From the Ministry of Silly Walks: Francis Alÿs at David Zwirner, New York, Winter 2007

Francis Alys. <em>SOMETIMES DOING SOMETHING POETIC CAN BECOME POLITICAL AND SOMETIMES DOING SOMETHING POLITICAL CAN BECOME POETIC</em>, 2005. Video projection, hard drive, touch screen, DVD, 5 mdf tables, framed map, works on paper, photo collages, 1 painting, 1 wood gun sculpture. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

Francis Alys. SOMETIMES DOING SOMETHING POETIC CAN BECOME POLITICAL AND SOMETIMES DOING SOMETHING POLITICAL CAN BECOME POETIC, 2005. Video projection, hard drive, touch screen, DVD, 5 mdf tables, framed map, works on paper, photo collages, 1 painting, 1 wood gun sculpture. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

Though my Stone Roses T-shirt provided little cushioning, the Kalashnikov’s barrel didn’t much hurt when the militiaman used it to prod at my chest. I kept asking myself why I felt so calm. A general placidity blossomed in me like an opiate as soon as the barefoot man appeared with his rifle, seemingly out of nowhere, but the questions nagged. Why did I feel so calm? And also: Why wouldn’t he look me in the eyes? He was doing the talking, in Swahili or so I guessed. Hands up, frozen in my tracks, I could only gesture with small jerks of my head and with my eyes. How much faith I placed, in those slow moments, in what I considered to be the hypnotic effect of my piteous gaze. Yes, look in my bag. Yes, I have no weapons. Yes, take what you want. At last I burst out, “I am a tourist here…American!”

What was I doing there, then? It was late March, 1993. I was a New Jersey teenager crossing the world on a belt of sweaty traveler’s checks. Years earlier, I’d once heard the name of the beach where I stood, in a late-night movie starring Charles Bronson. The one in which an Israeli delta force pulls off a daring midnight maneuver, saves a group of hostages, blows away a couple dozen soldiers, and arouses the fury of a continent.

If the militiaman had taken the time to sift my backpack, rather than just rummage around in the clothes at the top and afterwards walk off in apparent boredom, he would have found my paperback copy of the Varèse translation of Illuminations. On the cover, Rimbaud’s debauched choirboy pout has been enlarged until Benday dots partially obscure its menace. If the militiaman and I had shared a tongue, I might have told him truthfully that this was the man I had followed into Africa. I may have been waiting for a launch on the Entebbe peninsula because the Lonely Planet guide praised the beaches and monkeys of the Ssese archipelago, but I had come to Africa because Arthur Rimbaud promised that “Women pamper fierce invalids returned from hot countries,” because he asked, “What will become of the world when you leave?” and because he answered: “No matter what happens, no trace of now will remain.”

Rimbaud’s life story strongly informed the way I then understood poetry and politics to be polar opposites. Here was a poet of seemingly bottomless irony whose lines seethed with invective against, among many targets, an emotionally stingy mother and the hypocrites he considered responsible for the failure of the 1871 Commune, yet who in his verses achingly mourned the loss of a realm of pure poetry and imagination that had once thrived, or so he sometimes convinced himself and some of his readers, at a certain remove from the quotidian and its disillusionments. To practice poetry, he argued, one must inculcate a manner of madness, such that through disordered eyes one would see changes in the world. Why barter in shopworn terms when one could write spells that might work real magic?

Rimbaud gave up poetry at 20 or 21 to take up, among other odd trades, gunrunning in Africa. In Mallarmé’s words, Rimbaud “rejected dreams” and “amputated from himself, wide awake, all trace of poetry.” Here was a mystery of extreme fascination. To me, Rimbaud’s abdication of poetry in favor of war profiteering seemed proof that poems and politics couldn’t be mixed, or at least not without some bastardry (as in the case, for example, of Neruda). But at the same time I couldn’t quite agree with Mallarmé that Rimbaud had rejected dreams. Base though Rimbaud’s self- proclaimed motives may have been, his flight from Europe demonstrated a lust for adventure, for praxis however misguided and anarchic. It isn’t enough to say that Rimbaud had failed poetry or that poetry had failed him. Perhaps he chose to exercise different muscles in his outstretched arm, rather than hack it off. There is, I came to believe, a poetics of action to place beside the poetics of language—and a poetry of terrible or final gestures that are translated into curious, regretful, awestruck, or idle phrases by those who retell and retail the stories of such gestures.

Francis Alÿs is striving as strenuously as did Rimbaud to construct a legend about himself, and not only about himself. When Alÿs quit practicing architecture in the late eighties and adopted Mexico City as his home base, he noticed the way jobless people stood mutely in the streets holding handwritten signs advertising their various skills: plumber, carpenter, bricklayer, etc. So Alÿs wrote túrista on a piece of cardboard and planted himself in front of the Cathedral. A witty act. Many tourists spend handsomely for an experience not entirely unlike that of joblessness. They pay to perform the priceless and non-remunerative work of, by turns, aimless wandering and rapt observation, expectant waiting and restorative boredom. And tourists, of course, help foot the bill for other things, including such repressive regimes as those that rule Mexico and the United States. Yet who in their right mind would pay a tourist simply to be a tourist?

The repressive government of Israel does, for starters. Organizations like Mayanot (see www.mayanotisrael.com) offer “free trips to Israel for Jewish college students and young adults” on which they may “enjoy adventurous touring and exciting activities” with “passionate and knowledgeable Israeli tour guides” and IDF troops. Most countries expect tourists to pay in order to visit, and feel good about, their lands. Israel—which polled first as the nation most dangerous to world peace in a recent worldwide survey, just outranking the United States and Iran—warms the memories of U.S. voters at its own expense. And with good returns, to judge by the Web sites. “Mayanot was so awesome! The best group of people, the best soldiers!” writes one all-expenses-paid tourist in a featured testimonial.

In the summer of 2004, when Francis Alÿs came to Jerusalem to create the work he would later call “Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic,” Israel was building miles of separation walls further cutting off the occupied territories and restricting the movement of their Palestinian inhabitants. Professor Tanya Reinhart of Tel Aviv University gives an excellent account of this period in her 2006 book The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine since 2003, from which I will quote here at some length because clear-sighted perspectives such as hers can be hard to locate in the U.S. media:

“From mid-2002 onwards, the entire West Bank and Gaza once again came under direct Israeli military occupation. The current Israeli leadership, which has no intention of ever giving up these territories, needed to devise a long-term method of control over millions of occupied people. The solution that has been developed under Sharon is a complex system of prisons, in which the Palestinians are being pushed into locked and sealed enclaves, fully controlled from the outside by the Israeli army, which also enters them at will. As far as I am aware, this imprisonment of a whole people is an unprecedented model of occupation—and it is being executed with frightening speed and efficiency.”

A recent study conducted by the U.N. found that of “57 communities located close to the West Bank Barrier…six out of ten did not have access to their land because of the barrier.”

Francis Alÿs’ show at David Zwirner thus addresses a situation in which basic freedoms of movement and access are being prevented by Israeli force. In this context Alÿs’ film of an unhindered two-day stroll across Jerusalem takes on a political valence. There Alÿs goes, holding a paint can dripping a trail of green. He ambles past a child playing with a ball, climbs up and down Mt. Zion, and strides along the road guarded by an IDF soldier. We see half-buried train tracks, a superhighway overpass, schoolkids at recess.

Alÿs walks the rough length, through Jerusalem, of the Green Line marked on a map by Moshe Dayan at the end of the 1948 War, and which divided the city of Jerusalem until the 1967 War placed it in the hands of the Israeli government. Why does Alÿs walk unchallenged? What do the various people who observe him—from their houses and cars, from checkpoints and market stalls—make of his gait? The DVD includes a number of commentary tracks from Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals, most of whom sound bitter and bemused by turns. If the Green Line has sometimes been thought of as a potential future border separating peaceful and sovereign Israeli and Palestinian states, few are holding out much hope for such a resolution any time soon.

Yet it is more interesting, perhaps, to imagine the reactions of the people one can, thanks to the film, see witnessing Alÿs’ walk as it occurs. For in casting himself as a Diogenes dripping paint in the noonday sun, Alÿs also self-consciously plays a Pilate who arranges for the spectacle of his gesture’s execution—the film’s two days of walking are separated by a close-up of Alÿs washing his hands. Unlike us, the witnesses one glimpses in the film would have seen the cameras filming Alÿs’ walk. What questions do they ask themselves and what stories will they tell? It seems likely that Alÿs’ poetic and determinedly clownish action entered politics at the level of storytelling, if only to leave a trace that was as quickly obscured as the thin line of paint he laid down along an imaginary border which is no less real for being so. Stories about borders and the conquest of land inform out identities as political actors, or as the victims of political oppression. And stories about free movement may kindle political action.

“Because it is centrally located in the gesture, not the image,” Giorgio Agamben argues, “cinema essentially ranks with ethics and politics (and not merely with aesthetics).” As political cinema, Alÿs’ gangly shuffle follows in the humane footsteps of such great silent films as Chaplin’s Kid and Keaton’s General. Like these films, Alÿs’ work focuses on and disseminates gestures provoking vital questions about the social and political landscapes in which these gestures move.

Clearly aware that he was another poet bringing guns of another kind into a hot country, Alÿs displayed at Zwirner a large number of brightly-colored toy guns fashioned with the help of Mexican artists from scraps of wood, plastic tubing, and film reels. While we were at the show, my friend Matt Longabucco asked, “So if we grabbed some of these guns and played war here in the gallery, would that be a political or a poetic act?”

An excellent question, but one which I believe is anticipated by this artist. Alÿs is a canny tramp, leveraging the gallery’s constraints on the free movement of those who tour it. With mute eloquence, Alÿs’ work shows that it is not enough to worry how political or poetic a gesture may be. People may also take it upon themselves to walk in strange and different ways, out of history and into a new story.

This entry was posted in ISSUE #2 SPRING/SUMMER 2007 Tagged: , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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