In Todd Haynes’ 2007 film I’m Not There, various aspects of Bob Dylan’s persona are portrayed by actors including Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and, er, Richard Gere. But Dylan himself only appears in the most fleeting of ways, in an introductory caption and in the music credits. Likewise, the group show ‘I’m Not Here – An Exhibition Without Francis Alÿs’ strives to evoke the artistic spirit of a conspicuously absent Alÿs.
The Belgian-born and Mexico City-based artist’s work often begins with his flâneur-ing through various cities: his work has involved pushing a block of ice through Mexico City or dripping paint along the Israeli-Palestinian border. Eventually these actions evolve into videos, photographs, sketches and installations; it is often these lingering traces that become the event’s most signature record, a hybrid form of documentation that extends the lifetime of the initial impulse. This exhibition is meant to recall that same atmosphere, while at the same time critiquing the very format of the solo exhibition – in this case, a group show standing for a solo exhibition whose protagonist is only conceptually alluded to.
These 14 artists find many ways of expressing ‘not here’. Gustav Metzger, for example, hides a photograph (we are told) behind a wall of concrete blocks (Fireman with Child, Oklahoma 1995, from the series ‘Historic Photographs’, 1998–ongoing); the photographs are never shown, though the construction materials used in their obstruction are said to somehow resonate with the picture’s content. We also see residue of alleged travels in the abandoned suitcases (with airport tags still attached) installed by André Guedes, indicating that he, or at least his bags, had recently been flown in from Portugal (Untitled [Amsterdam], 2010). Vaast Colson commemorates his late-night hike from the Netherlands to Belgium as a ‘remembrance of an action’, here represented as a chintzy plaque (Waar men ga langs Vlaamse Wegen, Where You Go on Flemish Roads, 2003–10). There is also a memorial to Bas Jan Ader’s ill-fated 1975 sailboat journey across the Atlantic, Grier Edmundson’s series of blurry seascape paintings (‘It Always Seems So Far Away’, 2010) based on a photo from Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous (1975) showing Ader sitting in that selfsame boat.
One of this show’s inspirations was a purported quote by Alÿs: ‘Maybe you don’t need to see the work, you just need to hear about it.’ That may well be so in the case of Yoko Ono’s text-based instruction pieces from nearly half a century ago – such as ‘Take a tape of the voices of fish on the night of a full moon. Take it until dawn’ (Fish Piece, 1964). Experiencing an idea’s execution, however, can sometimes be underwhelming; for example, in the form of Noa Giniger’s edited Frank Sinatra song (Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime, 2008), or in Tatiana Mesa’s promise to perform a certain action later in the year (Roce de manos, Gentle Touch of Hands, 2010), or Roman Ondák’s ‘Deadline is postponed until tomorrow’ sign, which blocks off a section of the exhibition (Untitled, 2005).
But sometimes serendipity just falls into place: in the performance Just Popped Out, Back in Two Hours (2010), artist David Sherry was meant to sit zombie-like in a chair for the duration of the opening, with a Post-it note stuck to his forehead reading ‘Just popped out, back in two hours’. But due to the lingering traces of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, Sherry couldn’t get to Amsterdam in time, and was thus replaced by a stand-in, making him even more ‘not here’ than he otherwise would have been.
First published in Issue 132