This winter, Eye Filmmuseum is presenting a major exhibition of work by the Belgian-Mexican artist Francis Alÿs. Alÿs is primarily known for his playful videos that are both engaged and poetic. These imaginative and rich observations of daily life are set in sometimes politically charged moments and places. A big spatial installation at Eye provides the setting for his impressive series Children’s Games.
Born in Belgium in 1959, Francis Alÿs trained as an architect in his home country and in Venice. In 1986 he moved to Mexico City, where he started to focus on visual art. On his many walks through the city, he started to study and record everyday life in and around the Mexican capital by means of simple yet striking performative actions.
His work involves making subtle interventions in daily life, and then capturing the effect with the help of video, photography, drawings and paintings. For example, Alÿs pulled a toy dog made of magnetic iron through the city, gathering all sorts of metal from the streets in the process, and he walked with a leaking tin of green paint along the Green Line, which in 1948 marked the border between Israel and Jordan. He also pushed a block of ice for nine hours through Mexico City until it had melted. Later in his career, Alÿs travelled as an ‘embedded war artist’ to Afghanistan, and since 2016 he has spent extended periods in Iraq, where he accompanies a Kurdish battalion and stays in refugee camps. Alÿs won the Eye Art & Film Prize (2018) for his work.
A remarkable chapter in the now extensive body of work of Francis Alÿs is his impressive series on children’s games played all over the world. This collection of short videos has been steadily growing since 1999. The most recent addition to the series is number 18, featuring children playing knucklebones in Nepal (Children’s Games 18 / Knucklebones, Kathmandu, Nepal, March 2017). In other videos, children kick a bottle up a steep street in Mexico City, play roughly with crickets in Venezuela, fly kites in Afghanistan, and ricochet stones on the sea near Tangier in Morocco.
Alÿs films in cities and villages, but also in places dominated by conflict and tension – such as Afghanistan or a Yazidi refugee camp in Iraq. Alÿs captures everything with a humane eye and mild amazement. The games often echo the rituals, symbols, customs and insights of each particular society he looks at through his lens.
The artist follows the children patiently, moving with their movements, but he never gets involved in their games. Surrounding noises are audible: birds, crickets, the wind, the laugher and screams of children. We see the harsh conditions in which the children sometimes live. We are drawn into an extended moment in their lives. Despite the sometimes wretched conditions of war and poverty, the overarching mood among the children is bright and cheerful, even optimistic.