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Exhibition Review

What Makes Francis Alÿs Works Poetic? – Reviewing the Logbook of Gibraltarat Art Sonje Center, Seoul

Amy Gahyun Lee

Nov 02, 2018

The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political, and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic, 2005, film still © Francis Alÿs

What makes Francis Alÿs works such poetic? We are all aware of that Francis Alÿs artworks are poetic since we can easily find this magical adjective, ‘poetic’ from most of texts and reviews about him. We know this fact very intuitively because it is not that difficult to catch this sense of poetry when we appreciate his projects. Surely, we all agree about that.

Let us review Francis Alÿs’ 1948 project titled The Green Line: Sometime Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Something Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic., which he literally used the word of ‘poetic’ for the project title. In 2004, the artist went to Jerusalem, exactly the border between Israel and Palestine, which has been also called ‘the green line’ since 1948 when Moshe Dayan, Commander of all the Israel forces in the Jerusalem region drew a green line on the map at a cease-fire after the war between Israel and Jordan. Along with the green line, the artist carried a dripping can of green paint and in a historical and spiritual relation to the Dayan’s green line, he created a visible green line on the street in the world’s most conflictive region having long lasting territorial issues.



Focusing on the conflicts caused by human desires, Alÿs examines the inherent boundary and separation issues through his concise and implicit activities rather than through propaganda slogans or political verbal narratives. Particularly in the Green Line project, the artist very connects the tragic situation of the region in the present moment with the historical narrative and awakes us, oblivious to the pursuit of action only by desire, while forgetting even what the original purpose was, in a very simple and restrained manner, connects the tragic situation of the region in the present moment with the historical narrative and awakens us, who are blinded in our actions and only driven by desire, forgetting what the original purpose even was.


Francis Alÿs’s works are poetic, without question. It’s not only because he uses metaphors and a flowing attitude in his activities, but more because the artist delivers a universal value that transcends human desires. In spite of producing mild and natural visual movements through projects, what the artist genuinely deals with are realistic and tragic issues that we face at the moment and through pressing home the argument very sharply, he finds an echo in everybody’s heart, which is a very significant part of art in general. Once Aristotle referred in his work Poetics that “Poetry…is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”


It’s time to speak about the artist’s bridge project which takes a significant part of the artist’s latest exhibition, The Logbook of Gibraltar at Art Sonje Center, Seoul. The project was initially started in 2006 in the sea between Havana, Cuba and Key West, Florida of the U.S. Mainly focusing on the tension between the Cuban immigrants and the U.S. immigration authorities, Alÿs invited the fishermen from both Havana and the Key West, where tension still lingers from the unresolved conflict, and built a symbolic floating, yet incomplete bridge by lining up their boats from each side of the two coasts. A single-channel documentary video on the third floor of the center, Bridge/Puente, shows the whole process of the project.



Bridge/Puente, 2006, A single-channel documentary video, color, sound, 23' 15"
Installation view at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2018 photo by Sangtae Kim



Then his metaphor continued in his second bridge project in the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow strait that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates Gibraltar and Peninsular Spain from Morocco, Africa. The Strait, once ruled by Spain and then by the Muslim Moors, is now ruled by Great Britain, and has always been a place of glory, as well as a threat, due to its strategic, geopolitical importance. Recently, the Strait has suffered from another conflict between Spain and Morocco, because Spain installed a high border fence in Ceuta (one of Spain’s two North African enclaves, geopolitically located in Morocco), to prevent African immigrants and refugees from crossing over to the Gibraltar Straits.



“On August 12, 2008 a line of kids each carrying a boat made out of a shoe leaves Europe towards Morocco, while a second line of kids with shoe-boats leaves Africa in the direction of Spain. The two lines will meet on the horizon”



In Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River for which the artist dedicated four years, Alÿs implies the contemporary conflict between Morocco and Spain in the frame of a children’s play. Just like a mythical giant from a fable, building a bridge in the sea overnight, a line of kids from Spain carrying boats made out of their own shoes leaves Europe in the direction of Morocco, while another line of kids from Morocco leaves the coast of Africa, aiming to meet each other on the horizon.


The artist installed two monumental sized projection slides facing each other in the center of the exhibition hall, allowing the audiences to be immersed in the project in between while being surrounded by the sounds of kids who hit the waves of the sea, repeatedly coming in and out of the water’s surface. The videos are not clear on whether these kids accomplished their primary goal at the end, but rather gear the focus more toward their attempts and challenges, so as to deliver the significance of the act itself. Through collaboration with the children, the artist constantly compares the real world which is full of conflicts and disputes, with the unrealistic and imprudent world of children, which through its irony, delivers lessons to us who, unfortunately, believe that we are very logical.



Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River, The Strait of Gibraltar (Morocco - Spain), 2008, 2 Channel videos, 7' 44" each
Installation view at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2018 photo by Sangtae Kim



To the question of why he ironically revealed the line and visualized it through some of his projects in order to speak about the issue of boundaries, the artist answered that lines in his projects delivered a sense of connection, not of division. He added that his journey was also a journey of two lines seeking each other and that the ultimate aim of the project is to present the tension accompanying the glory that comes when two different lines finally encounter. His Loop would be the remarkable project in which the artist symbolically drew the longest invisible line connecting Mexico with the United States. The project was based on an irrational immigration issue between the U.S. and Mexico in 1997, and by using his exhibition fee for an exhibition in San Diego, Alÿs was traveled for five weeks by plane from Tijuana to Chile, then to Australia, Hong Kong, Seoul, Anchorage, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and finally to San Diego, in the furthermost traveling route from Tijuana to San Diego. His line here is less economical and rational, but flexible and very autonomous, like all the other lines that he has produced.



“In order to go from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the Mexico/USA border, I followed a perpendicular route away from the fence and circumnavigated the globe…until I reached my departure point on the other side of the fence. The project remained free and clear of any critical implication beyond the artist’s physical displacement.”



Employing the aesthetical engagement with societies, Francis Alÿs remains in society like the figure Flaneur by Walter Benjamin. His poetic presentation is simple and implied. It is not generated by decorative nonentities, but more relied on metaphors, a very direct and clear use of metaphors, like that of a line of shoe boats facing a mirror. It has to do with his actions, especially in “doing meaningful actions” with people around. When the artist drew “The Green Line,” when “his faith moved a mountain” in Peru, when he mixed water from the Red Sea with water from the Black Sea to produce “watercolor,” and also when he dragged an ice cube on the street until it melted away, Alÿs has always placed his actions before textural narratives. It’s more like he metaphors his own performances.



Installation view of The Logbook of Gibraltar at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2018 photo by Sangtae Kim