Francis Alÿs buys identical handguns from the same gun store in side-by-side projections in "Re-enactments" (2000), one of the works in MoMA's mid-career retrospective of the Belgian, Mexico-based conceptual and performance artist, A Story of Deception (through August 1). He walks down the same Mexico City streets, the cocked weapon clenched tightly at his side, finger on the trigger, for just over 11 minutes until police officers handcuff him and drive him away. The first time they mean business, but the second they are collaborators in Alÿs's performance, and figuring out which half of the synchronized projection is a re-enactment and which is "real" is virtually impossible. The piece incorporates themes of doubling, urban play and provocation, whimsy, violence and failure that recur throughout the best pieces on view in this sprawling show at MoMA and PS1. (Some editing and a more focused presentation in one location would have made for a stronger overall exhibition.)
At MoMA the climactic piece, "Tornado" (2000-10), steals the show. But Alÿs's quest to run into tornadoes of dust on the desolate agrarian outskirts of Mexico City tempers the critique of international development and humanitarian discourse that runs through much of his strongest work. Mostly, "Tornado" is a Dada-esque undertaking sparked by confusing similar-sounding Spanish words for windmill and tornado in an overheard recounting of Don Quixote. In "Bridge/Puente" (2006), Alÿs's attempt to coral mariners in Cuba and Key West to form a floating bridge with their boats comes up short. The catalogue notes dryly, "a significant number of the owners of the yachts and boats in Key West failed to respond to the call; an issue on which the artist prefers not to comment." Another piece that depends on its futility for meaning is the Herculean "When Faith Moves Mountains" (2002), for which 500 student volunteers with shovels moved a sand dune by a few inches.
The absurd poetics of these performed gestures underline the alienating politics whose boundaries they test—for "The Loop" (1997) Alÿs circumnavigated the globe in order to get from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Other performances represented through Alÿs's tireless self-documenting photos, paintings and planning sketches fare less well—though the wall covered with cue card-like notes synopsizing performances (some executed, some not) that greets visitors at PS1 is a nice touch, resembling an Improv Everywhere-style repertoire of urban charades. Most powerful in the PS1 presentation, though, is "Guards" (2004-05), for which he effectively turned central London into a giant game of Pacman with 64 dispersed Coldstream Guards—in their distinctive red uniforms and tall, furry black hats—wandering the streets until they are all together in formation, at which point they split up again.
The piece playfully ridicules these symbols of British power and monarchy, all the while staging a kind of urban invasion (scenes from 28 Days Later continually come to mind). This is also one of the few videos of a performance that Alÿs has assembled with something more than rudimentary documentary aesthetics, and the pace of the editing and sound of boots scraping pavement on deserted streets is hypnotic. As opposed to the solitary and sometimes illegal Mexico City performances, this was a massive undertaking aided by British authorities, yet its rules stipulate that authority march meaninglessly, endlessly. At his best, Alÿs introduces rigorously absurd plans into settings that lack laws or are overly regulated, subverting and exposing the invisible systems that govern our lives.
(Images courtesy the artist, David Zwirner Gallery)