REEL-UNREEL : FRANCIS ALYS AU MADRE, NAPLES

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Francis Alÿs “Reel-Unreel (Afghan Projects, 2010-14)” / MADRE, Napoli / Jusqu’au 22 septembre.

Francis Alys expose ses Afghan Projects réunis sous le titre Reel-Unreel au centre d’art napolitain MADRE jusqu’au 22 septembre. Produite en 2011 pour la Documenta 13, cette oeuvre n’est pas seulement la pièce centrale de l’exposition napolitaine, mais représente également l’acmé symbolique de toute la pratique de l’artiste…

Produced in 2011 at dOCUMENTA (13), Reel-Unreel (presented in nationwide premiere at the MADRE in the RE-PUBBLICA MADRE gallery, transformed for the occasion into a large public movie theater) is not only the centerpiece of the exhibition but also the symbolic culmination of Alÿs’s artistic practice, by its radical reinvention and re-presentation of the medium adopted, in this case film, and its performative matrix, and also, finally, by the combination of critical engagement and aesthetic experience. The title refers to the action presented in the video (two children who “reel and unreel” two spools of film through the streets of Kabul), and the film itself, which likewise reels on and off the film projector, with an assonance between the terms reel/real and unreel/unreal adopted by the artist to indicate the partial, or simply unreal, knowledge in the West of the cultural, political and socioeconomic reality of contemporary Afghanistan.

Like the artist’s other works, Reel-Unreel evokes a dichotomy: on the one hand the gesture of unreeling and on the other of reeling which, in the joyful subversion of every urban rule corresponds to the creation of an alternative narrative of the city of Kabul that brings out the contrast between the real image and the unreal one of contemporary Afghanistan, “reeled and unreeled” for the use and consumption of Western media in accordance with the journalistic, political and socio-economic agendas that for centuries, from the outside, have historically influenced our knowledge of this country, never truly understood by the West.

The video has given rise to a number of other works –animations, paintings, drawings, collages, postcards, documents and a series of “ephemeral objects”, all on display in the rooms on the second floor of the MADRE – which constitute what the artist calls the Afghan Projects, which are configured together as a storyboard or archive, whose documentary and narrative structure recalls a travelogue made up of images and annotations, a board on which are posted thoughts and memories, ideas and comments, encounters and suggestions, interpretations and projects. If the video Reel-Unreel presents an intimate and personal vision of Afghanistan, the series of paintings on display – Color Bar Paintings – evokes the difficulty of representing that same vision and sharing it.

Alÿs himself has been featured in two of his most celebrated works, the only ones not produced in Afghanistan, that close the exhibition on the second floor of the MADRE: the act of pushing an ice cube through the streets of Mexico City for nine hours until it is seen to melt completely –Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), 1997 –which corresponds to an entropic sculptural gesture that symbolizes, by its gradual melting, the inanity of the quest for meaning but also the need to keep searching for it, and therefore the aleatoriness, in the context in which the action is performed, of the process of social construction and modernization, which in Mexico, has never been fully attained, though it seems to be almost within reach; in The Green Line, 2004, during a two-day walk the artist marked the uncertain boundaries of the state of Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, leaving behind him the trace of the Green Line formed by drops of paint dripped from a hole in the can he carried (the manifestation of a performative painting dispersed in the environment and similar to the sculptural gesture presented in the previous video. The relation between these two works and the Afghan Projects brings out the coherence and consistency of this political-poetic logic, which showcases the most trivial actions and reinvents the very codes of the expressive media adopted.

All the works in this exhibition thus, each in its own way, challenge, the specifics of the medium in which they are expressed (whether sculpture, painting, drawing or film), leaving the interpretation open to the viewers with the possibility of completing them, faced as we are with the reality evoked by the artist in all its facets, turning his works into a kaleidoscope in which the reality of the news and imaginary reinvention, attempt and failure, politics and poetry are all combined.

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