‘The Use of Rumour in the work of Francis Alÿs’
The work of Francis Alÿs is heard of before it is seen. The rumour precedes the reality. Instead of conforming to the notion that art can only truly be experienced first-hand, Alÿs embraces rumour: “Maybe you don’t need to see the work, you just need to hear about it”. For an artist who uses walking, shovelling, sheep and dribbling paint as his materials, rumour becomes another medium at his disposal. Rumour implies a certain ratio of truth to untruth, as the basic information of an art work is tailored to the needs of those communicating it and their audience. Yet Alÿs’ work is celebrated amongst contemporary artists because of its conceptual strength, co-created with rumour and able to withstand it.
If we take the desire to create rumours or spread stories to be a conscious element of Alÿs’ work then ‘I’m Not Here: An Exhibition without Francis Alÿs’ was perhaps his first retrospective, before ‘A Story of Deception’ at the Tate Modern, in 2010. In the earlier exhibition, he was implied rather than specifically referenced, existing as a thought amongst the thoughts and works of 14 other artists. Alÿs became a memory, the subject of artistic discussion without actually being present. His ideas existed in the form of his own ‘non-action’, appearing in artistic efforts which were, and were not, his own. Alÿs wrote that “sometimes to make nothing is to make something”, and his work depends on him as both a protagonist and choreographer as well as his identity as a gringo, a foreigner and voyeur. He offers the public his art for their own distribution, further emphasizing his role as an outsider from his own work. Rumour becomes part of the character of the artist as well as a characteristic of his art.
Alÿs’ actions and performances range from the dramatic through to elaborate games or pranks. In Re-enactments, 2000, he walked through Mexico City brandishing a newly bought firearm waiting for the police to arrest him. The same artist documented an elaborate early morning game of sardines in the City of London, with Coldstream Guards in full ceremonial dress (Guards, 2005). Yet the tabloid demands of the public, when it comes to modern art, are wasted on Alÿs. He maintains a sense of humour and enjoyment that does not detract from meaning or message. The spectacle of Alÿs’ work is combined with subtlety, allowing his pieces to evolve through the assumptions and interpretations of the viewer to be either childishly simple or the height of social and political comment. Compare the absurdity of a man chasing a tornado (Tornado Milpa Alta, 2000-10) with the quiet statement of his photographs featuring the homeless and dogs, sleeping on the streets of Mexico City in Sleepers, of 1997-2002. Alÿs therefore relies on the audience to provide the performance element of his art and to enhance it through rumour. The audience may see Alÿs’ actions as foolhardy stunts or meaningless acts without any objective, but A Story of Deception showed the careful formulation of his ideas through drawings, photographs and plans, perhaps reflecting his training as an architect. The rumour that Alÿs work produces may be formless or beyond his control, but its source is constructed with the greatest care.
The desire to gossip or spread a tale is not necessarily created out of a wish to criticise and ridicule, but an attempt to communicate or revive an experience lest it should be forgotten. However this implies that the individual’s imagination and interpretation becomes just as, or even more important than the artist’s own realisation. Articles or reviews of Alÿs’ work tend to begin with a description: a fox watched by CCTV as it moves around London’s National Gallery at night, a man pushing a block of ice across Mexico…Literary accounts are highly evocative and convey the poetry of Alÿs’ art. Nevertheless they stimulate the imagination to the point where the idea itself inspires and the image is valued less.
Rumour is therefore important in the fabrication of Alÿs’ art, but may eventually detract from the original piece or the artist’s intention. Alÿs is not daunted by this idea, but sees rumour as a means of preservation. The story of the artist who persuaded 500 students in Lima, Peru to move a sand dune (When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002) soon becomes the legend of how a 1600ft mound of sand was moved by only about four inches. The task sounds like a mythical labour or a miracle. Rumour becomes the premonition of the event, and spreads during and directly after the task is undertaken. But rumour becomes myth when the actions become history. Alÿs wrote of this attempt “to infiltrate the local history and mythology of Peruvian society (including its art histories), to insert another rumour into its narratives”. This feat can be seen as the deliberate creation of a story, a self-manufactured rumour to be communicated and passed down the generations.