Francis Alÿs: REEL/ UNREEL

On view at David Zwirner Gallery in New York is a body of work by Francis Alÿs, originally produced for Documenta 13. For this summer’s iteration of the contemporary art fair, Alÿs showed a group of small paintings in a former bakery in Kassel, Germany, and a film entitled REEL/UNREEL in one of the fair’s satellite venues in Kabul, Afghanistan, which was produced in collaboration with Ajmal Maiwandi and Julien Devaux. The installation at David Zwirner reunites these works in the same place for the first time since their debut last June. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi, REEL/ UNREEL, 2011, single-channel video projection, 19:28 min., color, sound. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery.
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Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi, REEL/ UNREEL, 2011, single-channel video projection, 19:28 min., color, sound.

A film shot in Kabul, REEL/ UNREEL follows a group of Afghani children as they play a classic game, keeping a hoop in constant motion with the aid of a stick. However, Alÿs has replaced the hoops of two boys with film reels. Running alongside the reels, one boy unravels a roll of film, while another runs behind him, re-raveling it on a second spool. The camera follows the pair as they careen from the outskirts of Kabul, down through back alleys, bazaars, and congested streets. As the film unfolds, poignant contrasts emerge. Viewers encounter the narrow streets of Kabul’s Old City, littered with rubble and detritus, where residents wander on horseback with herds of goats, as well as bustling marketplaces and paved roadways packed with vehicles. The striking differences are highlighted by their apparent geographical proximity, while they seem worlds apart in other ways.

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Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi, REEL/ UNREEL, 2011, single-channel video projection, 19:28 min., color, sound.
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Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi, REEL/ UNREEL, 2011, single-channel video projection, 19:28 min., color, sound.

Heavily influenced by the artist’s interest in urban environments and their tendency to change drastically over time, Alÿs often sees his work as archival documents of a particular time and place. Although born in Belgium, Alÿs moved to Mexico City in 1986, where he now lives and works, saying that the “dizzying complexity” of the urban chaos was both a draw and an inspiration for his work.

At the start of the film, a sequence of text states that when the Taliban came to power in 1996, they burned many original Afghani films outside of Kabul, and that residents say the fire lasted for several days. However, it says, the Taliban was never given the original reels, but rather replaceable copies of the films. The inconclusive texts leaves viewers to speculate as to the location of those films, and the importance of these cinematic documents for Kabul’s residents, creating a poetic overture to the film’s opening.

Alÿs has said that his method of shooting is “always systematic, and tries to respond technically to the encountered situations.” For this reason, much of REEL/ UNREEL is shot from the height of the boys who run bent-over to push the reels as they go, a height of about two or three feet from the ground. In this way it follows suit with other works, like Alÿs’s Sleepers series, always shot from ground level, and his Ambulantes series, images of the street merchants in Mexico City that travel on foot, always shot perpendicularly at eye-level.

Francis Alÿs | Sleepers, 1999-2006, 35 mm slides.
Francis Alÿs | Ambulantes, 1992-2006, 35 mm slides.

The title is also a play on words, becoming ‘real/ unreal,’ a parallel that makes reference to the way Afghanistan is portrayed in Western media. The suggested themes of history, memory, and fact versus fiction, are common ones in Alÿs’s work. In a piece from 2000, Re-Enactment, Alÿs bought a gun in downtown Mexico City, and walked through the streets of the city until he was arrested, an action which took eleven minutes in total. The next day, Alÿs re-enacted the scene again, but with everything pre-arranged, so that all by-standers, and even the police, were accomplices in the project. It was this second, staged scenario that he filmed. He says of the film: “I wanted to question the rapport we have today with performance and the ways in which it has become so mediated, particularly by film and photo, and how media can distort and dramatize the immediate reality of the moment, how they can affect both the planning and the subsequent reading of a performance.”

Francis Alÿs | Reel/ Unreel at David Zwirner Gallery, New York.

It is this desire to re-address the medium of video that he continues to grapple with in REEL/ UNREEL, and which he explores more methodically through the small paintings that accompany the film. The leitmotif of these small works, numbering several dozen in total, is a colored “test pattern” commonly used to test chrominance on TV screens. The painted bars form the background to images of daily life and customs in Afghanistan, often mundane or serene landscapes of the urban density, or the mountains that surround Kabul, and deliberate rejections of the images of violence and war that the western public has come to associate with the country. In this way, the works become a commentary on the omnipresence of digital media, as well as the public’s need for immediacy through the medium of video, regardless of its messages or effects.

Francis Alÿs | Untitled, 2011-2012, oil encaustic on canvas on wood, 5 x 7 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery
Francis Alÿs | Untitled, 2011-2012, oil encaustic on canvas on wood, 5 ¾ x 7 ½ inches. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery
Francis Alÿs | Untitled, 2011-2012, Diptych, Painting 1: Oil on canvas on wood, 11 x 13 3/4 inches (27.94 x 34.92 cm) Painting 2: Oil and collage on canvas on wood 5 x 7 inches (12.70 x 17.78 cm). Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery

Given Alÿs’s interest in changing urban landscapes, it is fitting that the paintings were originally shown in an ex-bakery in Kassel, a site that makes reference to the city’s past, before it became a major hub on the art fair circuit. Heavily bombed in World War II, Kassel is a city whose history is deeply tied to the legacy of war. In a similar juxtaposition of imagery, Tacita Dean’s lyrical chalk drawings of Afghanistan’s mountains were shown in a former tax office across town. Dean, like Alÿs, is also concerned with histories and visibility of spaces destroyed, forgotten, or hidden, a poetic reminder of the parallel legacies that can transcend time and place.

Tacita Dean’s installation of drawings at Documenta 13, 2012.


All quotes taken from Francis Alÿs’s 2007 interview with Russell Ferguson.

Francis Alÿs was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1959, and has lived and worked in Mexico City since 1986. Originally trained as an architect, he did not begin producing art until arriving in Mexico. With a conceptual practice that incorporates a variety of mediums, Alÿs’s works include films, photographs, paintings, drawings, sculpture, performance, and installation pieces.

The film REEL/ UNREEL can be viewed on the artist’s website:

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

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