Based on an unflagging performative impulse, the works of Francis Alÿs (1959, Antwerp, Belgium) often take the form of explorations, of “walks” in places that become the subject of comprehensive research on the basis of an open-ended creative process, both narrative and documentary, physical and metaphorical. Suspended between the real and the imaginary, on his way Alÿs seeks to intercept and reinvent the linguistic codes and cultural realities with which the artist has gradually measured himself, since the first street actions implemented in Mexico City, where the artist moved in 1986. Since then Alÿs has conducted research characterized by an extreme formal synthesis that deliberately contrasts with those contexts of urgency, oppression and marginalization he often explores.
Animated by a sensibility that is both political and poetic, his works are like the separate, often minimal, episodes of a single discourse in which reality is checkmated, subverted and rewritten by the surreality of gestures at the extreme limit of absurdity and paradox. Examples are pushing a block of ice about for hours, drawing an ephemeral border of peace between Israel and Palestine, seeking to move a mountain in Peru, or penetrating into the eye of a tornado. In their transience, precariousness and incompleteness, these works are allegories and parables of art’s function as a catalyst for alternative realities, mere possibilities, both imaginary and revolutionary, that stem from the imagination and redeem and re-enchant reality as we know it.
Produced in 2011 for dOCUMENTA (13), REEL-UNREEL is the emblematic culmination of Alÿs’s artistic practice (and his research in Afghanistan, conducted by the artist from 2010 to 2014), by its radical reinvention and rediscovery of the medium adopted, in this case film, its performative nature and, finally, its combination of critical engagement and aesthetic experience. The title refers to the action presented in the video (two boys reeling and unreeling two rolls of film through the streets of Kabul, the ancient capital of Afghanistan), as well as the film itself which is reeled and unreeled in the film projector, playing on the similarity between the terms reel and real/unreel and unreal, used by the artist to indicate the West’s partial, or unreal, knowledge of the cultural, political and socioeconomic situation in contemporary Afghanistan.
Inspired by the classic street game of bowling a hoop, once common in Europe and still common among children in Afghanistan (as documented in the video Hoop and Stick (Children’s Game #7), the origin of the project and installed next to this one), the act of rolling a hoop is an exercise in dexterity, which consists of keeping it rolling as long as possible without letting it fall by hitting it with a stick.
In Alÿs’s version the hoop is replaced by a reel of film: a group of children follow the reel as it unwinds along the streets of Kabul, through the old center, the bazaar, the quays along the river, past heaps of garbage, the rubble of buildings destroyed by the war and so up to the hills overlooking the city, in recent decades the destination of a massive internal migration that has created a chaotic labyrinth of shacks and makeshift homes in the hills around the city.
The boy in the video unwinds the film, tracing a path, is immediately countered by another boy his own age who follows him at a distance and attempts to rewind the film onto another reel, as in a movie projector. In this way the whole city of Kabul is transformed into a makeshift movie set, just as the gesture of play is inverted into the projection of a three-dimensional film, which becomes covered with dust and particles, bearing with it, in the material impression of the film, the multiple memory of a community suspended between disintegration and reconstruction, memory and forgetting, past and future, drama and play.
Like other works by the artist, REEL-UNREEL evokes a dichotomy in the gesture of unwinding and winding which, in the joyous subversion of every urban rule (checkpoints ignored, rules of conduct disregarded), corresponds to the creation of an alternative narrative of the city of Kabul which brings out the contrast between the real and unreal image of contemporary Afghanistan, “reeled and unreeled” for the use and consumption of the Western media according to their journalistic, political and socio-economic agendas, which have historically influenced for centuries our knowledge of this country, never truly understood by the West.
Placed as we are before a reality that the artist evokes in all its facets, a kaleidoscope combining the reality of the news and imaginary reinvention, attempt and failure, politics and poetry, the apparently surreal phrase that closes REEL-UNREEL acquires a meaning. After evoking the destruction perpetrated by the Taliban of thousands of reels of film in the forecourt of the archives of Afghan Film. When, at the close of the video, the film rolled and unrolled by the boys finally snaps, marking the end of their game, there appears this phrase, compendium and testimony of the civil but also playful, identitary and visionary role of this work, as perhaps of every work of art, at every time: Cinema: Everything Else is Imaginary.