It is an indication of my blindness to a certain subject matter in contemporary art that I have seen the documentation from Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains project before, but that until its recent installation at the Museum of Modern Art I never thought of, well, faith.
When Faith Moves Mountains is an action that Alÿs organized in collaboration with Cuauhtemoc Medina and Rafael Ortega outside Lima in 2002: The three protagonists gave shovels to 500 volunteers and asked them to form a line along a sand dune. The idea was that the volunteers would use their shovels to ‘move’ the sand dune 10 centimeters from its original position. A 15-minute film documenting the ‘making of’ the project is available at Francis Alÿs’ website for viewing online and for download as a zipped MP4.
Because the action was created for the 2002 Lima Biennial, the work is typically considered Alÿs’ commentary on Peru’s transition from Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship to a poverty-addled democracy, a way of asking the question: Does a nation’s mass movement toward something typically considered progress — access to the ballot box — matter if it doesn’t improve the lot of a country’s people? At least that’s how curator Russell Ferguson presented it in the catalogue for his 2007 Hammer Museum Alÿs survey titled “Politics of Rehearsal,” and that’s how MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach presented it in the catalogue for his two-borough Francis Alÿs survey, “A Story of Deception.” The exhibition is on view at both MoMA and PS1 through Aug. 1.
While the artist and his collaborator push that interpretation– Alÿs and Medina wrote the catalogue section of MoMA’s exhibition publication (a bit of curatorial here-you-do-it that’s a little bit like Motor Trend relying on a Chevrolet sales brochure to tell it what it needs to know about a Corvette) — there’s another way to read the work: As Alÿs’ cynicism about the value of religious belief. Included in the documentation for the work on view at MoMA is a notation, presumably made by Alÿs, that variations of the phrase ‘faith can move mountains’ is common to all three religions of the book: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. For example, the phrase is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”
As is so often the case in Alÿs’ work, issues are raised and not resolved and subjects are outlined rather than defined. Is Alÿs asking if our faith in democracy as a problem-solver as problematic as our faith in the existence of a supernatural?
Alÿs has explored the intersection of faith and religion in other work: In his Fabiola project, Alÿs has accumulated dozens of pictures of St. Fabiola, a fourth-century Catholic saint. Fabiola works on lots of levels, as an exercise in repetition, rehearsal, unintentional and derivative seriality, but also as a meditation on faith: Do the same thing over and over and over — the Rosary, say — and hope it works. When Faith Moves Mountains functions on the same level, except that it’s an intentional action that may or may not move a mountain sand dune. (When Faith Moves Sand Dunes doesn’t have quite the same religious ring, does it?)
But that’s not all Alÿs is getting at with When Faith Moves Mountains, which was ‘performed’ in April, 2002. It’s tempting to think of When Faith Moves Mountains as Alys’ response to the foreign policy of the then-nascent and infamously faith-based George W. Bush administration. Just as Alÿs was conceptualizing When Faith Moves Mountains, the Bush White House was beginning to push the alleged link between democracy and development as a fundamental part of American foreign policy. Alÿs, who can be a bit of an opportunistic festival-conceptualist, likely saw a direct rejoinder to that part of the Bush Doctrine in democratic-but-economically struggling Peru, where he had recently been asked him to create a piece for a biennial in Lima.
(The set of foreign policy guidelines that are known as the Bush Doctrine would be formally presented in September, 2002, when the Bush administration published its fundamental tenets in the National Security Council text, “The National Security Strategy of the United States.” A key section of the document, titled “Expand the Circle of Development by Opening Societies and Building the Infrastructure of Democracy,” asserts that the Bush Administration believed that there was necessarily a link between development and democracy. I don’t mean to suggest that Alÿs was specifically responding to the NSC text, but to note that the text was the published culmination of the Bush administration’s advocacy of the democracy-equals-development formula.)
When Faith Moves Mountains suggests that to Alÿs, who has spent most of his career creating projects in the Third World, the link wasn’t quite so clear. Nor does Alÿs present an answer that’s simple. He has organized a collective action, but did it really succeed in its stated goal of moving a sand dune 10 centimeters? No. Collectivism that is the result of an arbitrary target set by a centrally-planned figure don’t work either, a point Alÿs underscores with his photo-depictions of the action. In photograph after photograph, tiny white specks move across the landscape in a single line. No progress is evident or measurable. The people are just doing what they’re told. It doesn’t seem to be doing any good. The sand dune looks exactly the same after the action as it did before.
Much of Alÿs’ work suggests that there are no easy answers to Latin America’s problems and that political dogma is as hollow as religious dogma. When Faith Moves Mountains, which smartly ties political faith to religious faith, may be Alÿs’ most complete meditation on either subject. [All images in this post are untitled photographs from When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.]