"Sometimes making something leads to nothing, sometimes making nothing leads to something." The seemingly paradoxical logic of this statement, uttered by the artist himself, informs the work of Francis Alÿs. His works often begin as simple actions performed by himself or commissioned volunteers, which are recorded in photographs, film, and other means of documentation such as postcards. Many of his projects are generated during the artist's "walks," or paseos, in which he traverses city streets. In these works, Alÿs proposes witty updates to Baudelaire's figure of the 19th-century flaneur. His first walk was The Collector (1991–92), in which he strolled through the streets of Mexico City pulling a small metal "dog" by a leash, its magnetic wheels collecting the city's detritus in its wake. In Paradox of Praxis (1997), the artist pushed a large block of ice down the streets for hours until it was reduced to a mere puddle. For The Leak (1995), he roamed the streets of Ghent with a punctured can of paint, leaving a sort of Jackson Pollock–like bread-crumb trail back to a gallery space, where he finally mounted the empty paint can to the wall.
Alÿs's endeavors often exceed the dimensions of discrete objects. In 2002 a group of some five hundred volunteers armed with shovels formed a line at the end of a massive, 1,600-foot sand dune and began moving the sand about four inches from its original location. This epic project, When Faith Moves Mountains (Cuando la fe mueve montañas, 2002), was completed for the Third Ibero-American Biennial of Lima in a desolate landscape just outside the Peruvian capital. The work is neither a traditional sculpture nor an earthwork, and nothing was added or built in the landscape. That the participants managed to move the dune only a small distance mattered less than the potential for mythmaking in their collective act; what was "made" then was a powerful allegory, a metaphor for human will, and an occasion for a story to be told and potentially passed on endlessly in the oral tradition. For Alÿs, the transitory nature of such an action is the stuff of contemporary myth.