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The Paradox of Praxis Step By Step: Approaching Francis Alys

Francis Alys is one of the stars of the young international scene. The Belgian artist, who lives in Mexico, doesn’t create massive sculptures for eternity, but mobile and sometimes absurd art that essentially takes place in the mind and at the moment it is being made – entirely in the tradition of the Situationists and the Fluxus movement. Currently, two large exhibitions documenting his work can be seen in the Wolfsburg Art Museum and at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. Alys’ works are also part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. Katrin Wittneven on Alys’ impressive images and actions.



Francis Alys, 2004
©Photo: Mike Wolff/ Der Tagesspiegel, 2004, All Rights Reserved

On the way to Francis Alys: the train speeds along from Berlin to Wolfsburg at 160 miles per hour. The trip takes less than an hour; on foot, the journey would last several days, and the traveler would see a lot more of the landscape, people, and transitions between larger and smaller cities, villages, and bare land than the computer screen image out there beyond the train window. Notions on walking accompany the visitor as he progresses through Francis Alys’ first German retrospective in the Wolfsburg Kunsmuseum, titled Walking Distance from the Studio – not only because Alys built constructions into the otherwise horizontal exhibition spaces, leading the viewer up and down stairs in roughly made cabinets, but also because the theme of walking carries like a red thread throughout the works of the 1959-born Belgian artist. Alys, who lives in Mexico City, walks, or rather undertakes paseos, somewhat more sonorous than mere walks. Sometimes he carries a can with paint running out in a fine line that marks the path he’s taken, sometimes his sweater unravels step by step, like in Fairy Tales (1994). For the exhibition NowHere from 1996, he walked for a week through Copenhagen, ingesting a different drug each day. A year later, he took one of the large blocks of ice street vendors use to cool their drinks and pushed it through the streets of his native city. The rapidly melting ice left an evaporating trail of water, and after a few hours, the artist was kicking a small ice cube along; finally, there was nothing more than a trickling puddle in the street. All that remains of the work is the documentary film titled Paradox of Praxis and, additionally, Sometimes when I do something it leads to nothing.

Fairy Tales, 1994 coloured photography
©The artist

Aimlessness is a recurrent characteristic of these works, which appear as counter-models to our eminently efficient world. The Berlin exhibition is taking place parallel to the Wolfsburg exhibition on the occasion of the77,000-Euro Blue Orange Prize, which has been awarded for the first time this year; here, visitors are met with a red VW Bug struggling up a hill again and again. A band rehearsal can be heard on a loudspeaker as accompaniment. Each time the car rolls up the hill and almost reaches the top in Alys videoinstallation The Rehearsal (1999-2004), the music stops and the car rolls back down. Or is it the other way around? Does the music stop because the motor isn’t powerful enough to climb the hill, as with so many of the dilapidated cars driving around the streets of Mexico? In his perfectly choreographed actions, Alys allows for both perspectives. Drawings, sketches, and models provide information on the making of the film installation, demonstrating that there’s a precise planner at work here who nonetheless accords chance and uncertainty an equal voice in his work.

Video Still from
"The Rehearsal" (1999-2004)
©The artist
The Rehearsal, Installation view, Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition,
Berlin, 2004


This unpretentious, almost random quality is also reflected in the presentation of his works: in Wolfsburg, canvases lean against the wall or lie on the floor. In Berlin, it was said at the opening in Martin Gropius Bau that only a single installation was originally planned. But then the artist had enough material in his luggage alone to fill several rooms: with video projections and the small, waxy-looking paintings that are echoed throughout the exhibition like déjà vus. Alys doesn’t create massive sculptures for eternity, but mobile and sometimes absurd art that essentially takes place in the mind and at the moment it is being made – entirely in the tradition of the Situationists and the Fluxus movement.

l'adoration des images, 2001
Deutsche Bank Collection
Study for la Bataille du Bien & du Mal, 2001
Deutsche Bank Collection

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