Francis Alÿs, Paradox of Praxis, 1997

14 March 2018

Francis Alÿs, Paradox of Praxis, 1997

The song of Mexico

Investigation by Sophie Lapalu


Sophie Lapalu draws an organic portrait of Mexico City through the prism of the artwork of Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist who has been living in the Mexican capital since 1989. Both political and poetical, his work is essentially based on social experimentation and examining the place of human beings within such an enormous city, between solitude and the necessity for exchange.

[ 1 ]

Director of Latino-American studies and Professor of Spanish Literature and Civilization at Princeton University, Rubén Gallo is the author of Mexican Modernity, an essay on Mexican avant-gardes, Las Artes de la Ciudad, on Mexican art in the  1990’s, and Freud au Mexique (Ed. Campagne première, 2013).

[ 2 ]

Rubén Gallo, « Mexico D.F. La ville de tous les délires », in Mexico, Chroniques littéraires d’une mégalopole baroque, trad. S. Doubin, Autrement, Paris, 2007, p. 8.

[ 3 ]

Francis Alÿs, « La cour des miracles », discussion with Corinne Diserens, in Francis Alÿs, Walking Distance From The Studio, exhibition catalogue, Kunst Museum, Wolfsburg, 2004, p. 77.

[ 4 ]

Historian and art critic as well as a curator associated with the Tate Gallery for Latino-American collections, Cuauhtemoc Medina is also the instigator of the Institute for Æsthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He met Alÿs very early upon his arrival, has written extensively on the artist’s work and contributed to the organisation of the work Where Faith Moves Mountains in Lima (Peru), in 2002.

[ 5 ]

Francis Alÿs et Cuauhtémoc Medina, note to Ambulantes, in Francis Alÿs, A Story of Deception, exhibition catalogue, Tate Publishing, London, 2010, p. 56.

[ 6 ]

See Georg Simmel, Philosophie de l’argent (1900), trad. S. Cornille et P. Ivernel, PUF, Paris, 1987, as well as Les grandes villes et la vie de l’esprit (1903), followed by Sociologie des sens (1908), trad. J.-L. Vieillard-Baron, Payot, Paris, 1989.

[ 7 ]

Frédéric Vandenberghe, La sociologie de Georg Simmel, La Découverte, Paris, 2009, p. 68.

[ 8 ]

Simmel noticed a “hypertrophia of the sense of vision”; vision has a tendency to substitute itself for the other senses. This abnormal increase, developed to start off with to respond to the omnipresence of elements to analyse and anticipate, paradoxically brings about a form of anxiety.

[ 9 ]

Contrary to what it seems, this video is not the documentation of an action; the artist assembled and edited the images (the sheep move in exactly the same manner and the shadow of the mast does not change as time passes). Francis Alÿs considers this video as a “fiction”.

[ 10 ]

Michel Foucault, “Leçon du 14 mars 1973,” in La société punitive, Cours au Collège de France, 1972-1973, Gallimard, Seuil, Paris, 2013, p. 200.

[ 11 ]

Id., « Résumé du cours », dans ibid., p. 265.

[ 12 ]

Michel Foucault indicates by this term the actions of workers who refuse to devote their bodies entirely to the apparatus of production (idleness, holidays…). Cf. Id., “Leçon du 14 mars 1973,” op. cit., p. 192.

[ 13 ]

Id., « Leçon du 7 mars 1973 », dans ibid., p. 197.

[ 14 ]

Id., « Leçon du 24 janvier 1973 », dans ibid., p. 72.

[ 15 ]

Id., « Leçon du 14 mars 1973 », dans ibid., p. 192.

[ 16 ]


[ 17 ]

We borrow the title of Paul Lafargue’s book published in 1880, Le Droit à la paresse (The Right to be Lazy).

[ 18 ]

All Francis Alÿs’ videos are available free of charge on his website :

[ 19 ]

Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir, Naissance de la prison, Gallimard, 1975, p. 236. (Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison)

[ 20 ]

Francis Alÿs, « La cour des miracles », op. cit., p. 95.

[ 21 ]

Rubén Gallo, op. cit., p. 28.

[ 22 ]

Francis Alÿs, preface to the work Fairy Tales, in Francis Alÿs, A Story of Deception, op. cit., p. 90.

[ 23 ]

Id., interview with David Torres, “Francis Alÿs, simple passant,” Artpress n° 263, 2000, p. 21.

According to writer Rubén Gallo1, Mexico City is a “monster, an urban catastrophe, a postmodern nightmare2.” Nevertheless, there are many people who, like sailors at the entrance to the Straits of Messina, irresistibly attracted by the song of the mermaids of the metropolis, find they are unable to leave. Francis Alÿs is one of them….

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