Francis Alÿs

Mexico based Belgian Conceptual and Performance Artist and Painter

Born: August 22, 1959
Antwerp, Belgium
Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.
Francis Alÿs

Summary of Francis Alÿs

Francis Alÿs caught the attention of the international art community following a number of idiosyncratic Performances enacted in Mexico City. While acts that included walking a mechanical dog down city roads were greeted with bewilderment by locals, his Mexican street recitals gave notice of the artist's uniquely imaginative approach to broaching anthropological and geopolitical themes, while simultaneously helping secure Mexico's place on the world map of contemporary art. As his career progressed, Alÿs further enhanced his reputation by working in volatile border zones across Latin America, North Africa, and the Middle East. These challenging locations have provided a context for inspired works that tackle themes of localism and globalism, usually within one and the same creative action. His diverse and multi-disciplinary practice, that includes performance, documentary film, painting, drawing, and photography, sees Alÿs work regularly in collaboration with local communities.


The Life of Francis Alÿs

Art critic Pablo Lafuente states, "Alÿs extracts ideas from whatever comes to hand - Mexico City, the politics of the art world, children's tales or Plato's dialogues - and examines their ability to materialize as different artworks, stretching them to the point of exhaustion".

Progression of Art



Alÿs's first performance, Collector sees him exploring the streets of his new home in Mexico City. He stated: "For an indeterminate period of time, the magnetized metal collector (it looks roughly like a geometric dog on wheels) takes a daily walk through the streets and gradually builds up a coat made of any metallic residue lying in its path. This process goes on until the collector is completely covered by its trophies [the small metallic fragments]". Art critic, and curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, said of Collector, that it "presents the urban animal, or the urban parasite, as a hero of the resistance to modernization".

Collector came at a time when Alÿs was seeking to find his own artistic voice. He said of the performance, "My interest was related to certain urban contexts, places which I felt were impossible to intervene in physically, whose history felt untouchable. [...] The idea came up to intervene in the place's imagination without adding any physical matter to it, but instead playing at the level of metaphor or allegory. [...] After three days people started talking about the crazy gringo walking around with his magnetized dog, but after seven days, the story, the anecdote, had remained even though the characters were gone. That's how I started developing the idea of introducing tales and fables into a place's history at a particular moment of its local history".

Alÿs revisited the work in 2006 when he created an installation (also called Collectors) comprised of thirty-six toy dogs made of branded tin containers of varying sizes. Art critic Kelly Grovier contests that the later incarnations of toy dogs seem "to offer a pun on the word 'litter' [and that] their branded bodies speak of the mass production and reproduction of imagery, including artwork".

Performance - Mexico City

ongoing since 1995

Untitled (Le temps du sommeil)

Painting plays an important subsidiary role of Alÿs's practice. He once said, "I need painting. It's a moment to slow down. Time stops, and I step out of the moment of production. I use it like a yoga session". His series, Le temps du sommeil (Sleep Time), has been a "work in progress" since 1995. The 111 works (at the time of writing) feature small vignettes of men and women, typically wearing suits and resembling architypes that feature in many of his other painting (such as "the liar", "the prophet", and "the clown"). Typically the figures are engaged in children's games or similar amusements. Moreover, the paintings are presented against a roughly rendered oval green setting, atop a monochromatic red-orange background that covers the small wooden boards on which they are produced. Alÿs refers to these works as polyptychs (paintings with many leaves or panels) and often returns to a specific painting to amend, or even completely overpaint, it (which accounts for his decision to date stamp the works). As he explained, "the images are never final [...] They are like palimpsests [the name given to a piece of writing material on which the original writing has been erased to make room for new writing but of which original traces of writing remain]".

The David Zwirner Gallery says of the Le temps du sommeil paintings that they exemplify "the subtlety and inscrutable quality of [Alÿs's] oeuvre at large" and that the series could be said "to evolve alongside the artist himself - surviv[ing] only in photographic documentation, illustrating the constancy of [his art] and the foundation on which it rests, but also [the artist's] changing interests and priorities. [...] Mirroring and inversion are frequent stylistic devices in Alÿs's work, both in his writings and in his pictures [the Gallery is here referring to a book, Francis Alÿs: Le temps du Sommeil (2016), that features the images and supporting text by Alÿs and art historian and curator, Catherine Lampert]. Le temps du sommeil thus blends the functions of an archive, a creative repertoire, and a medium for brainstorming". For her part, artist Suzanne van der Lingen identifies a "dreamlike" quality in the series; that they are "like invitations; and just like dreams, they offer a fleeting window of opportunity that is awkwardly enlightening yet somehow irrelevant and fabricated".

Alÿs says "I paint partly because it is the easiest way of stepping out of the speed and logistics of production [of Conceptual/Performance works], which can be a very down to earth part of the job: dealing with local politicians or airplane tickets or whatever. So it's a way of staying in a more utopian state, a state of reverie that has no limits. These parallel activities of painting and producing events have allowed me to have quite an independent position in relation to the production of my [performance] works. The paintings finance most of the events and so it gives me the freedom to decide if I want to withdraw a piece, to postpone it or completely rework it". He also spoke of the anxiety he felt at exhibiting his paintings: "You're much more naked when you show a painting. You're cornered", he said.

Mixed media on wooden board


Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)

For this work, perhaps Alÿs' most iconic performance, the artist pushed a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it had fully melted away (over a period of nine hours). The only remaining evidence of the performance is video footage. Art historian and critic James W. Yood argues that the "project has a kind of quixotic absurdity that is very compelling, juggling as it does the earnestness of that cumbersome task, a recognition of the importance of ice for street vendors in a tropic climate such as Mexico, and Alÿs's making of an absence in the end - all of which invited a range of poetic interpretations that can be both disorienting and liberating". The artist himself said that the rectangular ice block "was also a sly means to symbolise the melting of the generic object of contemporary art".

This performance has contributed to the discourse on Conceptual Art, institutional critique and Minimalism. Indeed, Alÿs considers it to be a triumph of effectiveness, stating that "If the script for a piece can be reduced to a few words, I have the sense that I've managed to join the maximal and the minimal at the same time, that I have arrived at the script's essence. [...] The eventual success of such a script is that you do not need to witness this action in order to imagine it; you do not need to see photos, videos, or drawings of the event in order to more or less visualize what may have happened. This kind of method allows for the free circulation of the product, which is much more effective than any image, regardless of the fact that we're in the digital era. You can immediately assimilate the narrative. Perhaps my goal has always been to strip down my scenarios to a few words only, so they can be liberated from the burden of documentation, of its physical weight".

Curator James Meyer notes that Paradox of Praxis I draws on earlier models of "producing nothing as a way of saying something", such as American composer John Cage's seminal silent composition, 4'33 (1952). Said Cage, "There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot". Adds Meyer, Alÿs's "practice reveals, à la Cage, the logical impossibility of an artist doing nothing, just as the Minimalist work, in opposition to its negative discourse, reveals the very impossibility of making an artwork that means nothing. Each form of nothing posits a different 'something': The nothing is productive in spite of itself".

Alÿs would go on to create other works in the same series. For instance, in Paradox of Praxis V (2013), the artist kicked a small burning ball through the streets of Ciudad Juarez in the dark of night. Juarez is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country (and worldwide) with the flaming ball serving as a simple, yet poignant, metaphor; a reminder that even in the most hazardous environments, human life exists, and children (of all ages) need to play.

Performance - Mexico City


When Faith Moves Mountains

This performance was completed as part of the Third Ibero-American Biennial of Lima, Peru. Though, like much of his work until that point, the action involved a seemingly absurd task, it was unique in its participatory element. Alÿs recruited 500 Peruvian student volunteers and had them walk together up a 1600-foot sand dune in Ventanilla, an industrial area on the outskirts of Lima. The group members formed a single-file ring around the dune and, each equipped with a shovel, worked in unison to move a small amount of sand, resulting in the displacement of the sand dune by a mere four inches. Alÿs has called it "an active interpretive practice performed by the audience, who must give the work its meaning and its social value".

Alÿs sums up the intention for this work as "Maximum effort, minimum result", and the action was conceived of as a metaphor for the way in which the people of Peru, many of whom felt disillusionment and uncertainty during a period of political and social upheaval following a resurgence in violence between the Peruvian Army, and far left guerrilla groups from the country's Valle de los Rios Apurimac, Ene y Mantaro, region. He said that his aim was to create a sense of new hope, and that, little by little, through seemingly small acts, they could, in fact, "move mountains". Art historian Riikka Haapalainen writes "The title of the artwork When Faith moves mountains alludes to an ancient myth, announcing and starting off a fable-resembling narrative and its morale. Moving a mountain is not only about shoveling labor, nor just about will, but first and foremost about faith. The art project resembles a myth: The video documenting the project begins at the moment when the artist is looking for a suitable mountain to move. After this, participants and the eyewitnesses recount what happened during the project, and only after that the actual displacement of the mountain is revealed to the audience".

The work has been frequently cited in discourse regarding Participatory/Relational Art. Says Haapalainen, "The utopian transformation implied by participatory art projects like the When faith moves mountains may be for instance a temporary shift to a new set of relations. It enables visits in thoughts, that one would normally not experience, or discovering things that would otherwise be left unnoticed. Therefore, contrary to its common definition as pertaining to an inaccessible mode and time of reality, utopia could rather be understood as a here-and-now-project, [it] is not about bringing forth something more, or better, but about bringing up alternatives".

Participatory performance


Untitled, Mosul (The Return)

Mosul (The Return) was painted in autumn 2016, when the artist spent nine days accompanying Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers at the front lines during the Battle of Mosul (Iraq). Arts writer Coline Milliard contends that Alÿs's body of work produced during, and immediately after, this experience "very much captures the reality of life on a battleground, protected from ISIS fighters by a simple mound of dirt. [...] The question of art, of its role and relevance in the context of war, announces itself. It's easy to interpret Alÿs's gesture as a Sisyphean attempt to create an image that would do justice to the situation, and a simultaneous acknowledgement of the inability to do so".

Other Alÿs's paintings from Mosul involved a process of painting, wiping off the paint, and painting again. He has explained, "I erase it because all I want to do is to find a moment of coincidence between my persona, or my activity, and the scene I'm looking at. [...] The question is really about the role of the artist as a witness. What can the artist say that hasn't been said by media?". Says Milliard, "Chalk-white silhouettes walk back from the horizon; men run clutching guns; two figures look at the bare field beyond a camp's barbed wire fence. At times, the hazy images are so faint that they threaten to disappear. They have the fleeting quality of impressions gathered in haste, their sparse details adding up to an abstracted notion of war".

For Alÿs, painting complements (rather than replaces) his conceptual/performance work (even if "tiny paintings" such as this have garnered less critical attention than his performance art). Says the artist, "What justifies my recourse to painting is that it's the shortest way - or sometimes the only way - to translate certain scenarios or situations that cannot be said, that cannot be filmed or performed. It's about entering a situation that could not exist elsewhere, only on the paper or canvas". Elsewhere, he has stated, "I tend to see [the paintings] as punctuations within the production of the big events. I don't have that much expectation from the painted image. But people tend to rely on those images to enter the videos somehow. [...] I realized there was a gap with my work and the public. However elliptical you want to be, you have to make contact. And the public can be quite harsh if you don't. The paintings are a way to trap in the viewer".

Oil on linen


Children's Game #27: Rubi, Tabacongo, DR Congo

Since 1999, Alÿs has been working on a video series called Children's Games (now 33 videos and counting). Some of these featured in the Venice Biennale the year after #27 (in 2022). Given their locations (such as Mexico City, Tangier, and the Sharya Refugee Camp in Iraq) Alÿs's joyful short films carry heavy socio-political undertones. Each video (none more than eight minutes in length) shows children engaged in play, capturing their collective joy, and their ability to make games out of the simplest elements (such as sticks, coins, sand, rocks, and even garbage), in the most impoverished and volatile of surroundings. Arts writer Elvia Will observes, "The kids bicker, laugh, goad each other on, compete and learn. They have fun. The shots are intimate, but don't feel voyeuristic; the children are clearly aware of the camera, and many seem to enjoy showing off".

Children's Game #27 features children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo playing a game called Rubi. As art critic Lorna Scott Fox explains, "With all the charm of flick soccer, Subbuteo, pinball, and other miniature passions, [Rubi] is played on a small circle of stubby broken-off sticks like a frontier fort buried in the sand, enclosing two facing, immobile teams also made of little sticks. Resembling two giants crouched over cavernous goals, the competitors take quickfire turns thumbing a marble, careful not to touch anything else. The successful marble shoots in from the side or arcs with precision through the air. For a penalty, it is balanced on top of the defending palisade. Close-ups on fans, rapt faces and dusty feet, bare or in the molded sandals that protect knees as often as feet. The ring of attention is bisected by a chicken scooting straight through people, the exact centre of the arena, people, and out, as if performing a dare".

Alÿs recognizes that children have piqued his creative interest since the beginnings of his career. For instance, the video documentation of Paradox of Praxis I (1997) included a shot of children laughing at the artist as he pushes his block of ice through the streets, while his career-spanning painting series Le Temps du Sommeil feature adults engaged in juvenile actions and childish games. Reflecting on the development of his art, and the "mechanisms" he employed in his early works, Alÿs has recently reflected, "During the first 10 to 15 years, I was the main protagonist of my videos, and gradually children have taken over as the main protagonists. [...] The scale of the projects has also grown. They started involving more people, and my natural capacity for dialogue is just better with children than adults. I connect more easily, and I find it much easier to collaborate with them".


Biography of Francis Alÿs


Francis Alÿs was born Francis de Smedt, in Belgium. He was raised in Herfelingen, a rural municipality about twenty-five miles southwest of Brussels. His father was an appeals court justice but, given that the artist himself is notoriously private, little else is known about his early family or private life.

Education and Early Training

Between 1978-83, Alÿs studied architecture at the Saint-Luc Institute of Architecture in Tournai, Belgium. He then relocated to Venice, Italy, and continued his studies in Architecture at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura. He received his master's degree in urbanism (with a thesis on the presence of animals in medieval and Renaissance-era European cities) in 1986. While living in Venice, he fell in love with Early Renaissance painters, Lorenzetti and Fra Angelico. Yet while he enjoyed day-to-day life in the country, he soon grew frustrated with the Italians' leaning, in his words, "[towards] pure rhetoric and zero accomplishment".

Mature Period

Following the ruinous 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Mexico City on September 19, 1985, Alÿs, who had been drafted into the Belgian army, traveled to city, in his capacity as a qualified architect. His role was to participate in the rebuilding of the city's infrastructure under the auspices of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). Having been involved in this project for some two years, he reached a creative watershed. As he stated, "[it was] my encounter with the megapolis of Mexico City that made me switch from architecture to visual arts. I had been practicing architecture for like five or six years by then, and to be confronted with such an immense physical mass made me want to withdraw; to subtract rather than to add more material".

Having found work in the studio of the weaver Jacobo Islas Mendoza, Alÿs decided to set up permanent home in Mexico. He changed his surname to Alÿs (from de Smedt), in an effort to "reinvent" himself and to distance himself from his European roots. He notes that arriving in Mexico City "was also the first time I was really experiencing what it was like to live in such a dense urban structure, and I didn't really know how to deal with it. I was trying to find a way to justify my presence".

His earliest attempts to find his place within this sprawling Mexican metropolis was to take to street performance. Alÿs' first performance, Collector (1991), saw him walking down the street pulling along a magnetic toy dog on wheels. Alÿs said later, "I was living in the old Centro Histórico, where there were all these characters, for lack of a better word. I saw how they felt the need to make up an identity, to invent a role for themselves, a ritual that would justify their presence on the urban chessboard - like this guy in his mid-forties I would see every morning walking up and down the Zócalo with a metal wire bent into a hook with a circle at the end of it, kind of like a bicycle wheel without spokes. [...] Encountering such people has often been the entry point to my walks or interventions, the crude and poetic entry point".

Alÿs was welcomed into the city's artist community, which included figures like Gabriel Orozco, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Thomas Glassford, and Gabriel Kuri. The group was closely associated with the Salon des Aztecs, a short-lived gallery that offered exhibition space, in Alÿs words, to "pretty much anyone, as long as you declared yourself an artist". He also dated British artist Melanie Smith, who owned the popular hang-out, Mel's Café, in the Centro Histórico, and who introduced him to Latin American poets such as Julio Cortázar and Augusto Monterroso. Says Alÿs, "Retrospectively, I think I was very lucky in my timing with Mexico. They say that certain people can only find their place within a specific historical or geopolitical context. [...] I think also that my status as an immigrant freed me from my own cultural heritage - or my debt to it, if you like. It provided me with a kind of permanent disjunction, a filter between myself and my being".

Alÿs's artistic output encompassed painting, Video, Performance, and Conceptual art, with the "poetic gesture" of walking central to his early practice. In 1996 he enacted Narcotourism, for which he spent seven days wandering the streets of Copenhagen, under the effects of seven different drugs (one each day). A year later, Alÿs performed what would become one of his signature works, Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing). For this street performance, he pushed a large block of ice through the streets until it melted away to nothing. While his nine hour street journey invited a range of philosophical speculations on the nature of Performance Art, it also carried a more prosaic message in the way it underlined the importance of ice to street vendors working in the stifling heat of Mexico City.

The following year he created Patriotic Tales, also in Mexico City. This time Alÿs re-enacted a specific moment from Mexico's recent political history. Alÿs led a flock of sheep in single file around the flagstaff in the middle of the Zócalo, the ceremonial square at the heart of the City, and the gathering point for political rallies. Commenting on its video record of the event, the Zabludowicz Art Trust explained, "The action mirrors an event in 1968, when civil servants were forced to congregate in the Zócalo to welcome the new government yet bleated like sheep to mark their protest. Alÿs brings the memory of humans acting like sheep together with the spectacle of sheep re-enacting human protest, demonstrating that how bodies appear in public is as important as the fact that they gather. And it is their gathering that produces the space of protest, of politics. Protest - a set of relations between people - thus produces the square anew in each instance".

Late Period

Alÿs represented Belgium in the Venice Biennale in 2001 (although he did not attend, and sent a peacock in his place, to roam the exhibition space and attend the opening event, accompanied by a zoo keeper). With Modern Procession (2002), he marked the move of the Museum of Modern Art in New York to its temporary home in Queens by conducting a parade (across the 59th Street Bridge) with participants carrying copies of works from MoMA's collection including, Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, and works by the German-American figurative artist, Kiki Smith (as the chosen "living icon"). The following year Alÿs returned to more overtly allegorical themes with his five-minute video, El Gringo, set in an alley in Hidalgo, Mexico. Addressing ideas of what it feels like to be an alien, or outsider, the work sees him "facing down" (that is, to oppose somebody or something by dealing with them directly and confidently) a pack of snarling wild dogs from behind the slight shield of his video camera.

In 2004 (reprising a performance in São Paolo in 1995 where he circumscribed the city while dripping a can of blue paint) Alÿs created The Green Line (2004), a walk that saw him cover the length of the armistice line between Israel and Palestine (known as The Green Line after the Israeli military leader, Moshe Dayan, penciled it onto a map following the 1948 Israel/Jordan war) as he trailed green paint behind him. Although his walk was greeted with bemusement by many locals (and by many who viewed it subsequently on video) he succeeded in reminding people on both sides of the line of the time before the 1967 Six Day War (between Israel and an Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian alliance), and after which, Israel occupied Palestinian territories to the east of the line. Alÿs's aim was not to calm (or, indeed, inflame) divisions, but rather to ask what the role of poetic actions and gestures were in such acutely charged political situations. For Bridge/Puente (2006), meanwhile, Alÿs lined up 150 boats in Key West, Florida, and pointed them in the direction of Havana with the intention of invoking the idea of a floating, but incomplete, bridge that might someday unite these two old ideological enemies.

Alÿs's video, REEL-UNREEL (2012), which depicts children playing on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, was exhibited with related drawings, paintings, and research materials for Documenta 13. The exhibition took place in a former bakery in Kassel's city center with REEL-UNREEL screened at a satellite venue in Kabul.

He continues to be fiercely guarded about his private life, though in recent years he has stated publicly that having small children had inspired him to focus his art on the theme of childhood play. In 2016 Alÿs undertook a series of projects in Iraq. Hopscotch, was produced at the Yazidi Refugee Camp of Sharya, Duhok, and Color Matching, was filmed with Kurdish rebels during the siege of Mosul.

In 2020 he premiered the feature film Sandlines, The Story of History, written by Alÿs and produced/directed in collaboration with Julien Devaux. It features the children of mountain village of Nineveh, near Mosul who reenact the history of Iraq since the Sykes/Picot agreement of 1916 (a controversial agreement made during World War I between British, French and Russian governments that related to the partition of the Ottoman Empire), until the reign of terror imposed on the country by the Islamic State after 2016.

The Legacy of Francis Alÿs

Alÿs extends a long history in Performance art that can be traced back through the "excursions" organized by Dadaists and Surrealists André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara; the "psycho-geographic" maps of the Situationist International; works by British land artist Richard Long; and performances like Procession (1974) by Polish feminist, land, and performance artist, Teresa Murak. Arts writer Rebecca Solnit explains that "thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It's best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking". Urban and cultural geographer David Pinder adds that walking is "a mode of apprehending the city that is tactile, aural and olfactory as well as visual [and] an activity that enunciates and gives shape to urban spaces; one that is not localized but that 'spatializes'".

Alÿs's works have become central to discourses on not only Conceptual Art and Performance Art, but also institutional critique and Participatory/Relational Art. His "urban wanderings" have influenced artists like Pope.L., who became well known for his epic "street crawls". Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1 (in Queens, New York), calls Alÿs "a translator and a catalyst [who forges] connections between photography, sculpture, painting, video and architecture". Arts writer Kevin Conley contends that "Alÿs's work is most often described as poetic - not because he uses words but because his imagery is so indelible. His scenarios are so strong and simple, you don't have to see the piece to grasp its impact. He is an artist for an international world. [...] The art market remains profoundly puzzled by Alÿs, whose most important works, his videos and performances, are typically available for free on his website. The paintings and drawings are unquestionably beautiful, but they are clearly intended less as objets d'art than as part of a larger thought process".

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Cite article
Correct article