I love an exhibition or a show that can really make me think. While all art is bound to make you think in some shape or form, more often than not the pieces come to this generic, disappointing conclusion that belies the shallowness and, quite possibly, lack of thought the artist put into their work. When art is like this, I get tired of it and have to spend some time away from any art at all to ensure I won’t go crazy. It’s always a pleasant surprise, though, when an entire show can really make me think. One such show, which I’m tempted to go back and see one, two or three more times, is “La dépense”, a solo exhibition by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at Rockbund Art Museum.
Spanning all 3 floors of the museum, with over 1300 pieces throughout, the show itself is surprisingly minimalist: each gallery is sparsely yet smartly populated by films, diverse installations, miniscule paintings and even studies and sketches for films and projects. The environment and the art itself contribute a sort of order in the repetition and studies of chaos and routine that are a major theme in Alÿs works.
The show begins on the 2nd floor, which is solely dedicated to Tornado (2000-2010), a film taken from Alÿs’ perspective that has the artist circling, running towards, away from and into tornadoes in barren unused farmland on the outskirts of Mexico City. The resulting footage and space – designed in a way that viewers could sit or lay down to watch the tornado – brings you directly to the confrontation between the cyclone and artist, a game of cat and mouse that Alÿs describes as something akin to looking for the perfect wave, but more in line with The Old Man And The Sea.
This struggle, or “repetition of unnecessary progress” as he describes it, is a key feature of Alÿs’ work. Indeed, the title of the show “La dépense” (Consumption), is taken from the writings of French philosopher Georges Batailles in his work The Accursed Share, a critique of economics in which the philosopher argues that the accursed share is the excessive aspect of the economy, which requires spending on luxury or meaningless things and pursuits that ultimately amount to nothing and have no long-term value.
The following floors are dedicated to small pieces and more film, with the 3rd floor showing scenes from Alÿs’ dreams and, one highlight, A Story of Deception, film taken from a car driving slowly towards a mirage in Patagonia, Argentina. The slow lurching of the vehicle towards the ever receding “water” in the distance is in itself a study of doubt, dread and uncertainty.
The final two floors contain Exodus, studies from a short animation of a woman continuously tying and smoothing out her hair, sketches from this project, and over 100 small paintings of further dreams. The final floor is home to Le Temps du Sommeil, small pieces arranged nicely, not in any order except for that which the viewer assigns them.
Each small brown piece of wood contains white sketches of buildings, plans or streets, with animals and people engaged in different activities, dreams and actions that could have happened or never happened; yet further evidence of the chaotic yet orderly nature of repetition that Alÿs has witnessed in contemporary society.
The idea of consumption as a fact of life is deeply enshrined in the thought provoking works of Alÿs, and all of it combined is enough to make me want to go back for more to experience the full picture once again.