Once purported to be the world’s most dangerous city, Ciudad Juárez bears the scars of geopolitical conflict and drug-related violence. Located on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border, it sits just south of El Paso, Texas. Plagued by turf wars and trafficking, in recent years the city has seen escalating levels of brutality, with kidnappings and murders commonplace. The landscape is now marked by this tension – abandoned buildings line the streets and children play among the debris. In ‘Ciudad Juárez projects’ Francis Alÿs takes this territory as his focus. The works, all produced in and around Ciudad Juárez between 2010 and 2015, continue Alÿs’ ongoing interest in the contested nature of border regions.
The show begins with ‘Ciudad Juárez Postcards’ (2013), a collection of postcards installed in pairs: one side presenting the card’s face, the other its reverse. The faces of the cards have been altered by Alÿs, black marker almost completely obscuring their contents. Only slithers of light or solitary figures remain in otherwise totally blacked-out scenes. The reverse is left unedited, revealing the fact that these are tourist postcards. The work draws on Alÿs’ interest in the status of the tourist – or artist – as an observer. Alÿs adopts a comparably observational role in ‘Children’s Game #15: Espejos, Ciudad Juárez, México’ (2013). Exhibited in the adjacent room, this film shows children engaged in a game of tag. Shards of mirrored glass serve as tools in the game – they are used to detect danger around corners or to ‘shoot’ opponents with reflected light. The children’s game has a specific critical symbolism in Ciudad Juárez but also a universality, recalling the games of children from around the world.
Upstairs visitors are met with a collection of Alÿs’ paintings and drawings. These include works from his ongoing ‘Linchados (Lynchings)’ series, in which Alÿs imagines himself as a witness to violent acts. The allegorical scenes have no direct historical referent, although their title speaks of the country’s recent past. In the latter part of the twentieth century, lynching became more prevalent in Mexico, fueled by increasing crime rates and a lack of faith in the justice system. Allegory is also present in the final room of the exhibition, where ‘Paradox of Praxis 5: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream, Ciudad Juárez, México’ (2013) is presented. This film sees Alÿs kicking a flaming football football through the city’s streets at night. In this futile, almost Sisyphean act Alÿs questions what it means to be an artist, highlighting art’s potential to be both poetic and absurd. As he explained at a talk in Beirut in 2008, “Through the absurd and sometimes impertinent nature of the poetic act, art provokes a moment of suspended meaning, a sensation of senselessness that may reveal the absurdity of the situation.”