Francis Alys’ La dépense at Rockbund: If You Build it, They Will Come

Installation view of “Francis Alÿs: La dépense”, Rockbund Art Museum, 2018. Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum.
Installation view of “Francis Alÿs: La dépense”, Rockbund Art Museum, 2018. Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum.
Francis Alÿs, A Story of Deception, Patagonia, Argentina, 2003 – 2006, 16mm film, color, silent, 4:20 min., loop. In collaboration with Olivier Debroise and Rafael Ortega.
Francis Alÿs, Le Temps du sommeil, 1996 to present, oil, encaustic, crayon and collage on wood in 111 parts, each: 11.5 × 15.5 cm
Installation view of “Francis Alÿs: La dépense”, Rockbund Art Museum, 2018
Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum
Francis Alÿs, The Loop Paintings, 1997, oil on wood in 6 parts, dimensions variable
Francis Alÿs, The Loop Paintings, 1997, oil on wood in 6 parts, dimensions variable
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Video Art Asia by COBOSocial.com

Amidst a stellar list of impressive exhibitions opening during Shanghai Art week, Francis Alys’ La depense at Rockbund museum proves to be a highlight featuring profoundly moving political works which compel viewers to reflect upon and confront challenging global issues.

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum

Installation view of “Francis Alÿs: La dépense”, Rockbund Art Museum, 2018. Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum.

 

Contemporary China, and the new Chinese middle class that is the intended audience of exhibitions at museums like Shanghai’s Rockbund, Beijing’s Ullens Center, and Guangzhou’s Times Museum, has an ambivalent relationship with the questions of social justice that have preoccupied the Western art world during recent years. On one hand, China has internally experienced the largest population transfer in human history, in the form of rural to urban migration; on the other hand, with the exception of a handful of expat foreigners in Shanghai and Beijing, middle eastern traders in Yiwu, and the so-called “chocolate city” in Guangzhou’s Xiaobei, China remains a monoethnic and nationalistic society, likely to be equally, if not more harsh on refugee and migration issues than Western societies have been. Additionally, if China’s government is leading the global fight against climate change, the Chinese economy and its growth is by far the largest contributor to carbon emissions worldwide. Enter Shanghai’s Rockbund Museum: a space in which the public can consider their own roles in pressing global issues such as climate change and the refugee crisis. By commissioning a show featuring works by Francis Alys, they’ve picked one of the most consistently political contemporary artists working today, addressing challenging issues of power, violence, and marginalized populations for decades. Alys’s work, considered intelligent and difficult to categorize or judge, proves to be a a stark contrast to the instagram friendly exhibits at the simultaneous art fairs ongoing in the city. 

What does climate change feel like? First, in the absence of a political organization intended to fight the carbon emitters, we will never experience climate change as part of a global process; instead, storms, air and water pollution, or freak weather events feel like unfair punishments inflicted upon us at random. Second, it is rarely experienced by the rich, but rather by the marginalized populations on the edge of the city. In Alys’ video piece Tornado, the artist drove south of Mexico City to visit the tornado zone, running into the wind, camera in hand, dust chaotically blowing around, he tries to make sense of what is going on. Climate change cannot be observed all at once, in the way that, for example, a Jeff Koons sculpture can; it is a tapestry of diverse human experiences happening all over the globe, and only new mythologies or grand narratives, of the kind that Alys’ work strives to be, can make sense of them.

 

Installation view of “Francis Alÿs: La dépense”, Rockbund Art Museum, 2018. Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum.

 

Alys Untitled (2018) is a parable of our world’s slow self-destruction: A plastic bag is filled with air, and a bread roll is placed on top. As time passes, the air slowly leaks out and the bread begins to decay. While this process is too subtle for the human eye to detect, the transformation will eventually manifest as an accumulation of… change over time… which the viewer is never able to fully comprehend in any given moment. 

The history of our present moment is, as philosopher Timothy Morton has suggested, too complex to take in using traditional languages; we must create new powerful images and mythologies (which Morton calls “hyperobjects”) to convey the reality that we are destroying the earth for idle and vain reasons. Unfortunately, the art world has not always been a space for imagining collective futures. Rather, it is complicit in the consumerist ideology of constant production of new things for their own sake, in the isolating and atomizing technologies of social media, and in the state-sponsored violence being conducted against refugees of climate change and the civil conflicts that have come in its wake. George Didi-Huberman, in a caustic essay about Ai Weiwei’s refugee film “Human Flow,” writes “we understand that the artist, in his film, is not only the director of these images but also their protagonist: he is looking at himself looking at refugees…At one point he is yet again being filmed, filming himself with a placard on his chest reading ‘Stand #WithRefugees’, as though he were a lone demonstrator. Above the slogan large, handwritten capital letters read: ‘AI WEIWEI’. He has known for a long time –since Duchamp, since Warhol – that an artist is primarily someone who signs things and whose signature is worth something.” In the art world, there are many people enriching themselves by making idle complaints, but not many willing to share the experience of everyday reality of human communities around the world. In this sense, Alys’s positioning of himself at street level, rather than that from an omniscient, Godlike stature, makes it easier for us to consider what we ourselves should be doing. He is one of us; in seeing his work, in fact, we become more aware that an “us,” a group sharing the experience of climate change, even exists. Alys moved to Mexico City in 1985 in order to help reconstruct the city after an earthquake, and he has stayed there ever since.

 

Francis Alÿs, A Story of Deception, Patagonia, Argentina, 2003 – 2006, 16mm film, color, silent, 4:20 min., loop. In collaboration with Olivier Debroise and Rafael Ortega.
Francis Alÿs, Le Temps du sommeil, 1996 to present, oil, encaustic, crayon and collage on wood in 111 parts, each: 11.5 × 15.5 cm

 

I first became aware of Alys’ work at the MALBA in Buenos Aires in the year 2006, where his work Patagonia 2004 –2006. A Story of Deception / Historia de un desengaño, (also currently  exhibited at the Rockbund) was being shown. My family had a vague plan to leave the United States, which under the presidency of George W. Bush seemed to be lurching alarmingly rightward; as an American, I thought it would be a good idea to learn Spanish anyway. On my way back home, I would pass demonstrations of the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” protesting disappearances under the former military junta.  Once the Chinatown area, the owner of the Chinese grocery store I frequented told me that the Chinese emigrated to Argentina not to live there long term, but because it was easier to emigrate from Argentina to the US, than it was from China. The perspective of a privileged but uncomfortable observer of tidal waves of refugees,  reeling from  the aftermath of authoritarian rule, is one that many, if not all, art world citizens have cultivated. We are aware of the oligarchs; sometimes we see them at Art Basel, or the after-parties. We know, perhaps more theoretically, about the refugees and zones of mass poverty in the Mediterranean, in Latin America, in Africa, and across Asia. Rich enough for economy class, too poor for business class, the art world is a community of people who are privileged in their access to knowledge about the contours of the global economy and the unsustainable ways that populations, territories and natural ecosystems are used by that economy. The question that arises is how can we translate this anxious and fearful subjectivity, created by information overload, into an ability to transform the conditions of our collective life?

 

Installation view of “Francis Alÿs: La dépense”, Rockbund Art Museum, 2018
Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum

 

On June 1, 1997, in order to go from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego, California, Francis Alys avoided a land crossing; instead, he flew around the world, 14 cities in a month, participating in mass tourism; he cited the language barrier in Shanghai as having led him on a path to consciousness via alienation, and he saved paintings, a diary, and a thousand postcards, shown in the Rockbund. What did you do, in order to live with yourself and the knowledge that in order to sustain your existence, it was necessary to participate in a system of global apartheid, with human beings treated radically differently on the basis of their national origin, with certain countries and ecosystems utterly destroyed for the profit of consumerist driven corporate profits, which are recycled into an art world experiencing record sales every year? Alys looked, listened, and recorded what he saw, at every moment treating the “other” people in the world he encountered as human beings; his observations, which he shares with us here, are his art. Today, on the US-Mexico border that Alys took a month to cross, tense citizens are waiting for the “Caravan,” their fearful posture a militarized expression of middle-class paranoia about climate refugees interrupting our long afternoon of prosperous boredom. If art is to have a meaning, it must be in providing us alternatives to this brutality; in giving us a space to articulate collectively sensed truths. 

 

Francis Alÿs, The Loop Paintings, 1997, oil on wood in 6 parts, dimensions variable
Francis Alÿs, The Loop Paintings, 1997, oil on wood in 6 parts, dimensions variable

 

 

Francis Alys – La depense
9 Nov, 2018 – 24 Feb 2019
Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

 

 

About the Artist

Francis Alÿs was born in Belgium in 1959 and trained as an architect before re-locating to Mexico City in 1986, where he has been based ever since. He is best known for his actions, which he documents in various ways, some merely involving the artist walking through the city. Others are epic-scale events set in dramatic landscapes bringing together hundreds of participants. Alÿs also works with painting, animation, and drawing, with many of the images he creates having a dreamlike surreal quality. His actions are frequently humorous, often transient, and can sometimes seem absurd, and yet they are always concise and carefully planned. For a long time Alÿs has been interested in spreading news about his work through unconventional means such as rumor, allowing audiences to interpret his projects in unpredictable ways. Each of these poetic qualities contributes to Alÿs’ idiosyncratic way of approaching questions to do with urbanism, economics, migration, and borders. Throughout his career he has particularly investigated the processes of modernization in Mexico and Latin America.

 


 

Jacob Dreyer is a Shanghai-based writer and editor. Recently, he has edited a special issue of LEAP magazine, and contributed to The Atlantic City Lab, the Architectural Review, and Domus. His book The Nocturnal Wandererhas recently been published by Eros Press; he is researching a second book about urban space and the creative economy in China.

 

 

 
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