b. 1959, Antwerp, Belgium
Francis Alÿs was born in 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium. He attended the Institut Supérieur d’Architecture Saint-Luc in Tournai, Belgium, from 1978 to 1983 and the Instituto Universitario di Architettura in Venice from 1983 to 1986, where he received a master’s degree in urbanism with a thesis on the presence of animals in medieval and Renaissance-era European cities. After graduation, he moved to Mexico City, where he worked in the workshop of the weaver Jacobo Islas Mendoza in collaboration with Felipe Sanabria. The abundant presence of street animals in that city inspired the early work The Collector (1991–92), in which the artist “walked” a magnetized sculptural model of an animal through the city, extracting random metal detritus from the street. The sculpture, along with photographic documentation of its use, was exhibited in Alÿs’s second solo exhibition at the Galería Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City in 1992.
Many of Alÿs’s subsequent works examined the act of walking through an urban environment. The Leak (1995) consisted of a walk through Ghent with a punctured can of paint, which left a trail behind him. In Paradox of Praxis 1 (1997–98), he pushed a block of ice through Mexico City until it had completely melted away. His work also developed a political edge; in Patriotic Tales (1997), he led a flock of sheep into the Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City, in reference to the bureaucrats who authored the suppression of a protest there in 1968. For the photographic series Sleepers (1999–2006), he took photographs of animals and homeless people sleeping on the street. In When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), which was exhibited at the Bienal Iberoamericana de Lima in 2002, his focus shifted from the urban experience to notions of collective myth making: five hundred volunteers used shovels to move a sand dune four inches from its original location. Alÿs’s Modern Procession (2002) commemorated the move of the Museum of Modern Art in New York to its temporary home in Queens in the form of a parade across the 59th Street Bridge with citizens carrying replicas of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, as well as the chosen living icon, Kiki Smith. Revisiting his political bent, the five-minute video Gringo (2003), set in a bleak dirt alley in Hidalgo, Mexico, captures a hostile wild dog lunging at the camera lens. For Bridge/Puente (2006), the artist lined 150 boats from Key West, Florida, in the direction of Havana, thus suggesting a floating, yet incomplete, bridge between the two shores in the midst of major conflict.
Alÿs has had solo exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City (1997), Musée Picasso in Antibes (2001), Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut (2001), Museum of Modern Art in New York (Projects 76, 2002), Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin (2004), Schaulager in Basel (2006), and Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2007), among other venues. In 1999, he produced a web project for the Dia Art Foundation in New York. His work has also appeared in the Bienal de La Habana (1994), Bienal Tridimensional in Mexico City (1997), Bienal Barro de America in Caracas (1998), Melbourne International Biennial (1999), Mexico City: An Exhibition About the Exchange Rate of Bodies and Values at P.S. 1 in New York (2002), Moving Pictures at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2003) and multiple exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London (2004, 2007, and 2008). Alÿs was a finalist for the Guggenheim Museum’s 2002 Hugo Boss Prize and in 2008 received The Vincent Award at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He lives and works in Mexico City.