÿs exhibit compelling. Through repetition, the actions of shuffling papers and shining shoes become something more and nothing less. Their rigorous dissection inspires our own questioning about work and labor, documentation and creation, and actualization and apotheosis. Alÿs has a light touch, but the sensation lingers.

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