This month, Francis Alÿs returns to London for his first exhibition in the city in over 15 years, opening his third exhibition of work with David Zwirner Gallery. Focusing on the intense political history and narco-violence that has plagued the North Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez for over a decade, the artist’s particular investigative style leaves the experience of this corruption and murder-torn border town distinctly inconclusive, a point that only contributes to the already tragic nature of its story.
The border has figured in Alÿs’s work with increasing prominence over the course of his career, with works exploring the fraught political and social confrontations of these zones, and the often ignored human narratives that populate these regions. These themes are often explored through the act of walking, or following a path, used as a way of tracing a single line through these often tightly controlled zones, and allowing the landscape around him or his actors to play its part in turn.
Here, this action plays itself out through the realm of culture, as the artist kicks a flaming soccer ball through the streets of the city in the depth of night, using only the glowing heat of the ball to illuminate his path. The result is a film that traces a single line, albeit one weighted with deep poetic associations, through some of the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods, tangentially revealing the momentary presence of drug dealers, police, and other actors in the ongoing battle between crime and law that has defined much of the city’s history in the past years.
Yet these moments are still only glimpsed, their presence serving more as a slight reminder of their presence than a coherent “exposé” of the situation. Alÿs is content to show only the fragments of its presence, a sort of ominous sense that does much to recreate the broader global perception of the region than to investigate its core issues. The darkness that surrounds Ciudad Juarez is impenetrable in his view, with the deep roots of corruption and violence simmering in the far reaches of the shadows around his path.
This sense is echoed in his Ciudad Juárez Postcards, a series of reclaimed postcards from the city that he has manipulated with black marker. Obliterating the image of any familiar icon or landmark, the artist has left only traces of light and shadow, momentary glimpses of a city that has struggled to reclaim its identity in the face of its problems.
Considering these two frameworks, Alÿs has created a portrait of a city that is equally impenetrable and immediate, exploring the sensation of a city that seems to have been relegated to the darkness of its own violent path, while exploring the depths of this darkness as a reason it is unable to recover. Yet elsewhere, he presents more lighthearted moments, children playing mirror games, or paintings of massive gatherings. In each, the city’s soul seems to shine through, challenging easy assumptions while emphasizing their prominence in the life of Ciudad Juárez.
The show closes August 5th.
— D. Creahan
Francis Alÿs at David Zwirner [Exhibition Page]