The title of Francis Alÿs’ Le temps du sommeil (The Time of Sleep)—which refers to a recent solo exhibition at the Vienna Secession, and the central work shown within it—alludes to Marcel Proust’s sprawling seven-volume tome, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), published between 1913 and 1927. Memory, sleep, time, and allegory are central issues for Proust, as they are for Alÿs; insomnia, for instance, is a disorder that Alÿs has confronted with his work—one conducive to a temporality that is radically out of sync with everyday reality. Yet even time spent asleep opposes contemporary economies of time, according to which endless productivity and ceaseless acceleration structure our sphere of action and interaction. The Vienna exhibition [November 18, 2016–January 22, 2017] focused on an ongoing series of 111 postcard-format paintings (begun in 1996), and brought into question the temporal experience of Alÿs’ oeuvre as a whole—as well as how recent works relate to the performances for which the Belgium-born artist became famous in the 1990s, after he moved to Mexico City and started strolling its streets.
In an upstairs gallery at the Secession, two videos, Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) (1997) and Paradox of Praxis 5 (Sometimes we dream as we live and we live as we dream) (2013), documented the artist’s performative practice. In the first work, Alÿs slides a melting block of ice through Mexico City; in the second, he walks a fireball through Ciudad de Juárez at night, “illuminating” a border city known for its socioeconomic and geopolitical tensions.
The Secession’s main gallery featured a thin rope, meticulously knotted and hung from the ceiling to fall into a pile on the floor below. Three framed drawings on the wall explained the work’s significance: each knot represents an action—such as “I jump” or “I turn back”—and, in this way, the rope serves as a spatial mnemonic device, to aid in the memorization of the path Alÿs has carved out through a cityscape. Ropes, cords, and lines were guiding threads throughout Le temps du sommeil, and they worked in tandem with wall panels and an exhibition catalogue—an inventory of paintings the artist has been working on and over continually for two decades, creating “palimpsest of time”—to provide a visual lexicon, a glossary, or a key to the artist’s evolving body of work.
The panels, hung in a torso-height horizontal line, were interrupted by short texts printed directly on the gallery’s white walls. These aphorisms were descriptive yet did not relate to the paintings next to them; rather, they evoked Alÿs’ vast performative oeuvre. The medium of painting may at first seem unsuitable to an artist and a practice concerned with psychogeography in the fashion of the situationist dérive. Yet the small panels of Le temps du sommeil share formal similarities with the artist’s walks, registering as ephemeral footprints on a picture plane. Whereas Alÿs’ performances expose the vertical, hegemonic strategies that are imposed on people who inhabit and use urban spaces, his paintings flatten this subversive dimension, as though to map an imaginary romantic cosmos.
Following Michel de Certeau’s seminal book The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), walking and, more specifically, the type of experiential strolling that Alÿs performs, is a practice of temporary inscription in space and can engender a subversion of the laws that govern it. In 1995 Alÿs walked with a leaking can of blue paint through São Paulo, a performance he repeated in green in Jerusalem almost ten years later (The Green Line, 2004), when he used the paint to make reference to the historical Green Line drawn in 1949 to demarcate Israel’s postwar border. This performance was referred to at the Secession both in painting and in a wall text that reads: “Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and Sometimes doing something political can become poetic.” An earlier version of the work showed the silhouettes of human figures and a dog painted in white, whereas the painting at the Secession was reduced to a brick-red color ground, with a green island that supported a human figure hovering atop it. Time stamps on each painting show how they have been reworked at different stages (e.g., “09 FEB. 1997”); an additional stamp that read “le temps du sommeil”—faintly, as though partially erased—marked the painting chosen for the exhibition. These time stamps, and the works’ serial format, give form to the conceptual logic of the bureaucratic or archival regime; this seemingly tight framework contrasts with the works’ imaginary dimension—with the “time of sleep”—which suggests a reading of the paintings that defies the very logic that produced them.
Alÿs’ small plates have a seductive force, and thus risk becoming fetishized as handcrafted miniatures—material objects of desire instead of mere documentations or storyboards. The paintings’ mesmerizing intimacy, and the neatness of their aesthetic, are in friction with the artists’ performative practice: when out in the open, Alÿs wanders through very real urban landscapes; Alÿs’ paintings, however, refuse a relationship with the real: they are from the other side of the tradition of the modernist flâneur, withdrawn into the realm of imaginary memory.