Francis Alÿs

Seven Walks

The National Portrait Gallery and Portman Square, London
27 September 2005 - 20 November 2005

Over a span of several years, Francis Alÿs spent extensive periods of time in London, searching for a way of responding to the metropolis. He walked the streets of the city, observing its particular characteristics, listening to its sounds, reading its signs and surfaces, trying to get underneath its skin. He slowly shaped a project based on a number of different walks by different protagonists, notably the artist himself, an urban fox and a retinue of Coldstream Guards marching through the City of London.

Seven Walks was first presented in a sequence of rooms over two floors of a neo-classical building on Portman Square and in the National Portrait Gallery in central London. Paintings, drawings, maps, and notes made by Alÿs during his periods in London were brought together with a number of videos including the 30-minute work Guards, looped sequences of Alÿs playing on the metal railings of London streets with a drumstick and The Nightwatch, which tracks the furtive movements of a fox through the galleries of the National Portrait Gallery at night.

The walks were for the most part enacted in parts of the city where its wealth and history are particularly conspicuous – the City of London, the National Portrait Gallery, Hyde Park, and some of its most grand neo-classical squares. Three of the walks – Guards, The Nightwatch and Railings – were made with Alÿs’s long-term collaborator Rafael Ortega.

Other works exist in the form of maps of walks made by Alÿs to foreground particular characteristics of the city such as the prevalence of closed-circuit surveillance cameras. A slide projection juxtaposed the contrasting delivery systems for ice blocks in Mexico City, where Alÿs has been based for the past 30 years, and milk bottles in London.


Image: (left) Francis Alÿs, Guards (2005). Photograph: Francis Alÿs

Making Seven Walks: Rumours

James Lingwood in conversation with Francis Alÿs
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Rumours: James Lingwood in conversation with Francis Alÿs

What is interesting about spreading a rumour?

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it was very tempting to take the opportunity of being invited by an organisation like Artangel to use and abuse its logistical skills. Artangel could have been the perfect agent of propagation, with all its reservoir of contacts in the city. But the rumour was also corresponding to my mental image of London – foggy, diffuse, dispersed….this fragmented organism seemed particularly propitious for a rumour to circulate within. […]

Do you like rumours because they are analogous to the way you’d like your work to function?

I like to set an idea in motion, to set the parameters for a situation to develop, and then lose control of it. The whole project has functioned like a kind of rumour, the way one piece led to another, like a chain of people. In a very discursive way, the pieces were echoing one another, they were like clues for each other. […]

You feel the medieval within the modern in London?

London has never cared enough to rethink its urbanism in the way that other great cities did in the aftermath of great fires or other disasters. Because it’s such an engine of business and trade, London rebuilt itself even when the city was still smoking. Business as usual. That was one of the first things you saw after the bombs, which went off in London this week – shops and restaurants with signs saying business as usual.

Read the rest of this conversation


Image: (left) Research material, Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)

Writing: Incompleteness

by Richard Harbison
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His work doesn't stay in one place or one mode. Instead of hanging them safely on the wall, he takes paintings out for a walk. — Richard Harbison

Incompleteness, by Richard Harbison

As a student I always started writing essays so late at night there wasn't much hope of finishing them properly. They began in a leisurely way but became more telescoped as they went on until they read like sketches with connective tissue left out. And they didn't end, but came to an edge, which they simply fell off.

At the time I thought I'd been defeated by circumstances and that if I'd had more time I would have produced well rounded pieces of work. Now I'm not so sure. By now I've learned that there are those who find a deep fascination in incompleteness and will go to enormous lengths to undermine easy sensations of wholeness. In many realms of art and thought Modernism put bombs under certainties and rejoiced in the fragmented confusion that resulted. Picasso, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein and Joyce seemed to some observers to achieve little else. Artists like Duchamp went even further, at least conceptually; he proclaimed The Large Glass 'definitively unfinished.'

Francis Alÿs fits into this uneasy company. His work doesn't stay in one place or one mode. Instead of hanging them safely on the wall, he takes paintings out for a walk. This is something which physically happens, but also seems tied to a verbal formulation. Paul Klee's definition of a drawing: taking a line for a walk. Many of his works refer to rehearsals or trials, forms in the process of being made where the final resolution can be indefinitely deferred. This isn't to say that Alÿs' individual works are necessarily incomplete - but they are open to being revisited by the artist at another time in another place.

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Image: (left) Francis Alÿs, Guards, 2005. Photograph: Francis Alÿs

Making Seven Walks: A Meeting

Francis Alÿs and Orlando Gough
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The equivalent of what you call texture, for us, would be this rumor, the idea of a growing rumor. — Francis Alÿs

Making Seven Walks: A Meeting with Orlando Gough

In a series of transcripted conversations, Alÿs discusses the literal and metaphorical potential of sound and the rhythm in Seven Walks with British composer, Orlando Gough.

Read the full transcripts


Image: (below) Photocopy of paper transcript as printed in the publication Seven Walks, published by Artangel (2005). © Francis Alÿs, 2005

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Writing: Sounds passing through circumstances

by David Toop
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Sounds passing through circumstances, by David Toop

If I am here, then where is the sound? Sound has no sight-line, no fixed point in space, no duration beyond its own activation, no single moment of existence, no edges, but only cumulative moments of disappearance at the boundaries of its reach. Its place as a mark within temporal dimension and the mapping of space can be a mixture of the precise and ambiguous: a bell rings, the clock chimes, a cannon fires a shot. The day is divided and the space of human relations is mapped according to the fluctuations of a sound and its extension through air.

Call it spillage, cloud, smoke; the need for similes drawn from the tangible yet fluid world of liquids and dispersing materiality is only a lunge at the nature of sound. So much of the world is consumed through the culture of text, in alliance with various visual forms. Urban space is divided up according to ideas of visual drama, social connectivity, and the pragmatics of movement, yet sound is taken for granted, forgotten, or ignored despite its vital role as an element in urban design. Sound is not reducible to a text, so not susceptible to ‘reading’. Its place within the system of signs is an anomaly, the paradox of the invisible/audible. The transience of sound, its abstraction, its passage through time that leaves no trace, all form a resistant barrier to interpretation. Most attempts to understand sound attempt to avoid its nature in favour of descriptions of its context, so sound remains a barely categorised yet central element of social and cultural life.

Read the rest of this essay


Image: (left) Guards (2005), Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)

Selected Press

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A proper Coldstream Guard, complete with red coat, bearskin, mirror-polished boots and semi-automatic rifle. He's on parade. Except that he's not. He's alone. […] He sits on a bench and brushes his bearskin with the rough affection of a man for his dog. The CCTV cameras, you can tell, are worried. He shouldn’t be here. He’s carrying a serious weapon. They pan and tilt to follow him. — Hugh Pearman, The Sunday Times

Selected Press

… a guardsman is wandering about, slightly aimlessly. A proper Coldstream Guard, complete with red coat, bearskin, mirror-polished boots and semi-automatic rifle. He's on parade. Except that he's not. He's alone. […] You never see a lone guardsman. And never out of context, in the streets of the financial district, far from barracks or palace ceremonial duties. He holds his gun slackly by his side. His body language speaks of slight dejection. He stops and stares at the window of Next, as if pondering a switch to smart-casual clothes. He sits on a bench and brushes his bearskin with the rough affection of a man for his dog. The CCTV cameras, you can tell, are worried. He shouldn’t be here. He’s carrying a serious weapon. They pan and tilt to follow him. — Hugh Pearman, The Sunday Times, 18 September 2005

Best, though, is Guards, for which Alÿs filmed 64 uniformed Coldstream Guards. Each begins wandering the City of London alone, with instructions to fall into formation should he cross a colleague. The individuals coalesce and finally form a full square. The work wittily connects the wealth of the City with Britain's imperial past, its memory preserved in the uniform of the guards. — Nick Hackworth, Evening Standard, 29 September 2005

This month sees another nocturnal encounter between art and nature with Francis Alÿs' film of a lone fox roaming the rooms of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), as captured on the NPG's CCTV cameras. However, The Art Newspaper can exclusively reveal that the star of The Nightwatch is no lowly specimen of wild urban fauna unleashed in the capital's halls of culture in the name of art, but an extremely handsome six-year old professional fox, Bandit by name, who has already appeared in numerous TV programmes including ITV's popular drama series Peak Practice and Midsomer Murders and commercials for Lloyd's bank. — Louisa Buck, The Art Newspaper, October 2005

The places in his photographs are significant not sculpturally but socially. They are boundaries between public and private - whether the private enterprise of selling ice-chilled refreshments, or lives behind closed doors. Although these images are pictures of cities, they are also portraits of the cities' humanity. — Gabriel Coxhead, The Financial Times, 4 October 2005

In 1996 Francis Alÿs took a photograph of himself in Mexico City, the place where he has been based for the last 15 years. The image, titled Turista, shows the artist standing in line with two other men, his back against the railings of Zócalo, the city's main square. Alÿs, like the men on his left and right, has a sign by his feet. But while the others list technical professions ('Electrsita', 'Plomero (en general) Gas', 'Pintor y Yesero'), his reads 'Turista'. Alÿs not only looks substantially different from the men standing by him (much taller, with lighter skin, sunglasses and European clothing...), he also has something completely different to offer: no particular skills, just those of a tourist, of a detached, fleeting observer. […] For his current exhibition at 21 Portman Square and the National Portrait Gallery in London, Alÿs has adopted the tourist role again... — Pablo Lafuente, Art Monthly, November 2005

About Francis Alÿs

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Francis Alÿs

Born in Antwerp in 1959, Francis Alÿs initially trained as an architect. Following a period of study in Venice he decided to both leave Europe and to discontinue his work as an architect, relocating to Mexico City. Alÿs’s recent projects include Bolero (1996–2007) a short animation, accompanied by over 500 preparatory drawings, harnessing the rhythms of a humble shoeshine, and Politics of Rehearsal (2005–07), a 30-minute video that combines footage of a speech by President Truman, narration by critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, and a rehearsal for a striptease. Rehearsal parallels socio-political promises from Latin America with the tactics of a stripper – always leaving something to be desired. For his best-known work, When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), Alÿs recruited 500 volunteers at Ventanilla, outside Lima, Peru. The volunteers formed a single line at the foot of a giant sand dune; using shovels they shifted the dune by four inches. In 2004 Alÿs was the inaugural winner of the Blue Orange Prize in Berlin.

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Image: (Above) Francis Alÿs in 2005. Photograph: Thierry Bal. (Left) Railings (2004), Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)

Guards

In The Artangel Collection
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Guards

Over five years Francis Alÿs walked the streets of London, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media, and the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented as Seven Walks at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Amongst these works was Guards which followed 64 Coldstream Guards as they marched through the City of London, resulting in a film, and a collection of prints and drawings.


Guards is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, this series of works has been re-presented several times, including installations at Pitzhanger Manor House and Gallery, the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art and Art Exchange in 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: Guards
  • Date: 2004
  • Medium: Video, printed papers, drawings and 64 tin soldiers
  • Dimension: Overall display dimensions variable
  • Duration: 27min
  • In the Tate Collection
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The Nightwatch

In The Artangel Collection
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The Nightwatch

In his project Seven Walks, Francis Alÿs offers a poetic intervention into the everyday life of London. Over five years, he walked the city’s streets, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media – the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Railings explores the rhythmic possibilities of one of the characteristic features of Regency London. In The Nightwatch surveillance cameras observe a fox exploring the Tudor and Georgian rooms of the National Portrait Gallery at night.


The Nightwatch is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, the work has been re-presented several times, including installations at Pitzhanger Manor House and Gallery in Ealing and Art Exchange in Colchester in 2013, and at mac birmingham in spring of 2014.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: The Nightwatch
  • Date: 2004
  • Medium: 20 channel video installation, 2 maps, printed papers, 7 drawings and book
  • Dimension: (video installation) 2340 x 2840 x 600mm
  • In the Tate Collection
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Film: An excerpt from Francis Alÿs, The Nightwatch (2004) also available to watch on Vimeo. Duration 2 minutes, 18 seconds.

Railings

In The Artangel Collection
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Railings

Railings is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, the work has been presented at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2011, and at Art Exchange in Colchester in autumn 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: Railings
  • Date: 2005
  • Medium: Video, printed papers, photographs, audio, slides and 5 drawings
  • Dimension: Overall display dimensions variable
  • Duration: 9min 15sec
  • In the Tate Collection
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Ice 4 Milk

In The Artangel Collection
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Ice 4 Milk

Over five years Francis Alÿs walked the streets of London, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media, and the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented as Seven Walks at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Amongst these works was Ice 4 Milk which contrasts 80 pairs of slides, depicting milk bottles deliveries on doorsteps in London, and ice blocks in Alÿs's native Mexico City.


Ice 4 Milk is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, the work has been presented at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2011, and at Art Exchange in Colchester in autumn 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: Ice 4 Milk
  • Date: 2004–5
  • Medium: 160 35mm slides, 2 projections
  • Dimension: Overall display dimensions variable
  • In the Tate Collection
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Pebble Walk

In The Artangel Collection
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Pebble Walk

Over five years Francis Alÿs walked the streets of London, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media, and the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented as Seven Walks at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Amongst these works was Pebble Walk which depicts one of Alÿs' afternoons mapping the city, juxtaposing a typical postcard image of the skyline and red London buses, with the precise yet mundane details of Alÿs' walk through the park. 


Pebble Walk is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, the work has been presented at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2011, and at Art Exchange in Colchester in autumn 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: Pebble Walk
  • Date: 1999-2005
  • Medium: Ink on paper
  • Dimension: Overall display dimensions variable
  • In the Tate Collection
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The Commuters

In The Artangel Collection
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The Commuters

Over five years Francis Alÿs walked the streets of London, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media, and the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented as Seven Walks at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Amongst these works was The Commuters, an oil painting that visitors to the exhibition could take home overnight. 


The Commuters is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, the work has been presented at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2011, and at Art Exchange in Colchester in autumn 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: The Commuters
  • Date: 2005
  • Medium: Oil paint on canvas, photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, ink on paper and 18 drawings
  • Dimension: Overall display dimensions variable
  • In the Tate Collection
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Knots

In The Artangel Collection
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Knots

Over five years Francis Alÿs walked the streets of London, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media, and the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented as Seven Walks at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Amongst these works was Knots, an installation of rope, accompanied by 3 pencil drawings.


Knots is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, the work has been presented at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2011, and at Art Exchange in Colchester in autumn 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: Knots
  • Date: 2005
  • Medium: 3 works on paper, graphite, ink and rope
  • Dimension: 299 x 237mm each
  • In the Tate Collection
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Sunny/Shady

In The Artangel Collection
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Sunny/Shady

Over five years Francis Alÿs walked the streets of London, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media, and the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented as Seven Walks at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Amongst these works was Sunny/Shady, a pair of maps and photographs documenting a walk in South East London on the sunny side of the street always, followed by another on the shady side of the street always.


Sunny/Shady is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, the work has been presented at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2011, and at Art Exchange in Colchester in autumn 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: Sunny/Shady
  • Date: 2005
  • Medium: 2 maps on paper and 2 photographs on paper
  • Dimension: 2 maps 788 x 1031 x 20 mm; 2 photographs 317 x 230 x 21 mm
  • In the Tate Collection
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A Personal Repertoire of Possible Behaviour While Walking the Streets in London Town

In The Artangel Collection
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A Personal Repertoire of Possible Behaviour While Walking the Streets in London Town

Over five years Francis Alÿs walked the streets of London, mapping its habits and rituals in a range of different media, and the ensuing films, videos, paintings and drawings were presented as Seven Walks at 21 Portman Square in 2005 for the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. Amongst these was A Personal Repertoire of Possible Behaviour While Walking the Streets in London Town, a series of 9 works on paper which documents actions, and offers a thesaurus of alternatives. As a 'repertoire' it is suggestive of the significant breadth of behaviours observed when walking around the city.


A Personal Repertoire of Possible Behaviour While Walking the Streets in London Town is in The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2005, this series of works has been re-presented several times, including installations at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2011, at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in summer 2013 and at Art Exchange in Colchester in autumn 2013.

  • Artist: Francis Alÿs
  • Title: A Personal Repertoire of Possible Behaviour While Walking the Streets in London Town
  • Date: 2005
  • Medium: 9 works on paper, photographs, graphite, ink and tape
  • Dimension: 297 x 236 x 20mm each
  • In the Tate Collection
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Credits

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Who made this possible?

Credits

Seven Walks was supported by Bloomberg.

The production and presentation of individual walks have been made possible through the generous support of anonymous Angels, The Outset Contemporary Art Fund (Guards), The Felix Trust for Art (Railings) and The Moose Foundation for the Arts and Mary Moore (The Nightwatch).

With thanks to The Portman Estate and Godfrey Vaughan for making available 21 Portman Square and The Elephant Trust for supporting the initial research and development of the project. Thanks also to the Lisson Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

Seven Walks, the publication, was supported by The Henry Moore Foundation and the Robbins Foundation. This project was supported by Arts Council England, Artangel International Circle, Special Angels, Guardian Angels and The Company of Angels.


 

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