Sometimes, art is at its best when it’s concrete. We can see this in the rich velvet that Rembrandt’s ladies and merchants sit upon, in the rough stone lines of a Diego Rivera mural, in the calculated aesthetic brutality of a Miro, or in the staccato cuts of an Eisenstein film. Art that deals intensely with social issues, ironically, often seem to lose its natural ability to surprise us. The root of such art comes from a political perspective, something cast up in the air rather than fixed in an objective reality every human being can reach and touch, just like Dutch cloth or harsh Mexican stone.
Furthermore, these pieces are stuck in a kind of open loop: There is no way to resolve an impression since the very issues the piece is addressing will never be resolved. Eisenstein loaded his films with ideological content, but he also knew when to cut off a shot and shock us into seeing something, rather than letting a thought drift into the air. In Francis Alys’s exhibition Rehearsal at the Renaissance Society, the artist displays performance art with this notion of giving tangibility to intangible ideas at its core.
Though born in Belgium, Alys may well be referred to as a Mexican artist: He moved to Mexico City in 1986 and found himself inspired by the city’s age-old socioeconomic divides and its curious place as a center of international and domestic turmoil. In the film Politics of Rehearsal, he includes a clip of President Harry Truman’s inaugural address. “More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery,” the president says. “For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people.... I believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life.”
In a voice-over to the taped rehearsal, Alys discusses Truman’s speech as the origin of the ideal of modernity that had such traction with the elite in Mexico City and across Latin America. The spread of Western “modernity,” in his analysis, started as an anti-Soviet initiative, something to counter the Soviet appeal to the revolutionary feelings sparked by centuries of inequality in the southern hemisphere. Soon, it became a fetish of its own. Of course, the rehearsal he’s commenting over is that of a stripper doing a striptease to a Franz Liszt piece. As Alys himself comments, the dancer is pretending to take the audience to bed. But nothing will happen; Alys believes that the idea of following the North American ideal of modernity, as internalized by Latin American elites is about as purposeful as the striptease. It gives off a good show, promises something wonderful, mesmerizes us—just like the Franz Liszt piece she’s dancing to—but leads to a pointless cycle of boom and bust.
What really elevates the piece from mere political commentary is the fact that it is a rehearsal. We see the dancer coordinating her dance to the movements of the song, the singer and piano player getting used to each other, the cameraman setting up shots and correcting the motions of the stars of the film. We feel a connection to these people who are acting fully naturally as they learn to create the “real,” refined work of art.
Rehearsal’s themes both emotionally appeal to the viewer and provide a not-so-subtle commentary on art itself: If the Liszt piece is just a trap like the stripper’s dance, then is all art an intellectual striptease?
Another film in the gallery, titled Bolero, is positioned on top of a chicken wire and plywood tower erected in the pristine Cobb Hall gallery, perhaps as a reminder of the slums of Mexico City. Up the stairs, an animation of two female hands waxing a shoe is playing—a woman sings a sprightly ballad over the rapid motion of the hands. It takes a moment to figure out what she is singing: “Nothing we are/ Nothing will be/ I see/ You are/ I will/ You are/ Nothing to be/ For Nothing we are/ And nothing will be.”
At this point, we see pretty female hands stroking the large leather shoes, singing this quiet song of despair composed by Alys himself. The piece expresses Alys’s disgust with the creation of low-wage service jobs in Mexico. The effect is subtle, yet powerful.
Alys is as much sociologist and historian as artist in this capacity. He leaps straight into the politics of an event without fear and uses our basic human psychology to make his points. While conceptual art may have a mixed track record when it comes to making relevant connections to the real world, Alys’s work is grounded in the basic qualities of our humanity, and its commentary is a direct product of the situations that he sets up and films.