Declining Democracy

Francis Alÿs
Michael Bielicky &
Kamila B. Richter

Roger Cremers
Juan Manuel Echavarría
Thomas Feuerstein
Thomas Hirschhorn
Thomas Kilpper
Lucy Kimbell
Cesare Pietroiusti
Artur Żmijewski



When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002
Courtesy l’artista / the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
Installation view at CCC Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze
Photo: Martino Margheri

Being a “wanderer”, a traveller exploring society by putting the emphasis on its values and contradictions is fundamental in the artistic development of Francis Alÿs. He always offers a perspective that is other in respect to the official and canonical one, maintaining a coherence between his artistic projects and his own life conditions.
When Faith Moves Mountains
is one of the most famous outcomes of his investigation. Starting from the idea of providing an “epic response, at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent” to the bad Peruvian economic situation, on the 11th of April 2002, Francis Alÿs asked five-hundred volunteers to dig and move the sand of an almost two-hundred meters wide dune in Ventanilla, an area near Lima, where nearly seventy thousand people are living in huts. The purpose of the action is to move the dune by approximately ten centimetres from its original position, forming a long line at its foot and using only shovels. As Alÿs often puts it, his intention was to create a “social allegory”. The coral act of these people is a metaphor for the potentialities of a participative action taking on even mythical and religious features in its confronting the monumentality of nature, altered by human intervention. The greatness and the spectacularity of the project testifies how people when united can achieve things that would be unthinkable and impossible for the single individual, letting the power of collectivity emerge. At the same time this action represents an ephemeral and paradoxically senseless gesture. The effort to move ten centimetres of a dune that is two hundred meters wide is not perceivable in reality and, even if it was, it remains without purpose. The photographic and video documentation of the action captures the peoples’ act, not the real result, impossible to document. Francis Alÿs himself endorsed an extensive documentation of the action, encouraging the spreading of its fame and of images that would exalt also the aesthetical strength of the contrast between this large group of people and the sand dune.
Alÿs’ allegory is close to the concept of the myth, a narration that, although not real, becomes exemplary while its memory gets handed down. The title manages to point out the real value of the intervention: when faith moves mountains. It testifies the belief in the unity of people, even if there is no real response able to change the world or the way we look at it. Like Francis Alÿs himself puts it: “Sometimes, to make something is really to make nothing; and paradoxically, sometimes to make nothing is to make something.” Francis Alÿs’ artistic and at the same time political practice can be summed up by the title of another one of his works: Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic (2005), a video documentary of a journey during which he painted a green line along the border of the State of Israel the way it was after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The word game between “politic” and “poetic” becomes emblematic of Alÿs’ inquiry, always aimed at stimulating “site-specific” political reflections relating to certain contexts, using local forms and instruments and carried out directly within the public space.

When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002
In collaborazione con / In collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina
e / and Rafael Ortega
Courtesy l’artista / the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
©the artist

Francis Alÿs (1959, Antwerp, BE; lives and works in Mexico City, MX) creates works that encompass many media often involving the participation and presence of the artist. These performed events are documented in video, photographs, writing, painting and animation. He studied architectural history at the Institute of Architecture in Tournai (1978-83) and engineering at the Istituto di Architettura in Venice (1983-6) before moving to Mexico City in 1986, where he arrived as part of a French assistance program after an earthquake. He soon started practicing as a visual artist. Alÿs’ work has been shown in many international institutions, including the Wiels, Bruxelles (2010- 2011); Tate Modern, London (2010); AiM Biennale (Arts in Marrakech International Biennale); The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2008); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2007); Portikus, Frankfurt; MALBA, Buenos Aires (2006); Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Musée d’Art Contemporain, Avignon (2004); Centro Nazionale per le Arti Contemporanee, Rome — travelled to Kunsthaus Zürich and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid — (2003); MoMA, New York (2002, 2011); and Or Gallery, Vancouver, Canada (1998). His travelling show of portraits of Saint Fabiola has travelled to London, New York, and LAMCA. Alÿs participated in the Venice Biennial in 1999, 2001 and 2007 and the Carnegie International in 2004.

Declining Democracy