Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Francis Alys at the Hammer, part two

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Rehearsal1Alys.jpgWhen I left off yesterday, I was writing about how artists had long depicted futility myths as a way of reminding underclasses that they’d better obey their rulers, or else. Francis Alys has taken this mythological and art historical tradition and he’s tweaked it. In part because it’s been a few years since artists needed to glorify royal patrons to make a living, Alys adopts storied myths for an artist’s purpose, not a monarch’s: He has used futile labor as a metaphor for contemporary social and political realities.
Take Rehearsal 1, Alys’ 1999-2003 video that shows a red VW bug driving down a dirt road, trying to build up enough momentum going downhill to make it up the next hill. For 29 minutes and 25 seconds, the bug, for four decades a familiar, outmoded vehicle in Mexico, failing. Meanwhile musicians play on an audio track. When the musicians stop playing the car stops too, and rolls backwards down the hill. “It is a story of struggle rather than one of achievement,” Alys has said of Rehearsal 1, “an allegory in process rather than a quest for synthesis.” Titian might have said the same thing about his painting of Sisyphus.
Alys’ allegory is set (more or less) in the present, in what appears to be a poverty-stricken slum. The roads are unpaved, the buildings are modest, the colors dead browns. (It’s not apparent from the video itself, but Rehearsal 1 was shot in Tijuana.) It’s easy to see the video as a metaphor for the failure of development in the third world. Time and time again wealthy countries promise to help. Time and time again wealthy nations promise that their rising tides will lift third-world boats. But so often they fail, and countries like Mexico stay stuck in a range, just like Alys’ red bug.
When I was at the Hammer in December, just a few days before the Iowa caucuses, I also thought about the multi-national debate over immigration, particularly among the Republican combatants. I thought about how the candidates and the news media talk blandly about immigration policy, usually relying on vagaries to mask the less savory specifics: For the right-wing, ‘immigration reform’ is code for ‘keeping Mexicans out’ and ’sending Mexicans back.’
Alys’ Rehearsal 1 also serves as a metaphor for the experience of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who have tried to illegally enter the US, have been caught and sent back, only to try again. More broadly, Rehearsal 1 is also a metaphor for the experience of many immigrants caught between two cultures: Having left one country for another, they struggle to fully belong or assimilate into their new home.

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