This exhibition, the fullest solo show ever devoted to Francis Alÿs (b. 1959, Antwerp, Belgium) by an Italian public institution, internationally premieres all the works produced by Alÿs in Afghanistan, from 2010 to 2014, set in relation to some of the artist’s most famous previous works. The exhibition is divided into two parts, the first on the museum’s ground floor, in the Re_PUBBLICA MADRE room, which presents the video REEL-UNREEL, the second on the museum’s second floor, where the other “Afghan Projects” are exhibited.
Alÿs is the creator of works ranging from videos to installations, paintings, drawings, animations and photographs. Consistently based on a performative impulse, these works often take the form of explorations, of walks in places that become the subject of a highly articulated research, the matrix of an open creative process, both narrative and documentary. Suspended between real and imaginary, from being physical Alÿs’s walks become metaphorical, aimed at intercepting and reinventing on his path the linguistic, socio-political and cultural realities which the artist has explored at various times. Animated by a sensibility that is both political and poetic, his works are like the single, often minimal, episodes in a single discourse, in which reality is checked, subverted and rewritten by the surreality of gestures at the limit of the absurd and paradoxical. In their transience, uncertainty and incompleteness, these works are allegories, parables, of the role of art 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 (presented by the Madre at a national premiere) is the emblematic culmination of Alÿs’s artistic practice, by its radical reinvention and re-presentation of the medium adopted, in this case film, with its performative matrix and, finally, by its union of critical engagement and aesthetic experience. The title refers to the action presented in the video (two children “reeling and unreeling” two spools of film through the streets of Kabul, the Afghan capital), as well as the film itself which “reels and unreels” in the film projector. Inspired by the classic street game of trundling a hoop, once common in Europe and still widespread among Afghan children as a display of dexterity, which consists of keeping it rolling without falling for as long as possible by driving it with a stick. In Alÿs’s version the hoop is replaced by a reel of film. A group of children, intrigued, follow the reel as it unwinds through the streets of Kabul, through the old town, the bazaar, the quays along the river, the rubble of buildings destroyed by the war, up to the hills overlooking the city. The boy who unwinds the film in the video traces a path, immediately contradicted by another child of 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 an improvised movie set and a gesture of play in the three-dimensional projection of a film that, in becoming covered with dust and debris, brings with it, in the tactile impression of the film, the multiple memory of a community suspended between past and future, memory and oblivion, disintegration and reconstruction, drama and play.
Like Alÿs’s other works, REEL-UNREEL alludes to a dichotomy: on the one hand the gesture of unrolling and on the other of rolling, which, in the joyful subversion of every urban rule (checkpoints ignored, rules of conduct disregarded), corresponds to the creation of an alternative narrative of the city of Kabul that brings out the contrast between the real and unreal image of contemporary Afghanistan, “reeled and unreeled” for the use of the Western media, in keeping with journalistic, political and socio-economic agendas that from outside, and still today, have historically influenced our knowledge of this country, never really understood by Westerners. All the works in this exhibition, each in its own way always allow the viewer’s interpretation to complete them, faced as we are with a reality which the artist evokes in all its facets, turning his works into a kaleidoscope which combine the reality of the news and imaginary reinvention, striving and failure, politics and poetry. Hence the phrase which concludes REEL- UNREEL acquires a seemingly surreal significance, after evoking the destruction perpetrated by the Taliban, of the thousands of reels of film in the square in front of the Afghan Film archives. When at the end of the video the film rolled and unrolled by the children breaks, marking the end of their game, this sentence appeared, as a compendium and testimony to the civil but also playful, identitary and visionary role of the work, perhaps like every work of art at every time:
Cinema: everything else is imaginary.
Francis Alÿs was born in Antwerp (Belgium) in 1959. Since 1986 he has lived and worked in Mexico City. A retrospective exhibition of his work (Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception) was organized in 2010-2011 by the Tate Modern, London; Wiels Centre d’Art Contemporain, Brussels; MoMA-Museum of Modern Art, New York and MoMA-PS1, Long Island City, New York. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions by some of the world’s most important museums, including the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2010); The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (2008); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2007); Hirshhorn Museum-Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2006); Portikus, Frankfurt (2006); MALBA, Buenos Aires (2006); Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Musée d’Art Contemporain, Avignon (2004); Kunsthaus, Zurich (2003); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2003). In 2012, on the occasion of dOCUMENTA (13), the artist exhibited in Kabul, among the ruins of the Cinema Behzad reopened specially for the occasion, the film REEL-UNREEL, the centerpiece of the exhibition at the MADRE. Alÿs has also taken part in numerous Biennials, including the Bienal de São Paulo (2010, 2004, and 1998), the Venice Biennale (2007, 2001 and 1999), the Shanghai Biennale (2002), the Istanbul Biennial (2001 and 1999) and the Havana Biennial (2000 and 1994).