Francis Alys is a Belgian architect turned artist. He went to Mexico City in 1987 to help with a rebuilding program after an earthquake and has been living in Mexico City ever since. He abandoned his career as an architect and started working in a number of media including photography, video, installation, and painting. Alys is an avid wanderer and much of his work draws inspiration from the streets around his studio in Mexico City.
Being Belgian, Alys occupies an interesting position as a foreigner and an immigrant. From his stance as an outsider he presents his version of reality by taking the mundane and shifting it slightly into the absurd or the poetic.
Humor is very important in Alys’ work. He says, “Laughter is a symptom of incomprehension… a simple manifestation of the defeat of intelligence.” But While Alys may make us laugh, he also makes us think, at the core of his work we often find the more brutal implications of city life.
In his video El Gringo, Alys explores the discomfort of being an outsider. Gringo, the Latin American name for Americans is usually used to generalize all white foreigners, this video is a comment on the social tendencies to group people together based on their appearance. In the video the viewer follows the camera down a rural path, a few pot hounds approach and start circling the camera and barking wildly. They get increasingly riled up and begin snarling and baring their teeth. The camera suddenly drops and we are left to assume that the man behind the camera has been bitten. Everything is still for a little while until the dogs return and start sniffing and licking the camera.
Colombian artist Doris Salcedo is the first Latin American to be invited to work in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. In her piece Shibboleth, which was her response to this invitation, she draws attention to issues of racial intolerance and segregation. The title of the piece, “Shibboleth” is an essential hint to understanding Salcedo’s intentions and is explained in this passage from the Bible:
“Therefore Jepthah gathered all the males from Gilead, and warred against Ephraim, and the Gileadites defeated Ephraim […] and occupied the margins of the Jordan, through where Ephraim’s people would have to pass on their return. And some of them arrived there and prayed to be let through, they asked him, Aren’t you from Ephraim? And as he answered, No, I am not, they replied: Then, say “shibboleth,” which means wheat spike […] And they pronounced it “sibbolet,” as they were unable to pronounce the same letters […] and were beheaded […] so that forty thousand men from Ephraim died in that war”. (Judges 12,4-6)
Shibboleth is a Hebrew word with multiple meanings, wheat spike, river, and olive branch, but beyond that it is a symbol of a strong cultural identity, since knowing how to pronounce it can indicate belonging or exclusion, or in the case of the biblical story, it can mean life or death. Being the first Latin American artist to be invited to work in the Turbine Hall, Salcedo felt strongly about making a piece which represented her personal perspective as a Third World person in the First World. Salcedo created a huge crack in the floor of the Turbine Hall. Breaking, penetrating, and invading the space. She said, “I think the space defined by the work is negative space, the space that, ultimately, Third World persons occupy in the First World” (Doris Salcedo, October 9, 2007). The work reveals a division that many people would rather ignore, an abyss between two worlds that do not touch and is a comment on the right wing European’s insistence that immigrants represent the loss of cultural heritage. Salcedo’s violent and bold action of creating a crack in the floor of the Tate Modern creates an impact on the viewer and leaves an important message, and even when the crack is filled there is a scar to show that this struggle continues.