The Socially Engaged Art Of Francis Alÿs (Hania Afifi)

 

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Francis Alÿs, collection of portraits of Saint Fabiola, National Portrait Gallery, 
London.

At 09:00 AM on Sunday June 23, 2002, the 12-person Peruvian brass band, Banda de Santa Cecilia, began playing solemn subdued rhythms in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, signaling the start of Francis Alÿs’s The Modern Procession. The band was accompanied by several dogs, a horse and one hundred participants carrying numerous palanquins atop which sat replicas of three iconic modern art pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made Bicycle Wheel, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alberto Giacometti’s Woman of Venice in addition to a living representative of contemporary artist, Kiki Smith (Image 1).

At 09:00 AM on Sunday June 23, 2002, the 12-person Peruvian brass band, Banda de Santa Cecilia, began playing solemn subdued rhythms in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, signaling the start of Francis Alÿs’s . The band was accompanied by several dogs, a horse and one hundred participants carrying numerous palanquins atop which sat replicas of three iconic modern art pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made , Pablo Picasso’s and Alberto Giacometti’s in addition to a living representative of contemporary artist, Kiki Smith .

At 09:00 AM on Sunday June 23, 2002, the 12-person Peruvian brass band, Banda de Santa Cecilia, began playing solemn subdued rhythms in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, signaling the start of Francis Alÿs’s . The band was accompanied by several dogs, a horse and one hundred participants carrying numerous palanquins atop which sat replicas of three iconic modern art pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made , Pablo Picasso’s and Alberto Giacometti’s in addition to a living representative of contemporary artist, Kiki Smith .

At 09:00 AM on Sunday June 23, 2002, the 12-person Peruvian brass band, Banda de Santa Cecilia, began playing solemn subdued rhythms in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, signaling the start of Francis Alÿs’s . The band was accompanied by several dogs, a horse and one hundred participants carrying numerous palanquins atop which sat replicas of three iconic modern art pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made , Pablo Picasso’s and Alberto Giacometti’s in addition to a living representative of contemporary artist, Kiki Smith .

At 09:00 AM on Sunday June 23, 2002, the 12-person Peruvian brass band, Banda de Santa Cecilia, began playing solemn subdued rhythms in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, signaling the start of Francis Alÿs’s . The band was accompanied by several dogs, a horse and one hundred participants carrying numerous palanquins atop which sat replicas of three iconic modern art pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made , Pablo Picasso’s and Alberto Giacometti’s in addition to a living representative of contemporary artist, Kiki Smith .

At 09:00 AM on Sunday June 23, 2002, the 12-person Peruvian brass band, Banda de Santa Cecilia, began playing solemn subdued rhythms in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, signaling the start of Francis Alÿs’s . The band was accompanied by several dogs, a horse and one hundred participants carrying numerous palanquins atop which sat replicas of three iconic modern art pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made , Pablo Picasso’s and Alberto Giacometti’s in addition to a living representative of contemporary artist, Kiki Smith .

At 09:00 AM on Sunday June 23, 2002, the 12-person Peruvian brass band, Banda de Santa Cecilia, began playing solemn subdued rhythms in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, signaling the start of Francis Alÿs’s The Modern Procession. The band was accompanied by several dogs, a horse and one hundred participants carrying numerous palanquins atop which sat replicas of three iconic modern art pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made Bicycle Wheel, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alberto Giacometti’s Woman of Venice in addition to a living representative of contemporary artist, Kiki Smith (Image 1).

This spectacle ran from 11 West 53 street, over the Queensboro Bridge and up Queens Boulevard, attracting an additional one hundred participants off the streets of New York City in its realization. Like many contemporary participatory pieces, it was a socially collaborative work of art that was conceived in public space. Through its realization, it made an extravagant public statement with regards to contemporary values and institutions.

Artists have long grappled with the idea of dissolving the boundaries between art and ‘real life.’ This would produce a utopian ideal where the art world melts into public life and where artworks are no longer confined to an allocated physical space inside art institutions or the framework of the art world, wherein art

has a ‘useful’ role which enriches the lives of people.  Claire Bishop quotes Dan Graham in her essay, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents”: “all artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art” (59).

Francis Alÿs is one of the artists who shares this vision. He strives to produce artwork that engages with members of the public often bringing them together in a similar manner to that of The Modern Procession. Alternatively, if the social congregation is missing from the final piece, he ensures that it raises concerns about a collective social concern for a particular community. Godfrey notes of Alÿs’s practice in “Politics/Poetics: The Work of Francis Alÿs,” from Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception that “he manages to find poetic and imaginative ways to address the urgent political and economic crisis of contemporary life … his strategy of creating imaginative actions to address real- world subject invites us to assess the relationship between poetics and politics” (9).

Indeed, The Modern Procession seized the occasion of MOMA’s temporary relocation – from affluent Manhattan where New York’s ‘high culture’ resides to the borough of Queens, home to a large population of immigrants and whose economy revolves around manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities – to question the role and place of art in New Yorker’s daily lives. As Godfrey notes: “to intervene in the temporary relocation of the Museum of Modern Art of New York … involved a questioning of the ‘consecrated’ status of art in modernity … the action tested the concept of the Museum as warehouse of treasures” (131).

Andrea Fraser, in “There’s No Place Like Home” from Whitney Biennial 2012, claims that both Alӱs and Fraser believe that “the critical and political potential of art lies in its very embeddedness in a deeply conflictual social field, which can only be confronted effectively in situ” (29). By questioning the purpose of the museum in public space, and specifically in the streets of New York City, whilst presenting the event as an artwork for the very museum in question, Alӱs’s The Modern Procession embodies the complexity and inherent contradictions of Art whilst attesting “to the vitality of the art world as a site of critique and contestation … to confront the challenges of globalization, neoliberalism, post-Fordism … and now historic levels of inequality” (29).

Alӱs operates from the disposition that art has an ethical activist role to play in society, particularly when established institutions failed to aptly perform their civic duties. Like Andrea Fraser, Teddy Cruz shares a similar view when he writes in “Democratizing Urbanization and the Search for a New Civic Imagination” from, Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991 – 2011,

It is within this radical context [when institutions are incapable of questioning their established ways and protocols] that we must question the role of art and humanities and their contingent cultural institutions of pedagogy, production, display, and distribution. A more functional relationship between art and the everyday is urgently needed, through which artists can act as interlocutors across this polarized territory, intervening in the debate itself and mediating new forms of acting and living (58).

Such questioning is evident when Alӱs conceives this artwork in the form of a march. The march was reminiscent of Catholic processions that Alӱs encountered in Mexico City. These processions are widely practiced across Spanish-speaking nations with strong Catholic religious identity, and Alÿs’s version parodied the holy veil contemporary New York culture places on high-brow art. It appears as if the museum has replaced the church as the place of worship and holder of sacred and cherished objects. As modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton continuously advocates in “Why Museums of Art Have Failed Us – And What They Might Learn From Religions,” “culture should replace Scripture.”

Artworks were paraded on palanquins, becoming the modern fetish totems that replace religious relics and statues. Art, with its exuberant modern day monetary value, is elevated to match the status of religion with its highly prized spiritual value.  As Godfrey notes in Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception: “Alÿs choice of an elongated figure by Giacometti emphasised both the relation to the fetish value of the standing figure, and the pursuit of modern consolation” (131).

However, another reading of this enigmatic action may involve a critique of Manhattan Island’s obsession with wealth and the monetary value attached to any existing entity. Alÿs’s employment of a Peruvian brass band – with Peru understood to be a nation of developing economy that does not measure up to contemporary Western wealth ideals – faintly echoes the exploitation of cheap labor by multinational corporations for the benefit of the affluent. With its diverse ethnic background, the borough of Queens, which is home to people of Hispanic, African and Asian origins and the hard labor working sector of New York, is carrying Manhattan’s prized relics for safekeeping.

Such is the inscrutable quality of Alÿs’s work. In a postmodern world, the viewer participates in the artwork with his/her own reading and interpretation. In fact, a collective singular interpretation of a work of art in socially engaged creations and public art pieces is neither required nor desirable, since, as “From the Other Side: Public Artists on Public Art” states: “monolithic thinking must be replaced by an aesthetic that stresses layering, overlapping and interweaving” (338). According to some theorists and critics, the main purpose of this type of art is to raise questions about socio-political and behavioral phenomena encountered by the public in our time. Patricia C. Phillips, in “Temporality and Public Art,” states that:

Public art is like other art, but it is potentially enriched and amended by a multiplicity of philosophical, political and civic issues. It need not seek some common denominator or express some common good to be public, but it can provide a visual language to express and explore the dynamic, temporal condition of the collective (332).

 In his practice, Alÿs operates from this aesthetic position on social collaboration despite his highly charged political subject matter. His preoccupation with distilling his projects into enigmatic concise images or texts that convey the essence of the work in question point towards an artist who believes in the importance of aesthetics and the contested role of the art institution.

Alÿs meticulously reviews the documentation of his actions on video to grab a still image that captures the entirety of the action, yet maintain the elusive meanings behind the action. He has a similar approach when using language since his aphorisms and phrases are not mere illustrations of his artwork, but rather generators for new ideas to the viewers. Additionally, Godfrey states in Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception that Alÿs “tries to find a single image and the briefest of descriptive texts that can serve as crystallisations of the entire project … he recognises that in boiling down a project to its postcard text and image, its poetic character can be retained, its openness to new interpretations and new uses guaranteed” (11).

In his piece, The Leak, from 1995, Alÿs walked from a gallery in São Paolo, around the city and back again into the gallery whilst dribbling a can of blue paint.  Whilst this action did not involve members of the public as in The Modern Procession, it voiced the public’s collective shared views and concerns of art institutions and delivered them into a public space. This minimalist and futile poetic gesture tackled the same subject matter as The Modern Procession, yet it did not transform or ameliorate the given situation.

Nonetheless, like The Modern Procession, it focused the spotlight on the contested modern role of art institutions in public life and the esteemed power they hold, thus prompting us to re-evaluate our thoughts since, as Godfrey states, “such poetic acts … can also create a space for new ways of thinking that will lead in turn to ‘the possibility of change’” (9).

Lucy Neal explains in her latest book, Playing for Time: Making Art As If The World Mattered, the concept of the “citizen artistwho acts as a truth teller and an agent of change. Francis Alӱs, Andrea Fraser, Suzanne Lacy and Ruth Ewan are but a few regarded as citizen artists. They operate along a continuum of socially engaged art practices that span from poetic gestures – where the artist agency role serves as a conduit between the public and official institutions in which it remains confined to the single function of shedding light on a particular issue – to effecting social change that reverberates across civic institutions and alters daily existence.

Alӱs’s projects remain poetic and do not culminate into social change during their progressive realization. His role is similar to that of a journalist writing a feature article on a contemporary pressing topic in the news. Artworks such as The Green Line in which he trailed a line of green paint along the Green Line which divides Israel and Palestine do not alter the current status quo (Image 2). In fact, these futile political statements would pass by unnoticed if not for the art discourse they generate. On the other end of the spectrum, Lucy R. Lippard, in “Farther Afield,” highlights artists like Suzanne Lacy who prefer to “effect change … [and] literally move people around, or ahead,” (29) rather than quietly observe and analyse to make a gestural statement.

The two years extended performance piece of The Crystal Quilt exhibits Lacy’s tenacity in effecting social change through her art. Not only did this progressive project intermingle with people’s daily lives through its employment of a mass media campaign and a series of public lectures, its final tableau vivant that was broadcast live on local TV stations (Image 3) resulted in a state-wide leadership training program for older women and the funding of two major exhibitions of documentary photographs for this project.

The Crystal Quilt was a performance piece realised in Minneapolis in 1985-87 that involved over 400 local community members who worked with a number of sponsors such as The Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD), The Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs, the Minnesota Board of Aging, among others, to create programs that explored how the media portrayed ageing and the modern-day role of older people in public life. This took the format of art exhibitions featuring photo series of older people, a coordinated media campaign that featured older women, a series of lectures and leadership seminars which were crowned with a tableau vivant/large-scale performance installation in the middle of a shopping centre that was broadcast live on several local channels.

In short, Lacy’s Crystal Quilt has successfully affected a measurable social change which, as Bishop states in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, offered “ameliorative solutions, however short-term rather than the exposure of contradictory social truths” (275-276).  Nonetheless, this piece raises concerns about art’s autonomy, the integrity of thmessage and work delivered to the public.  Lacy resolved to the collaborative efforts of key sponsors in the realization of her piece.  Perhaps the integrity of her exertions was maintained since the selected sponsors were by large public institutes.

However, when artists choose to operate within the socially ameliorative context, their artworks are judged by their ethical value and working procedures in addition to their affectability. As Bishop notes “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” “the conceptual density and artistic significance … are sidelined in favour of a judgement on the artist’s relationship with their collaborators … criticism is dominated by ethical judgements on working procedure and intentionality … [for] artists working in a socially ameliorative tradition” (63).

As stated in “Farther Afield,” artists like Lacy who operate “on a tightrope between disciplines … [and] challenge institutional systems to accommodate art” (29-30) are constantly under scrutiny by the art world and civic institutions since they have taken on the laborious and demanding task of effecting change rather than just instigate or inspire its commencement. Bishop argues in “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?” that “at a certain point, art has to hand over to other institutions if social change is to be achieved: it is not enough to keep producing activist art.” She further asserts that “artists have internalised a huge amount of pressure to bear the burden of devising new models of social and political organisation – a task that they are not always best equipped to undertake” (9-10).

The above argument reverts back to the ongoing discourse about the role of art in modern society and the implications of its newly acquired responsibility(ies) in redressing our understanding of the notion of art and its being. As Fraser explains in “From The Critique of Institutions To An Institution of Critique,” “that such [ownership-society] optimism has found perfect artistic expression in neo-Fluxus practices like relational aesthetics, which are in perpetual vogue, demonstrate the degree to which what Burger called the avant-garde’s aim to integrate ‘art into the praxis of life’ has evolved into a highly ideological form of escapism” (7). Martin Heidegger, in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ from Philosophers on Art from Kant to the Postmodernist: A Critical Reader, argued that art is “the truth of beings setting itself to work” (134) whilst the artworks are the vehicles by which the truth of their entity is set forth.

Applying this understanding of art and the work of art to socially engaged practices, we will note that artists like Francis Alÿs, who prefer to operate from an aesthetic disposition, appear to be better aligned with Heideggerian aesthetics and art discipline than art activists like Lacy. Their work aims to reveal the truth about an existing social situation that has often been neglected or overlooked by institutions during their daily pursuits. From a Heideggerian perspective, the truth about an entity maybe lost in its equipmental being. An ongoing social or political situation may fail to reveal the truth of its entirety if consumed up by its proximity.

This aim concurs with the functional role of art discussed by Heidegger in his essay, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art,’ which discloses the alternative truths that elude our immediate perceptions. Art need not assume an activist role to transform a pre-existing condition since, as Bishop notes, it is not aptly equipped for this task. Nonetheless, it plays a vital active role in igniting the spark that culminates into a substantial change.

Hania Afifi is Director of Business Development and Clinic Manager for MegaScan in Dubai.  With 15 years of experience in advertising and marketing, she is a brand communications strategist who delves into the depths of a brand’s DNA to extract its core-essence.  An active observer of cultural trends and an academic researcher of semiotics and culture studies, she has done freelance work for various clients, including the Nour Festival at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in the United Kingdom and Claire Higgins, Ltd., and the London Print Studio.  She holds an M.A. in Visual Arts and Culture from the University of Westminster.

 

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