Politics without the imagination is bureaucracy, but the imagination is never a neutral category.
The shantytowns built on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, are the product of civil war, economic turmoil, ethnic struggle, and ecological crisis. Populated by underemployed laborers from the city and displaced peasants from the Andes, frequently of indigenous descent, a number of these shantytowns were originally constructed in the 1970s. In 2002, one of these shantytowns, named Ventanilla, was home to more than seventy thousand people without plumbing, electricity, paved roads, or other basic infrastructure. The surrounding landscape is desert. To move a mountain on this landscape, Francis Alÿs gave each of five hundred volunteers from Ventanilla a shovel and asked them to stand side by side and slowly work their way up the dune, or as he described it in an interview published in Artforum: “This human comb pushed a certain quantity of sand a certain distance, thereby moving a sixteen-hundred-foot-long sand dune four inches from its original position.” This combination of poetic vagueness and precise instruction is central to Alÿs’s storytelling approach to artmaking.
Many of Alÿs projects are about leaving a rumor, a story, or even a myth in the landscape as opposed to fashioning an object. In a piece from 1997 entitled The Rumor, Alÿs went into a town in Mexico and told a story about a man who disappeared from a local hotel. The rumor quickly spread through the town. However, once a police sketch was made—i.e., an accompanying object created—Alÿs ended his involvement in the piece. In The Green Line (Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic) from 2005, he casually carried a can of green paint with a hole in the bottom and walked the now-erased original boundary line of the state of Israel following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
A Belgian living in Mexico who travels often, freedom of movement is an important component in Alÿs’s artwork. However, his brand of itinerancy—determined as it is by financial resources and post-September 11th legal circumscriptions—is in marked contrast with forced exile and involuntary migration. What interests me about When Faith Moves Mountains is the line that Alÿs’s disenfranchised workers drew in the sand. If anything, it reminds me of the line in Santiago Sierra’s 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People … (2000). Unlike dominant strategies in socially engaged art, Sierra’s material practices don’t aim to draw audiences into a vague consensual sociability. Rather, viewers are strongly provoked to recognize systems of economic, social, and representational exploitation in which they—meaning, you and I—likely participate, however indirectly.
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