A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way" the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs has been quoted as saying. Over the past 5 years, Alÿs, who has lived in Mexico City for the past 15 years, has been walking the streets of London, as part of a project commissioned by Artangel, the foundation noted for its public art projects. Artangel always manages to find exceptional locations for its projects and Seven Walks is no exception. The exhibition is presented in an old, dilapidated neo-classical building on Portman Square, which is worth a visit in itself.
If the goal of art is to inspire, then Francis Alÿs is a great artist. I left the exhibition brimming with ideas. Francis Alÿs turns the city into a studio and a readymade. He is a keen observer of the ordinary, which perhaps is not so ordinary after all. In a way many of Alÿs' projects are variations on the childhood game “I see what you don’t see and the colour/shape/whatever is (...)”.
Projected on a wall opposite a staircase, just above the floor, are pictures of milk bottles on a porch. This says a lot about a city and its people. For one thing it means there are still milkmen, who go from door to door to deliver milk to their customers. It also means other people don’t drink or steal the milk.
Instead of milk bottles on porches you could look for lost gloves or keep an eye out for girls in red trousers. You could look for people who sit in the sun and for those who sit in the shade. Instead of merely taking a picture you could leave a trace. You could add something or take something away or interfere, for example by altering the order of the glasses standing on the pavement in front of a pub. You could also interact with people on the street. You could greet total strangers or stand still in the middle of a crowd. Once you get the taste of it, you will notice that urban environments are full of treasures and that each city and each neighbourhood is unique.
In one video we see Alÿs walking along the railings of a garden in Chelsea. He holds a metal stick in his hand, which he rattles against the railings producing a joyful rhythm. It is then that you realize that those squares with their gardens and railings are a typical London thing. I had noticed them before, but somehow I had taken them for granted.
Centrepiece of the exhibition is the short film Guards (2003). The film begins with the image of a lone guardsman, in traditional red coat and bearskin hat, a gun held loosely in his hand, wandering through London’s deserted financial district. There’s something odd about this image. Guardsmen aren’t usually seen alone and they either march or stand still. This one swaggers. And what is he doing here in the City anyway? Then we see other guardsmen, also walking aimlessly along Bishopsgate, past Guildhall and through Barbican. When two guardsmen meet they pause, present their arms and march away in step. Gradually small groups form and merge into larger groups until finally an 8 x 8 square of guards has formed. The group marches to the nearest bridge across the Thames. Once they’re on the bridge the group dissolves.
The film compels admiration for the organization that must have gone into its production. Like most of Francis Alÿs’ work it is also fun and delightfully unpretentious. It just is what it is.
Francis Alÿs, of course, stands in a tradition of artists who took to the streets or made their art while walking. But whereas someone like Richard Long makes art by walking in landscapes, Francis Alÿs shows that you don’t have to go to some remote location, but can walk anywhere. And if he has an idea, he just does it..
In the National Portrait Gallery you can watch another project by Francis Alÿs for which he released a fox into the deserted Gallery by night. The Gallery’s CCTV system captured the fox as it moved from room to room, occasionally pausing to sniff at a couch or a painting. You can watch it online here (requires Windows Media Player).
Walk on the wild side, an article by Jörg Heiser on Francis Alys, which appeared in Frieze.
21 Portman Square, London W1 until 20 November 2005