“I spend a lot of time walking around the city,” Alÿs reflected in 1993 of Mexico City, his home since 1986. “As an artist, my position is akin to that of a passer-by constantly trying to situate myself in a moving environment. . . . Each of my interventions is another fragment of the story that I am inventing, of the city that I am mapping.” Trained in Belgium as an architect, Alÿs has since recast himself as an amateur anthropologist, taking as his subject the urban habitus—the cultural artifacts and social marketplace—of his adopted city. He has stuffed pillows in broken windows and walked the city wearing magnetic shoes, attracting the detritus of the streets; in Turista (1994), he stood in sport coat and sunglasses on the Zócalo alongside a row of day laborers—plumbers, electricians, plasterers—with his own hand-painted placard, advertising himself as a “tourist” for hire. His actions have transpired around the world, from Gibraltar to Cuba to Afghanistan, and encompass drawing, painting, video, and installation. They reflect, in ways both ironic and idealist, upon the politics and praxis of everyday life.
Between 1993 and 1997, Alÿs undertook the Sign-Painters Project (Rotulistas), a collaboration with sign painters in Mexico City. “I started playing with still images in the spring of 1993,” he recalls. “My work was getting trapped within its own hermetic logic, and it seemed urgent to practice a breakdown of my methods and obsessions in sculpture through a string of figurative scenes that would illustrate the interventions I was doing on the streets of Mexico City. I began combining a man in a suit with a piece of furniture or some object, subjecting the body of the protagonist to a range of physically feasible relations of weight, balance, tension etc. The style of these paintings was directly borrowed from painted advertisements encountered in my neighborhood.” The series blurred the line between commercial and “fine” art, a familiar avant-gardist tactic; more intriguing, and conceptually disruptive, was his iterative process, in which authorship was shared and the market saturated (the latter unsuccessfully, in the end). “By the summer of 1993 I had completed a first body of paintings,” Alÿs continues. “I commissioned various sign painters to produce enlarged copies of my original images. Once several versions had been completed, I produced a new ‘model’ that incorporated the most significant elements of each sign-painter’s interpretation. This compiled image was in turn used as the basis for a new generation of copies made by sign-painters and so on, according to market demand.”
“Like a visual version of Chinese whispers,” Alÿs says, describing the recursive process by which the paintings were made. “Each of them was unique. Yet they all belonged to various series, as they were all referring to a similar model, so they depended on one another. It was their grouping or proximity that made them exist.” The series share an anonymous character, dressed in a dark suit and portrayed singly and multiply in surreal, awkward poses: with a stick laid across his shoes, with a pitcher tipping over his knees, with a dress shoe dangling next to his ear. In Paralelas, this figure is indicated by three suit-jacketed arms—one left arm, two right arms—that varyingly balance a stick on a tabletop, one with his index finger, another between his fingers, and the last with his wrist. The muddied, olive-green palette is characteristic of the “original” oil paintings; later, re-worked variations display sharper focus, saturated colors, and larger dimensions. A conceptual palimpsest, Paralelas and its progeny belie narrative logic; here, an ephemeral, unproductive action is suspended and repeated across its two panels, the image equally absurd and alienated.
“Alÿs has had a specially trained eye for detecting, thinking about, and activating pictorial works that operate in the form of social crowds, hierarchical and reproductive sets, or circuits of use, physical displacement, or collaborative production,” observes his friend and frequent interlocutor, Cuauhtémoc Medina. “It becomes apparent that Alÿs always thinks of images as part of social wholes and provisional groupings, in which meaning appears through reiteration, variation, interruption, and transformation, rather than through formal continuity and cohesion.” Medina posits these series as constitutive of a kind of “action painting,” in the sense that “they are also stories structured by a practice that, like his actions, we consume equally as a lived process, figure of thought, and passage in time. In addition to a body of work, they are a parallel activity that reinforces and exceeds its place as the surface and sign contained in each painting.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Francis Alÿs, Walks / Paseos (Mexico: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1998), 15.
2 Alÿs, “Sign-Painters Project (Rotulistas),” in Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, ed. Mark Godfrey, Klaus Biesenbach, and Kerryn Greenberg (London: Tate Publishing, 2010), 61.
3 Alÿs, in “Russell Ferguson in conversation with Francis Alÿs,” in Francis Alÿs (New York: Phaidon, 2007), 45.
4 Cuauhtémoc Medina, “A Crowd Art,” in Francis Alÿs: A Story of Negotiation (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, 2015), 40, 42, 54.