Kabul, Afghanistan, 2011; 19:32 min

In collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi.

“Francis Alÿs mixes the poetic and the political in his witty, Sisyphean performances and in sculptures, drawings, and other works that relate to them”

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In Francis Alÿs’s video REEL-UNREEL, the action takes place along the bare cityscape of Kabul, Afghanistan. The cameras follow a reel of film as it unrolls through the old part of town—pushed by two children, uphill and downhill, like a hoop, inspiring an improvised narrative. It’s an example of “doing/undoing,” Alÿs says. And that interplay became the axiom of the film.

REEL-UNREEL was made in collaboration with filmmaker Julien Devaux and architect Ajmal Maiwandi in 2011, and it touches on the multifaceted, open-ended nature of Alÿs’s art, his social and political concerns, his appreciation of film itself, and his fascination with children’s games. (Alÿs has a 13-year-old son.) It was shown earlier this year in a chilly white viewing room inside David Zwirner gallery in New York, where Alÿs and I met to talk about his practice.

Hanging in neighboring rooms were many mostly small drawings—of people and landscapes, some with color bars (in the style of TV test patterns) painted on top of them. These bars, often done later than the diaristic sketches underneath them, block the image, as if to distance their author from the memory of his experiences, and also to leave room for interpretation.

He made the drawings, he says, to keep in touch with the film when the crew wasn’t shooting. “Eventually,” he explains, “I found it very difficult to represent what’s going on in Afghanistan. It’s not easy to translate the experience of being there—it’s very conflictive in the sense that you can’t help being seduced by the place and the people.” He found that “painting color bars is a kind of take on a Bruce Nauman expression, ‘bound to fail,’” he says. “It was my own kind of material way of expressing my frustration and recognizing that in any kind of representation I was going to fail somewhat.”

Like almost all of Alÿs’s projects, REEL-UNREEL was founded on a performance or action, and from it emerged a range of related works—from hand-drawn animation loops to small sculptures, paintings, and drawings—which Alÿs sells to support himself and his larger projects.

Public domain videos can be downloaded and shared with others as long as the authorship is credited and there is a link back to the website of the author. These videos cannot be altered in any way or used for commercial purpose nor cannot be displayed or exhibited without the consent of the artist.