The exhibition Francis Alÿs: Ciudad Juárez projects is the artist’s third with the gallery and his first gallery exhibition in 15 years. Alÿs’ practice deals with anthropological and geopolitical concerns based on the discourse of everyday life. Since moving from his native Belgium to Mexico City in 1986, his works have focused on the inherent socio-political conflict in border regions across the world. With conceptual works spanning two levels in the gallery, Ciudad Juárez projects brings him back to Mexico, turning the spotlight on the conflict-driven city.
Drug trafficking brought intense gang violence to the once-prosperous city in 2010. A quick search reveals its place as the ‘global murder capital’; a legacy of ferocious fighting between powerful drug cartels. Abandoned homes and buildings, empty streets and a barren landscape are the physical scars of this crisis, which feature heavily in the exhibition. While shining a light on areas left largely out of public conscience, Alÿs explores the role of the artist in such a context. However, he does not offer any answers to the problem and does not claim to, but rather he provokes questions; the solutions are left up to the viewer.
Alÿs plays with darkness and light throughout his exhibition. In Ciudad Juárez postcards, the viewer is presented with blacked-out tourist postcards — idealistic views of the city blocked completely — leaving only glimpses into what could have been. No longer would postcards from the city illicit the longing for a sunny holiday; there is now an eeriness to its altered face, a grim, repetitious reminder from unsent postcards of a place no one wants to see.
This is echoed in the video installation, Paradox of Praxis 5: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico (2013). Made in collaboration with Julien Devaux, Rafael Ortega, Alejandro Morales and Félix Blume, the artist is seen setting a football alight, kicking it, ablaze, through the city. With each kick the flames crackle and roar, an unruly ball lighting up the artist’s surroundings.
It is the cinematic parallel to his postcards, with similarly enigmatic aesthetic. Each frame reveals something more of the city in which the artist’s seemingly bizarre actions take place — a dark road, the muffled sirens of police cars, stray dogs obscured by darkness, only momentarily seen by the viewer then disappearing into blackness again. With the inclusion of each character in his path, we are reminded of the city around him, only shrouded by night. None of these characters, however, interfere with his walk; an apt embodiment of these people comes in the form of a middle-aged man, standing beneath a lamppost, looking on with no apparent desire to enquire or interrupt. Seemingly, how a man kicking a blazing football no longer creates questions is perhaps telling of how jaded the city is to unwarranted violence.
The sense of disaffection is lost in the innocence of children. Children’s Game #15: Espejos, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico (2013) has a disconcertingly different take on the drug violence in Mexico. We are presented with neat but unoccupied, denigrated homes, basking in the heat of the sun, invaded by a group of attacking little boys armed with shards of mirrors. They ‘shoot’ each other with reflections of the sun’s rays, making sounds of gunfire with each shot. There is a distinct lack of fear in this video that looms heavily in his other works, where although scripted, the actors truly look like they are having fun. The narrative is a smart, multilayered metaphor that makes clear that Alÿs is not one to outrightly critique, but present the situation for consideration. The city is now trying to rebrand itself and rebuild economy, begging the question of how Alÿs’ portrayal of the city affects this progression.
Francis Alÿs: Ciudad Juárez projects is a small, but largely eye-opening exhibition that leaves a great impact. It is an amalgamation of light and dark that is both comforting as it is unsettling, that will leave you with a sense of awareness and questions to ask.
Francis Alÿs: Ciudad Juárez projects is on display at the David Zwirner gallery until 5 August 2016.
By Joyce Choong