16 November 2015
By the time he decided to devote himself to art, Francis Alÿs was already thirty years old and an architect frustrated by a listless system that he found far too set in its ways from an aesthetic and procedural point of view. Twenty-five years have passed since that time and he now lives in Mexico City and is one of the most highly acclaimed artists in the world, among the very few who can boast having had a retrospective at the Tate Modern in London (2010) and at the MoMA in New York (2011). Even more than a painter, filmmaker and performer, Alÿs is an acute observer, and as such blends into the reality that surrounds him, starts to listen and picks up on a pressing need, which he then turns into a story and therefore art. This interview is the fruit of a chance meeting on a ship that was taking both of us back to the mainland after a visit to the Princes’ Islands, which were, until November 1, 2015, one of the venues of the 14th Istanbul Biennial in which Alÿs took part.
The narrative structure of your works often takes the history of a place as its starting point. This is what happened at the Istanbul Biennial too, where you have presented a complex installation entitled The Silence of Ani (2015) that includes a video, a map, drawings, photographs and a set of whistles for calling birds. In the video you give the whistles to a group of teenagers for them to blow while they play amidst the ruins of an Armenian city, Ani, until they have used up all their energy. How did this project come about?
It’s very simple. The Biennial coincides with the centenary of the massacre of the Armenians, which dates back to April 24, 1915. In August 2014, Christov-Bakargiev (curator of the Biennial, author’s note) took me to visit numerous Armenian cities, or rather ruins of cities, mostly in the easternmost part of Anatolia. Of all the places I saw, Ani was the one that made the greatest impression on me. As often happens on these occasions, I became equally interested in something else, Leon Trotsky’s home on the Princes’ Islands, because it was the last place he stayed before going to Mexico. I had thought of developing an analogy between the two houses in which he spent his exile, in Turkey and in Mexico, which are not all that different. Both are places where you can isolate yourself. For a while the two projects ran in parallel, and then from January 2015 onward I focused only on Ani.
What was it that struck you in particular about this city?
When I went to visit it the silence of the Turkish government and people on the subject of the genocide echoed in its abandoned spaces. I thought that breaking this silence could be a symbolic gesture. The teens would call the birds among the ruins, bringing life back into the city. It’s a story for children. It speaks of a game for children in the context of a fairytale.
You’ve made fifteen videos devoted to children’s games, and in many other works, such as the one you produced for dOCUMENTA (13), Reel–Unreel (Kabul, 2011), they play a leading role. Why are children so important? For their more sincere attitude, or as an allegory of innocence?
There’s definitely a link with innocence, which adults tend to lose. Take, for example, the experience I had in 2008 in Gibraltar, where I tried for a long time to work with the fishermen and ended up getting caught in the meshes of local politicians, both Spanish and North African. My work turned into a grueling negotiation between opposing authorities. I wanted to construct an authentic image of the place, a symbolic bridge between the two continents, but always ended up involved in someone else’s fight. It was absurd. Then I turned to the kids who were on the beach, on both sides, and they were genuinely interested in taking part. They didn’t ask me for anything in return.
How did you handle this collaboration in the video Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Strait of Gibraltar, 2008)?
I turned it into a game, which immediately made the atmosphere of oppressiveness and compromise disappear. Kids have this special ability: they are much more generous than grownups, and they’re also more willing to accept scenarios that are not perfectly logical or rational. There’s always an element of the absurd in children’s games, and it’s something I tend to work on.
Your work rests on a delicate balance between your expectations as an artist and the experience of others. This is also the basis of any performance. But I’ve always wondered at what point you insert yourself into the dynamics of the story.
When I produce something I’m very precise about the rules. I lay down some of them, and then I let things go before taking over again to document and record them, always trying to get the result to turn out as autonomously as it can. Yet it is not always possible to take such an open approach. In the case of Ani, for example, there was a lot of pressure over the time. We had planned several days of shooting, but the weather was terrible and so we ended up having to do everything in one day. The kids were about to go on vacation, and so the thing could not be postponed. We followed the narrative structure and integrated the video with the moments when the kids were interacting. And there were many of them, and they weren’t professional actors. So, how to put it, they didn’t follow the script closely…
Was the method you used to make The Silence of Ani an exception to your usual approach?
Yes, this was as close as I’ve ever come to fiction. I would say: “Now we’re going to film a few minutes in which we’ll be trying to create a third melody, then you’ll go over there.” In such a short space of time, I also had to ask the kids to work in teams, in order to divide everything in two. But perhaps I’m painting too rigid a picture of the project, in reality the situation was a bit more fluid.
You introduced the participatory element in 1986, immediately after moving to Mexico, where you started to record the daily lives of the people around you. What is your position with regard to authorship in art after spending all these years working in a collective way with people in every corner of the world?
I’ll be honest. To fund my projects I need a label, and the label is probably the name of the artist. The rest is purely a process of collaboration. I’m the instigator of the project of course, but once it’s been put on the table there are many others whose inputs will bring the work to life. But we always come back to the point that you need a label to promote and, above all, to produce it. My projects are not very expensive, and yet the support of a Biennial like Istanbul’s covers no more than 20-25% of the overall budget. I don’t sell my videos, they are online and everyone can watch then, but I do make “side-products” to fund the rest.
They are much more than “side-products” though. Artists who express themselves in the dimension of performance or collaboration do not usually have other areas of work that are so important. In your case, however, there seems to be no real hierarchy among your means of expression. One of these is painting. Do you see it as a necessary counterpart to the process of collaboration?
Yes, you could say so. Painting is the space where I withdraw from collective discussion, where I weigh the pros and cons of the background noise and decide what to keep and what to leave out. Through painting, in short, I try to understand what the bones of the project are.
Which is not always clear?
It’s easy to get lost in the logistics of a project: the more people are involved, the more complex the conditions of intervention become, especially when what you’re proposing is not totally legal or welcome.
You were probably the first artist of your generation to involve hundreds of people in the process of creating a work of art. In When Faith Moves Mountains (Lima, 2002), one of your most famous videos, you managed to persuade five hundred Peruvian students to pick up a shovel and move a sand dune about 10 cm. Can you tell me what went on behind the scenes?
In fact that is a good example of collaboration. It took at least a month’s preparation, spread over a longer period of time during which I went to Lima, met people and talked about the situation in Peru and the possibility that art could have some kind of role in society. The point was to make people think it was worth spending five hours together on a project.
Is it a method you used for the work at the Istanbul Biennial too?
Yes, it wasn’t so different at the end. The weather stopped us from filming, and so we spent a lot of time talking with the teenagers about what they thought of Turkey, Armenia and their future. We spent six weeks talking and just one filming.
For readers who don’t know anything about you, it’s worth saying that you studied architecture in Belgium and then went to Venice to specialize in urban planning. So you didn’t take your first steps as an artist until you were thirty, which is a fairly advanced age in comparison with many artists today. What did art mean for you then, and how has that idea developed or changed for you over time?
Before becoming an artist I was an architect and worked mostly on urban projects. But I got fed up with the compromises of architecture and its constant delays. Art can address the city too and it can do it in a much more immediate way. The direction is the same, but the track is different. In architecture you can spend months working on projects that may never be realized, or that move on to the practical phase when you have lost hold of the essence of what you’re doing. As an artist I am concerned with cities, with their different angles, attitudes and characters, with the hiatus between modernity and tradition, between past and present. I’ve never looked for a specific subject for my art, it’s all about the method.
Let’s talk about the years you spent working as an architect in Venice. It seems that the city has left a deep mark on you: it is also the setting of one of your works, Duett (Venice, 1999), in which you and the artist Honoré d’O wander around the calli, each of you carrying a piece of a tuba. When you meet up you reassemble it and play a note. What’s your strongest memory of Venice?
At the time I was studying at the IUAV and Manfredo Tafuri was the moving spirit of a very interesting scene at the department of architecture. I was also working in the studio of Nanni Valle, who was fantastic. Venice, however, was above all a big and long party, les grandes vacances. It was a city where everything turned around consumption: culture, food, drugs, alcohol, anything. It was very different from today, since there was little or no tourism between October and May: Venice was empty and tiny, with just 15,000 inhabitants and thousands of students always holding parties. It was a city of private haunts, and since we had no cellphones we would meet up in the evening at Campo San Giacomo di Rialto. It was all about chance encounters: you would meet one person, then another. I could have spent my life there doing absolutely nothing. The quality of life was exceptional, crisis or no crisis, with thousands of things to see, try, experience. To live.
And how did this vacation come to an end?
I was saved by the draft. To avoid military service I had to leave Europe and find myself a contract with an NGO. I could have gone to India, but Mexico was the first country to offer me a job and I had to leave quickly. I only had a month.
Chance has played a decisive role in your private life, as well as in your work…
I suppose so. Anyway I learnt a lot in Venice: my painting is influenced by the Quattrocento, by artists like Fra Angelico, Giotto, Lorenzetti. More or less consciously. And thinking of Duett, there’s a phrase that keeps passing through my head. It says: “Venice, a labyrinth that listens to you”… Up you go! (Two dolphins are playing in front of the boat.)
Speaking of crossovers between life and art I’m reminded of the Lada Kopeika Project (St. Petersburg, 2014), something that you did for Manifesta 10. It’s connected with a dream you and your brother had as teenagers: to drive across the Iron Curtain into Russia. The end of the video, in which you tell how you have at last accomplished your mission, sees you crashing a car into a tree in the courtyard of the Hermitage Museum: an ending similar to that of another work you did in Mexico, Game Over (Culiacán, 2011). What is the common denominator of the two works?
Both refer to situations that leave you so frustrated you feel the need to do something violent, just to wake up. Culiacán is one of the narco cities, the birthplace of “El Chapo” Guzmán who escaped from prison a short time ago. I was invited there and wanted to do something that would be at once provocative and personal. The situation in Russia was similar as far as the local apathy was concerned. But in Russia it’s worse.
Is it correct to say that they are both imbued with a nostalgic attitude toward reality ?
Yes. My work always operates on two levels: first there is the fairytale, which you find in the script. It has to be very simple, two or three sentences at the most. And then everything which lies behind that, and which certainly includes a lot of frustration. I went to Russia several times before deciding to do the piece. I thought that trip I made with my brother many years ago would give it a solid narrative framework, but the final gesture goes beyond that. It’s another level of intervention.
Even when the nostalgia is not so explicit, it still seems to run like a common thread through your work. Are you proposing a different society from the one we live in?
My girlfriend always says I should have lived in another era.
I’d have liked to be a painter in the 15th century, anywhere between Assisi and Pienza! I would have gone with my backpack from church to church. Of course, being nostalgic is a way of being critical of my own time, but I’m also very curious about the way art, language and society evolve.
Has your research ever led you to confront a particular political ideology?
Ideology is boring. I take a bit of everything and invent my own philosophy. Politics influences most of the societies I deal with, and of course I take it into account, but I don’t want it to be the sole ingredient of my projects, otherwise I would end up doing something other than art. Journalism? Militancy? I know that there is an art that alludes to this dimension in a direct and explicit manner, but as far as I’m concerned I feel better on the border between politics and poetics, in this confused space where you never know what side you’re really on. Speaking of which, there have been times I’ve had to abandon a project because the tenor was getting too political and excluded art.
How would you define your philosophy?
I’m a lone rider.