Rolling Wonder: Francis Alys, Paradox of Praxis 5, at the Cleveland Museum of Art
On the second floor of the Cleveland Museum of Art, right around the corner from Henri Matisse’s painting Tulips and Piet Mondrian’s Chrysanthemum, a tall Belgian guy wearing a scarf kicks a flaming soccer ball at night around Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He dribbles the fireball past busted up buildings and alongside graffitied bridge abutments, he ambles past shuttered stores and a taxi stand. He stands and waits for a train to pass, flaming ball at his feet. Assorted vehicles roll past at various points. At the end, clumps of grass flicker on fire in a field with the now misshapen and nearly-consumed sphere. The final kicks, off in the distance, seem to show the whole thing finally disintegrates in a shower of sparks.
It’s a 2013 video by the artist Francis Alys, titled Paradox of Praxis 5, and it’s running on a 7:49 minute loop in the Video Project Room (Gallery 224B) until next March 17. It’s mesmerizing, and I ended up watching it 7 times (5 times in a row and then 2 more times after I came back from a cookie and coffee break at the cafe). This is undoubtedly a personal record for the viewing of any one particular piece of the loose amalgamation of things labeled video art.
Video art, as a general concept, is something I affirm and applaud. In practice, though, I haven’t found much that makes me want to stick around and watch all the way through, let alone multiple times. I recently found myself mighty bored in Barcelona, watching an abstract nature video at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I so wanted to enjoy it, but it was so…tedious (thankfully the rest of the museum was outstanding). Paradox of Praxis 5 was different, it captured and engaged my imagination.
The video is part of Alys’ performance series called paseos, where he wanders through urban streets doing things, e.g. pushing a huge block of ice around until it completely melts. Alys settled in Mexico in 1986 at age 37 after a career as an architect. Major exhibitions surveying his work (A Story of Deception, which started at the Tate, and A Story of Negotiation, which started at Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City) have travelled in Europe, North America, and South America. In 2022 he represented Belgium at the 59th Venice Biennale.
But this is no survey of Francis Alys and his body of work. I’m just responding to a video that surprisingly consumed almost an hour of my latest visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art–a visit squeezed in during a weekend trip from out of state. The museum was crowded on the holiday weekend, but the approximately 12’ X 12’ video room was empty. I took a seat.
First, a black screen. Then words:
Sometimes We Dream as We Live
Sometimes We Live as We Dream
Then back to black, and the whoosh of ignition is heard just before the flaming ball appears: off we go. At first, we’re close, legs and ball only. Then a bus rumbles by, and shortly a pickup truck with police lights cruises past. The editing is initially relaxed, and we follow along at varying distances from the fireball. There’s a glimpse through a woman’s legs at the ball rolling in the street, a guy leaning on a telephone pole staring. A dog scoots out of the way and Alys navigates around a puddle.
The sound design elevates the piece markedly. We are in Ciudad Juarez at night, and there is plenty of action. Alys passes two musicians on the street playing traditional Mexican folk music on an upright bass and an accordion. This melds into a thumping electronica blast leaking from a passing SUV. There are beeps and sirens and snatches of voices; rattling busses, cars, and shouts from a distance. Around the three minute mark a train chugs by with its horn blaring, then an inspired edit plants us in the path of a turning bus. Alys continues at the speed of wander, kicking the fireball into a culvert at one point and following its path from there.
Perhaps the most intense soundscape/visual combination is a 30 second close-up visit with the ball: you could be staring into a campfire, but you know you’re not. The flames crackle, the light dances, the ball keeps moving. At this point you’re just along for the ride.
It’s the totality of circumstances that make this video so compelling. There are hints of danger, moments of beauty, and the mystery of where we’ll end up. I was seduced by the rhythm of a simple walk through the city and enticed by the singularity of a ball on fire being my guide. For me, the whole of it produces wonder—not at why he is doing this, but why it is so great that he is doing this? I have no answer yet, but fortunately I can keep watching.