Francis Alÿs' art is based on observations of, and engagements with, everyday life. His multifaceted projects include public actions, installations, videos, paintings, and drawings; the artist himself has described his work as "a sort of discursive argument composed of
episodes, metaphors, or parables." Across these different media, Alÿs presents his distinct, poetic, and imaginative sensibility towards anthropological and political concerns. His actions have involved traveling the longest possible route between locations in Mexico and the United States to highlight the increasing obstacles imposed along the border; pushing a melting block of ice through city streets; commissioning sign painters to copy his paintings; filming his efforts to enter the centers of tornados; carrying a leaking can of paint along the contested Israeli/Palestinian border; and equipping hundreds of volunteers to move a colossal sand dune ten centimeters.
In Le juif errant (2011), Alÿs presents a dark figure walking across two continents dwarfed beneath her feet. On her back, she carries several nondescript, modern style buildings also rendered in a different scale to her body. One of the two drawings accompanying
the painting shows the same figure similarly crossing continents, this time with a rope tied between her hand and leg; the other drawing presents a man with buildings strapped to his back collaged onto an actual map depicting Europe and Northern Africa.
While the title for the painting is borrowed from Eugène Sue's influential novel from 1844, Le juif errant ("The Wandering Jew"), which describes the existential exile of a Jewish brother and sister, Alÿs' work also conjures a series of mythological connotations. The water that separates the two continents bridged by the walking figures is the Strait of Gibraltar, which according to Greek legend was created when Hercules split two major rocks. The resulting pillars created on either side of the belt were sometimes described as holding up the heavens, a possible favor to Atlas, who was otherwise burdened with this task. The buildings on the backs of Alÿs' figures can be seen to stand in for the sky in ancient illustrations of Atlas carrying his load.
Le juif errant also refers to Alÿs' 2008 action Don't cross the bridge before you get to the river, which involved children on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar approaching one another with boats made out of shoes. The figures depicted in the present drawings likewise leave from Spain and Morocco, yet, the geography of the map traversed by the male figure is obscured by blue paint, which cuts down the size of Africa and creates new land borders. Viewed through this light, Alÿs' work can thus be seen to evoke the fraught cultural history that continues to characterize these heated geopolitical zones. Literally carrying a city on their backs, his nomadic figures are bearers of new life and new beginnings, yet also continuing uncertainties.