Two comments from the artist Sol Le Witt bookend the history of art since the 1970s. The first professes conceptualism to be “the liberating idea that gave the art of the next 40 years its real impetus.” The second—“You shouldn’t be a prisoner of your own ideas”—identifies the practice’s frequent obviousness.
Conceptual art, pegged “the new Cubism” by Roberta Smith, recently morphed from yesterday’s radicalism into today’s museum orthodoxy. If MOMA’s hugely successful Marina Abramovic retrospective last spring was its October Revolution, then the museum’s 2010 summertime installation of Yoko Ono’s grating Voice Piece for Soprano quickly proved its official Leonid Brezhnev autobiography. (Writer Clive James declared that book so mortifyingly dull that, were it read outdoors, “birds would fall out of the sky and dogs would drop dead.”)
Since last September, MOMA has largely busied itself with variations on its new canonical theme—a unified field theory of conceptualism. Unfortunately, in its rush to own the movement, the museum has also papered over crucial differences among its more prominent contemporary manifestations: namely, a clubby New York–centric conceptualism for art’s sake, and urgent political works made largely outside of the United States. For up-to-date information art—one classic moniker for conceptualism—that’s getting the facts wrong and then some.
Unlike men, all conceptualisms are not created equal. Some idea art—another dated term circa 1970—is so cliquishly abstruse as to celebrate, say, a man masturbating inside a gallery as a creative act (Vito Acconci’s 1971 Seedbed), or, more recently, a figure slithering around buffed cement in white pajamas (Terence Koh’s 2011 nothingtoodoo). Other examples, though, push open art’s closed doors: Consider Joseph Beuys’s 1980 founding of the German Green Party (he tagged it “social sculpture”) and the protest work that recently got Ai Weiwei arrested. Besides the obvious differences in generosity, crucial distinctions also appear when these artists address the mother of all art world MacGuffins—the “dematerialization of the art object.” A formula fetishized by legions of American artists, this “iron rule” has served Third World creators largely as a means to an end.
And what end would that be? It varies, of course. In the case of the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs—whose work has explored the demanding intersection between politics and poetics in Mexico for two decades—that artistic mission amounts to a set of pointed but open-ended reflections on the volatile nature of entropic societies. Not one to churn out additional in-house chatter about the global art market, Alÿs’s goal has been instead to produce work that questions, provokes, and engages, while in the process also expanding the reach of art and its audience.
Currently enjoying a two-venue retrospective at MOMA and MOMA P.S.1, Alÿs’s wide-ranging art—his practice includes videos, photographs, paintings, drawings, objects, maps, newspaper clippings, assorted notes, and ephemera—illustrates a particularly self-aware view of contemporary conceptualism. Trained as an architect in Venice, Alÿs moved to Mexico City in 1986, ostensibly to work on rebuilding projects in the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake. The fact that he stayed afforded Alÿs a unique vantage point on one of the world’s most populous cities; it also branded him a tourist for life.
An early work, Turista (1994), acknowledges the discomfiting nature of that “tourist gaze.” Photographing himself alongside itinerant workers in Mexico City’s Zocalo—the megalopolis’s main square and principal stage for mass politics—he matched their “plumber” and “electrician” signs with one of his own advertising his status as a foreigner. Had Alÿs brandished a sign reading “artist” (a profession he shares with past émigrés to Mexico, like Edward Weston and Leonora Carrington), the distance between his “labor” and that of the destitute journeymen would not have budged one milimetro.
A series of local and international walkabout actions followed in the wake of Turista. Among these were forays into Mexico City’s popular neighborhoods trailing a magnet sculpture on a leash (The Collector, 1990–92); hardy jaunts to collect vintage snapshots of fellow strollers (Instantaneas, 1994–present); an extended lost weekend during which the artist drifted foggily “under the influence of a different drug” for seven days (Narcotourism, 1996); and, eventually, a nine-hour slog through the city center where the artist pushed a block of ice around until nothing was left but a puddle (Paradox of Praxis 1, Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing, 1997). Exhibited at MOMA as a single-channel video, this last work proved an important synthesis for Alÿs. An event literally dripping in Sisyphean poetics, its final screened form evokes Minimalism’s chunky geometry, while invoking the long-standing disproportion between work and achievement in Mexican life.
Later pieces like Re-enactments (2001) pushed the artist further toward his very own brand of elliptical social commentary. A two-channel video projecting the real and restaged versions of a potentially deadly videotaped drama, the work features Alÿs walking around with a loaded Beretta in his hand for a full 11 minutes until Mexican police arrive to draw on him (the Live vs. Memorex installation is as amateurishly convincing as two Cops episodes). But it would take his most notable work to date, When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), to fully realize a vision the artist formulated in a choicely allusive phrase: “land art for the landless.”
Orchestrated for the Lima Biennale (by this time, the Belgian had become a favorite of the festival circuit, despite his sending a peacock in his stead to the Venice shindig as a “get stuffed” gesture), this action consisted of 500 shovel-toting volunteers spading a massive sand dune forward two inches. Performed and duly recoded in an area where millions of displaced people still live today, Alÿs presented a real-life parable for the faithful and faithless alike. Social mobilization or political engagement as a mirage? Mountains were moved. Despite the video record, the drawings, the collages, and mock-didactic paraphernalia, the artist finally, generously leaves it for the viewer at MOMA to decide.