The oppressive heat of this Tokyo summer is a fitting setting for the second half of a two-part solo exhibition from Francis Alÿs at MOT in Tokyo, based on his recent work Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River. In the main exhibition hall a two-sided screen plays a video loop of a 2008 “action:” two groups of children carrying “flip-flop boats” simultaneously set out from Tarifa in Spain and Tangier in Morocco, walking towards each other into the ocean and meeting at an imaginary point on the horizon.
The exhibition catalogue tells us that “Francis Alÿs frequently explores the subject of migration and the borders that constrict people.” The Strait of Gibraltar lies between the southernmost tip of Spain and northwest Africa and is only 13 kilometers wide at its narrowest part. It is this narrow channel that separates the two continents of Europe and Africa. The significance of “building a bridge” here is clear. In reality, the two columns of children, walking straight into the ocean, can never meet—an allusion to the colonial history of European nations in Africa and the limits placed on migration by the economic systems of the so-called free world.
You might think there is no need to brave the summer heat for such a cliché. But experiencing this exhibition in person is at least as important as the understanding artist’s ideas. The dark exhibition hall is spacious and cool. The only light comes from the screens and you hear the combined sounds of wind, waves and the laughter of children—there is no sign of heavy symbolism here. If Alÿs’ choosing children to carry out this action adds levity and brings out the playful element, giving deeper layers of meaning to the work, then even more effective is the way he records and narrates the action. The camera starts with a long elevation shot and as the water level rises, it is gradually submerged by the waves along with the children. Driftweed floats by, a discarded flip-flop bobs on the water, the camera shakes violently… the distance between the cameraman and the subject diminishes, the filming becomes almost a part of the action, and the emotional impact on the viewer heightened.
In this way an extraordinary balance is achieved: we understand the action’s conception and execution rationally, while responding emotionally to its recording and reproduction. Alÿs expertly switches the point of view between wide and close-up, between the historical and quotidian. We cannot view this video as a simple record of the action, nor as a pure reproduction of reality. Even in the preparatory sketches and drafts, Alÿs does more than just demonstrate his thought process. See, for example, the small-scale paintings also on view—their canvases and frames seemingly picked up from the street—are wrought with unexplained stains and white discolorations that distract the viewer and prevent a true reading of the image. Just as we see in the set of overlapping sketches also on display, what Alÿs excels most at is the interweaving and transformation of multiple layers.
The most commonly used term in critical discussion of Alÿs’ work is “allegory.” As the curator writes, “Living under the conditions of Mexican and Latin American society lead the artist to produce work of an allegoric nature.” Part one of the exhibition, titled “Mexico Survey” and held in the two months previous, probably best demonstrated this allegoric nature. It focused on art created in Mexico City and brought together most of Alÿs’ representative works. Examining the basic narrative or structure of these works, one finds there is actually nothing fresh: futile behavior, repeated meaningless tasks, endless “wasted” time… even though they appear to allude to the political reality of Mexico and the permanently postponed dream of Latin American modernization, they could also be no more than a modern reincarnation of the same hackneyed mythology.
But to understand it this way is to ignore an important element of Alÿs’ work: the artist’s attention to the “leftovers” from regular circulation channels. Be it the museum, art history, or the socioeconomic system, he either analyzes— as in Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) (1997)—or diverts the gaze towards the periphery or to the outside— as in Fabiolas and The Collector, respectively. But unlike the nineteenth-century Romantics, Alÿs does not want to extract a hidden history or truth from these forgotten leftovers or fragments. Instead, it seems he wants to use them to preserve and process the tangential aspects of everyday life. In the ongoing project Sleepers, Alÿs has tirelessly photographed people and animals sleeping in the street. As the artist himself puts it, he is interested in the ways people make private use of public space. This point of departure is very simple, but the fact that he takes the photographs on the same level as his subjects—on the ground—illustrates that this documentation is no less than concrete. What is more, these individual parts appear insignificant, but when displayed together, they often open up new and unanticipated channels of meaning.
This also explains why although most of the works in “Mexico Survey” are set in Mexico, they are not constrained by local vernacular. If Alÿs’ constructions pertain so deliberately to contemporary allegory, then his source materials are the discarded fragments abandoned by contemporary life. In this sense, he has something in common with renowned Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Serious literary critics often criticize Murakami’s lack of historical consciousness and his willingness to embrace consumerist society. Similarly, the more staid of art critics assert that Alÿs courts the art museums with seductive Marxist language, to satisfy the curators’ obsession with non-commercial art.
In any case, in these times when political struggle can find no realistic outlet and self-esteem in the art world seems to have hit rock bottom, it is also worth considering how Alÿs’ allegories are able to win people over. In scheduling “Gibraltar Focus” for the summer, MOT is obviously considering young parents who will bring their children to see it. But however light and accessible Alÿs’ world is, the most popular with parents and children is another exhibition on show: “Ghosts, Underpants and Stars—A place where children can be children.”