Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Francis Alys at the Hammer

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ParadoxofPraxis1Alys.jpgYes, you’ve seen myths of the doomed before: Man tries to do something. Man fails. Man tries again. Man fails again. And again. And again. The cycle is metronomic, and perhaps because it is reliable and thus familiar, it has fascinated humans for thousands of years. There’s Sisyphus, who rolls a stone up a hill for perpetuity, never succeeding in reaching the hilltop. Or Leto’s would-be-rapist Tityus, who was punished by having his constantly self-renewing liver devoured by eagles and snakes. That worked so well that when it came to punishing Prometheus for giving man fire, Zeus apparently suffered a creativity brain-cramp: Zeus subjected Prometheus to a perpetually-liver-eating bird too.
And now there is Francis Alys’ red VW bug. And that stripper. And the guy pushing the ice block through Mexico City. (A still from that video is above: Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing).) Don’t forget the hundreds of workers outside Lima. All were on view in an often-terrific survey of Alys’ work, “Francis Alys: Politics of Rehearsal,” curated by Russell Ferguson at the Hammer Museum. The show closed on Feb. 10.
TitianSisyphus.jpgThe exhibition revealed Alys to be working within a long tradition of artists and storytellers who have been fascinated with repetition and futility. Like many of them, Alys mixes futility with politics, resulting in a poignant examination of political systems, gender roles, power, and human resignation. But before we get to Alys, let’s go back as far as we can, to the beginning of recorded futility myths.
The myths of Sisyphus, Tityus, and Prometheus seem to have originated at least 3,000 years ago. They were stories of what would happen to mortals if they failed to obey or properly respect their supernatural betters. The message of the stories was clear: Be devout, resist hubris, know your place, stay within it. If you don’t: You will suffer punishment, eternal damnation with an extra, sadistic twist. Rulers of classical societies would have loved these myths because they served to remind their subjects to be, well, subjects.
It’s no surprise that future generations of societal leaders would think the same way about these stories. For hundreds of years rulers have commissioned artists to paint these myths as reminders to their subjects. Take for example the Spanish royal family, which commissioned Titian to paint a series of canvases depicting, Sisyphus, Tityus, and other myths of the damned. The royals installed the paintings at the royal court at Alcazar, where they would remind anyone who saw them who was running the show. (Obviously the royals didn’t much fret the substitution of ‘gods’ for ‘monarchs.’)
Several of these paintings were destroyed when Alcazar burned, but two have survived. (Today, both are at the Prado.) In one Titan shows us Sisyphus rolling a stone up a hill, in the other we see Tityus bound, unable to defend himself as an eagle snacks on his liver. Nearby a snake waits its turn. In both paintings the doomed are portrayed as muscular, capable men. The message is clear: No matter how strong, how powerful you are, you are subject to the rules of the leader. Defy them at your own risk.
Alys brings these timeless, familiar themes into the present, and gives them modern twists. Tomorrow we’ll look at how…

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