Last year at London's National Portrait Gallery I met a female Saint from the fourth century dressed like a cross between Little Red Riding Hood and the psycho-dwarf from Don't Look Now. The Saint was Fabiola, or, more accurately, variations on a representation of Fabiola created by the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-Jacques Henner. Two adjoining rooms at the NPG were crammed with hundreds of Fabiolas (the collective noun for these alternately beatific and beastly reproductions escapes me). Fortunately, I had plenty of time to contemplate the bewildering range of similarities and differences on display: each artifact ostensibly reproducing Henner's representation, but in a variety of media, sizes, styles, and competencies. The longer I lingered in the rooms, the more the embedded patterns and resonances between these shapeshifting portraits revealed themselves. En masse, the hagiographic images had a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to disturb and delight, generating the kind of self-reflexive conundrums about authenticity and belief typical of certain philosophically literate tendencies in contemporary art. The collection had been accumulated over a number of years by the Belgian artist Francis Alys.
Based in Mexico City since the mid-1980s, and initially trained as an architect, Alys produces (and reproduces) art that could be characterized as action-packed, deploying diverse media while indefatigably globetrotting across different continents. Indeed, he had already intervened in the NPG a few years before installing his collection of Fabiolas. The Nightwatch uses the gallery's CCTV system to track a fox named Bandit that he released into the deserted building at night. The Nightwatch plays on a bank of monitors outside of the current Alys exhibition at Tate Modern. If you lack either the funds or the time to traverse the main exhibition, then this work offers a welcome introduction into the way that Alys negotiates a zone between different registers of the real where the apparently pointless and the profound interpenetrate.
Elsewhere, a couple of subtitles provide further rabbit-holes into Alys's adventures in the Wonderland of everyday life. Paradox of Praxis 1 is subtitled "Sometimes doing something leads to nothing". The work features footage of Alys pushing a large block of ice around Mexico City on a sweltering day until the solid ice melts away (like Beckett laconically theatricalizing Marx's famous description of the revolutionary energies of capitalism). The subtitle of The Green Line is "Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic". The Green Line involves Alys walking the eponymous armistice border around Jerusalem dripping green paint from a punctured paint tin that he carries with him on his circuit. The film that documents the act includes a lengthy audio discussion with the architect and writer Eyal Weizman who questions the political ramifications of the walk while admiring the poetry of the paint trails. Walking in the landscape, Alys gives the green line rhythms and counter-rhythms, loops and splashes, clusters and lacunae, leaving behind a highly irregular trail sometimes clearly visible on concrete and sometimes lost amongst stretches of grass. The work is emblematic of the entire exhibition, intriguingly entitled 'A Story of Deception'.
The stress here lies on time. As with the Fabiolas at the NPG, I had a whole afternoon to move slowly through the sixteen rooms of work on show at the Tate. Even if you've already watched a few of the films documenting Alys's performances (available online via www.francisal's.com), the exhibition deserves sustained attention. The films are accompanied by various props, notebooks, sculptural objects, paintings, animations, installations. Watching each film within this context, the deceptively simple concepts behind each piece intersect and overlap, producing a disquieting feeling that the supposedly rational parameters of the world are being radically warped beyond breaking point. With a provocative blend of wit and patience, 'A Story of Deception' gradually reveals a story of self-deception: when faced with the comparative poverty and injustice that permeates life for most people on the planet in the twenty-first century we deceive ourselves when we believe that we are not capable of making another story possible.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London