|Francis Al˙s |
goes on in the street
I'm going to tell you a story. An anecdote, a real story in spite of how absurd and unlikely it might seem, or perhaps precisely due to how absurd and unlikely it is.
I should start, however, by telling you that the leading figure in the work by Francis Al˙s The Last Clown is Cuauhtémoc Medina, art critic and friend of Francis. In the set of drawings, notes, paintings and cartoon video in loop form that make up The Last Clown, a man is strolling stony-faced and thoughtful along a dirt path in what could be a park, while in the background a jazz variation of a circus theme is playing; the man walks, crosses his hands behind his back, moves them and then, suddenly, in just a moment, turns his head and looks at the camera;... he is Cuauhtémoc Medina. He carries on walking, a dog appears and passes in front of him, and Medina stumbles into it and gets his foot caught up in the animal's tail; laughter in the background, it is the last clown.
I don't know Cuauhtémoc, but thanks to him I made contact with Francis. Thanks to him, I began to exchange e-mails with Francis, and we managed to agree to meet... more or less. And it is here that the story really begins. We arranged to meet over the days on which the Biennial of Venice was being inaugurated, and we would find each other in the Belgian pavilion. At that time he was preparing an off-biennial piece. A trip which consisted in arriving in Venice along with another person, with whom the two parts of an enormous tuba would be shared, and each would have to enter the city at different places. Afterwards they would have to go around Venice lost until they finally met, following which the two parts of the tuba would be fitted together and one of them would let out a single note which would be followed by applause from the other. They took two days to find each other. The Belgian pavilion was no use to me in finding Francis: he was looking for his tuba and I was looking for him. I didn't find him on the last day of the inauguration either. The rain was bucketing down and I left the Il Giardini precinct disappointed, on the point of taking a vaporetto to go back to my hotel. I had never seen Francis Al˙s before, just some photos which showed him at a distance, taking one of his walks. I had also seen the photos from The Doppelgänger in which Francis, during his strolls around various cities, had taken pictures from the back or in three-quarter profiles, in the streets and furtively, of people who bore a physical resemblance to him. At the vaporetto stop everybody was packed together and wet. In front of me was a group of people, also wet. One of them, a very tall man with his back to me, was wearing plastic and canvas sneakers of the type I had worn at school. Sneakers like the ones I had seen Francis wearing in the photos of some of his walks: yes, he was speaking Mexican Spanish with a Belgian accent, so this was indeed Francis Al˙s.
So, this is the story of my chance encounter with Francis. It is not surprising, just as Cuauhtémoc's collision with a dog wasn't either; for that last episode is a real one, too, or it was at least based on an autobiographical event that occurred between Francis Al˙s and Cuauhtémoc Medina. One day, Francis and Cuauhtémoc were walking along chatting in London Hyde Park when Cuauhtémoc suddenly stumbled and fell. That fall also led to a discussion of the ridiculous, laughter and humour, all mixed in with art. From that moment on, Francis Al˙s followed a lengthy process in which he transferred that anecdote into a series of paintings and dozens of drawings, notes and meetings in which he prepared the ground for the film.
Talking of clownish acts, I too was looking for Francis around the Venice Biennial while the true work Francis Al˙s was engaged in escaped me: concentrating on the biennial and on finding him, the two individuals that were pursuing each other to join their tuba parts escaped my attention, and only a chance encounter brought me face to face with him. Curators, and we critics, are accustomed to using artists and to remaining concealed behind the parapet of our discourse. In The Last Clown, Francis Al˙s inverted the terms of the equation. A critic is strolling deeply engaged in his preoccupations and a mere dog leads him to stumble and fall against the reality he was treading. This is tantamount to causing his fall from the pedestal of art and bringing him into direct confrontation with the work and the reality he was trying to capture, and on which he moves, reflects and acts.
Cuauhtémoc Medina's infinitely repeated stumble is only a joke, nothing more than a witticism. Deep down, a jazz variation of a circus theme gives us warning of it, of the clownish act, and when Cuauhtémoc Medina falls everybody laughs. It is nevertheless a personal joke enjoyed with Cuauhtémoc. His stumble is an excuse for the possibility of the real protagonist being Francis Al˙s: Cuauhtémoc also appears as a kind of alter-ego of the artist or of an ironic representation of work on art itself. Because who is the last clown? If we go back to that conversation of the two men following the original fall, what is at stake is the relationship between laughter, a sense of the ridiculous and art. The artist is the last clown, the ultimate monkey who is called upon to stage an exhibition, to do a few clownish acts so that we can all laugh.
Moreover, that stumble of Cuauhtémoc Medina is just one more anecdote, just one more story of a stumble, of a meeting, just one more of thousands of chance meetings that people our cities and our lives. The Surrealists had already spoken of such chance meetings when they quoted Lautréamont and the umbrella and the sewing machine on a dissection table _a quote from Lautréamont, by the way, which is impossible to locate. What happened in the meeting between those objects was that sense took off, opened out. The urinal, the coat stand, the shovel for clearing away snow or the comb that Duchamp selected as a work of art became no longer a urinal, coat stand, shovel or comb, and changed into something else. Taking from an object its use value is tantamount to depriving it of its sense; there is no signified, just a signifier ready to be filled with any significance: a zero degree of meaning. Around that period, anthropologists were also thinking about the zero degree of meaning, in those times when social life was changing and everything came to mean something else. A loop, a hole, an instant out of control.
|Duchamp took objects away from the chain
of producibility to which they are attached _everything
has be for something_ and noted that out there, in the
gallery or wherever, they entered into a chain of
infinite and purposeless using up, of dépense. A city's
streets, the ones Francis Al˙s strolls along or in which
Cuauhtémoc Medina stumbles, are made up of fortuitous
encounters, meetings, unexpected turns of events and
chance in which there arises a fragmentary sociability
formed of snippets. There exists in them no overall
meaning or explicit private one, nor any apparent
purpose. The urban setting, the city, is that place in
which the protagonist is a passer-by, a citizen or a
stroller who exercises all his power and imposes his
rules; the venue of an experience of sociability that
escapes the regulating structures of the State,
institutions, and political, economic and productive
Passers-by who meet and bump into each other are what makes urban life. The strolls, drawings, notes and a film in which a man on the street, Cuauhtémoc Medina, incessantly stumbles up against a dog's tail, and, in the last resort, all that expenditure of effort by Francis Al˙s in order to recount a minor daily anecdote, form part of the urban. As against the architect, who works on building new walls and ordering spaces in the city, the entire urban pheno-menon happens on the outside of the architectural discipline, in a place that escapes architecture because, in spite of its presence, architecture cannot cover it over and endow it with power in a totally satisfactory manner, organising its contingency. Strolls, chance encounters or ridiculous stumblings up against dogs' tails take place in the margins, in a place that the most brilliant of town planners will never be able to control, in a place of co-existence of wallpapers with floral motifs and false Chinese pitchers with which somebody adorns the interior of a rationalist dwelling. All the drawings, all the notes, the paintings and the film by Francis Al˙s do not so much make up a product to control the uncontrollable, but rather an action, an urban act which documents it and fabricates it in order to boost it and reveal it and into which he inserts himself, like just another agent fabricating a precarious sociability.
When it comes down to it, I have been talking about reality, the real, about what Machado spoke of in Juan de Mairena when a teacher asks a pupil to write a poetic version of the following sentence: the customary events that take place in the rue, and the pupil wrote, what goes on in the street. In the case of Francis Al˙s, that reality is also situated on such a low level: down in the street. That reality and that street are what Cuauhtémoc Medina stumbles up against, and falls always, ad infinitum, because reality, life and that sociability made up of snippets are constructed daily, ad infinitum and precariously. Here we may, or may not, feel the ability of the anecdotal to affect us, its power, in which we work daily as passers-by in any city whatsoever.
And we may laugh at the clumsiness of Cuauhtémoc, at the absurdity of the anecdote, at the fact that nothing of any great import happens, we can laugh as a defence in the face of that which we cannot capture, or with complicity, that complicity which after the laughter leads to a gesture of concern and that always reminds me of Lubitsch when he said that a true sense of humour always arises out of a profound existentialism. And to emerge from uneasiness and laugh again it is no bad idea to remember that a sense of humour, jokes and anecdotes are precisely the uncontrollable and that which cannot be reduced to an explanation or a particular power and control strategy. This without forgetting that laughter and a sense of humour not only make life more bearable, but literally make it, fabricate it_ at least in the street.
A dog, just a dog, or some sodden sneakers, what does it matter! It would seem ridiculous if it were not for the fact that it gives us such a good laugh.
David G. Torres