Four years ago, the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs displayed one of his best works in years, “The Green Line,” at Chelsea’s David Zwirner Gallery. With a characteristically axiomatic subtitle — “Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political, and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic” — it gave an artist’s askance view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and achieved that rare artistic feat: chastising the political status quo without becoming either cynical or simplistic.
For the work, a performance piece, Alÿs walked with a leaking can of green paint along the original 1948 “Green Line” border in Jerusalem. The border was created by Israeli general Moshe Dayan after Israel’s War of Independence, an armistice line essentially dividing Jerusalem in half: Israel got the western side, Arabs got the east. In the 1967 war, Israel captured all of Jerusalem, making the boundary moot. But in recent years the Green Line has taken on renewed significance: if the Palestinians get a UN-recognized state in September, and Israel accepts it, a similar border will likely be the compromise both states will have to strike.
Given the timeliness of “The Green Line,” its omission from the Museum of Modern Art’s new retrospective of Alÿs career, “Francis Alys: A Story of Deception,” is a disappointment. “The Green Line” was included in the Tate Modern’s version of the exhibit, where the show originated last year, and given the CUNY board’s recent snubbing of the playwright Tony Kushner for his views on Israel (it eventually reversed course), it’s not unreasonable to suspect a similar dynamic was in play.
But interviews with the Tate Modern show’s curator, Mark Godfrey, and representatives of MoMA and the David Zwirner Gallery assured me that that was not the case. MOMA’s exhibit was based mainly on works the museum owns itself, they said, and for those works it did not own and was showing anyway, it wanted pieces that had not been recently seen in New York. So out were searing works like “The Green Line,” and in were interesting, though basically innocuous, pieces like “Patriotic Tales,” about a 1968 student protest in Mexico, where the artist now lives.
Yet the MOMA show is not a total failure. In fact, a closer look at some of the better works on view illuminate what made “The Green Line” such a powerful work to begin with, showing the artist’s sincere engagement with a wide range of a political issues and the underlying philosophy that unites his entire oeuvre.
Take for instance “Paradox of Praxis 1,” which visitors see when they begin the MoMA exhibit. Like “The Green Line,” which was made in 2005, “Praxis,” made eight years before, contains a similar axiomatic subtitle: “Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing.” And more important, it reflects a similar political temperament: exasperation at innumerable political failures.
“Praxis” has Alÿs, 51, pushing a trunk-size block of ice through the streets of Mexico City. After nine hours the block eventually melts down to little more than a cube. As the catalogue says, the work parodies “the massive disproportion between effort and result in much of Latin American life.”
Other works on view have a similar allegory: “Tornado,” which the artist has been making over the past 10 years, films Alÿs trying to enter the eye of tornados, which consistently wreak havoc near Mexico City.
“Rehearsal I (Ensayo I)” (1999-2001) has a slightly lighter touch, filming a red Volkswagen Beetle racing up a hill on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. In the background, we hear a mariachi band, which, when it pauses, cues the car to stop, Musical Chairs-like. As expected the car never crests the hill, embodying all Mexico’s failed attempts to catch up to modernity.
Then there’s “When Faith Moves Mountains” (2002), one of the show’s most poignant works. It shows the Sisyphean efforts of 500 Peruvian volunteers digging up and moving, if only by a few inches, a massive sand dune on the outskirts of Lima. Alÿs was trying, allegorically, to subvert the soaring political goals of so many Latin American dictators.
In this case, he was casting doubt on imploding regime of Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, as well as the transitional government taking his place. Both governments were calling for mass collective action that, the artist suggested, augured few tangible gains. “The action vividly exemplified the principle of ‘maximum effort, minimum result’,” Godfrey writes in his illuminating catalogue essay.
But rescuing the work from smug artistic cynicism was this: Alÿs’ insistence that the work not only symbolize the futility of political acts, but also the noble idealism that politics can often harness. The wall texts and catalogue make clear that Alÿs took as much pride in the fact that the project happened at all, that he was able to get 500 Peruvians, many of them poor, to volunteer for such an absurd artistic act.
The participants gave up a day’s labor for a project they knew was about failure. Perhaps some of them were duped, thinking there would be an undisclosed prize at the end of their effort. Certainly others simply had nothing better to do — though that would only add to the artist’s argument about wasted talent. Yet in the end you walk away strangely comforted, grateful to be a mere witness to people working together, and with purpose.
Alÿs, however, was not satisfied with “When Faith Moves Mountains,” perhaps his most famous work to date, and wanted his future works to improve upon it. As Godfrey told me in an interview from London, “He thought [‘When Faith Moves Mountains’] was too poetic, too ambiguous.” Godfrey cautioned against assuming any one work evolved directly in response to another, but he noted that by the time Alÿs got to Jerusalem to begin “The Green Line,” he “wanted to do a work that dealt with borders in a more explicit manner.”
For an artist who looks for universal appeal no matter how particular his subjects, Jerusalem has unquestionable allure. It is a hotly contested city whose borders have forever been in flux. Though the work’s politics are, perhaps needless to say, liberal, they’re neither unyielding nor naïve. Seeing the work in the David Zwirner exhibit in 2007, you immediately got the impression that Dayan’s proposed border was absurd. But you also realized that a city of such complexity could never be easily shared.
“Like a number of his works, it can be read in many ways,” Godfrey told me. “There is a sense that one day these people will share a city, but it’s also an issue that will be very difficult to resolve.”
As Alÿs walked with his dripping paint can, he sliced through backyards, buildings and revered historical sites. Wall texts at the David Zwirner exhibit and at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2005, where the work premiered, made a point of highlighting the fecklessness of Dayan’s border: Dayan drew the line on a map with a blunt green pen, which, when scaled to life-size, was sometimes hundreds of feet wide.
But there were hopeful elements in Alÿs’ work too. The film hovered over an image of Alÿs’ painted line slowly being washed away as Jews and Arabs actually living in the city crossed heedlessly over it. It was as if to say Jerusalem’s fate would be decided by those who lived there, not the wily politicians who gave their Sturm and Drang speeches from on high.
As part of the project, Alÿs also interviewed Israelis and Palestinians for their reaction to his work, selecting 11 of them to be screened alongside the main film. The interviews were meant to get Alÿs out of the comfortable, pretentious role of artist-as-social-critic, in which the artist offers wry political commentary but not much more. They were also intended to be a model for what any eventual solution to the conflict would entail: dialogue.
I asked Roberta Smith, The New York Times art critic who recently reviewed Alÿs’ MoMA show, if should thought including “The Green Line” would have made the exhibit better. “I think it was an error not to include the ‘Green Line’ piece,” she told me in an e-mail. “In my view, it would have sharpened it a bit, and made it less underwhelming.” She added that it would not have changed her overall review, however.
Alÿs is one of today’s leading conceptualist artists, and while his works can sometimes be too obvious or too obtuse, many of them capture that difficult mix of nuance, wit and earnestness he strives for with obvious care. To be sure, other works missing in MoMA’s show would have captured those qualities too. The piece Alÿs created shortly after “The Green Line,” for instance, is one: called “Bridge/Puente” (2006), it took aim at the America’s immigration policy towards Cuba.
In 2005, Alÿs read a story in the newspaper about a dispute over Cuban immigrants trying to make their way to Florida. As it stands, U.S. law gives asylum to Cubans captured on American soil, but not ones caught at sea. But that year federal agents found Cuban immigrants on a bridge in Key West, resulting in a legal dispute over whether a bridge counted as land or sea.
Appreciating the irony, Alÿs came up with an even more absurd idea: he would create a bridge out of 150 boats that, when videotaped, appeared to connect Havana to Key West. He got Cuban and Floridian fishermen to participate, having them line up their boats from their respective coasts, and filmed them as they walked out from their shores toward the other country.
You can see the video on Alÿs’ website, and read about it in the MoMA exhibit catalogue. But even simply knowing about “Bridge/Puente” makes it clear that “Green Line” isn’t essential to an improved MoMA exhibit, and that having others included would have done the job too. But my guess is that “Bridge/Puente” would have been hard to conceive if the artist hadn’t completed “Green Line” before it.
Both works pithily rebuke political borders, question boundaries and call attention to absurd political stalemates. Not showing either in MoMA’s show can perhaps best be called a missed opportunity. Which, come to think of it, may just be another part of the show itself, another of Alÿs’ ceaseless performances. For what is politics if not a series of missed opportunities?
“Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception” is on view at both the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., (212) 708-9400, and MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, Queens, (718) 784-2084. Through Aug. 1.