Entertainment versus a deep enquiry

Entertainment versus a deep enquiry - at Tate Modern Angus Stewart is briefly amused by Francis Alÿs, while in Budapest he is stopped short by Andrea Bátorfi’s spellbinding installation Unfolding

In: The Jackdaw Magazin - Sept/Oct, 2010, No. 93


If you miss the Francis Alÿs show, buy the book. Both are of passing interest. For seldom is tattle so applauded, puzzles unresolved, and miracles attempted but unfulfilled. Alÿs, an unruly savant, a Pied Piper, leads us a pretty dance to nowhere-lands where his territorial grip slips and slides out of focus. His videos and photographs show him loping, suggesting a pussy. Usually his eyes lie behind dark glasses. His trousers, jackets and t-shirts hang loose. He has a charm that attracts disciples to support his pranks and admire his endearingly just-out-of-the-nursery sketches. But, one wonders, why this work deserves sixteen galleries in Tate Modern?


Perhaps? – even the art oracles are ambivalent:

“… of complete simplicity and frustrating complexity, of futility and philosophy, of tantalizing magic and certifiable madness…

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times

“…thought-provoking, funny and full of pathos, as well as danger.” Adrian Searle, The Guardian

Why is Francis Alÿs universally acclaimed? A mischievous imp, his misbehavior overrules decorum and delights the crowd. The Daily Telegraph headline is ‘Tate Modern's finest show to date …’. In his review Richard Dorment admires Alÿs for his anarchy.

“As in slapstick comedy, there is something both comical and touching about the plucky little car’s (Alÿs’s) eternal optimism and unending failure.”


Dorment makes a point. But while I appreciate the spirit that drives Alÿs, the man delivers entertainment for a pre-adolescent’s birthday party rather than achieves any of the presumably hoped-for social and political advancement. As the history of one man’s frolics, this exhibition is rich in charm and ingenuity. But while I agree in part with the critics quoted above, I am not persuaded that the whole is more than a series of conceits. Is it unjust to wonder if those who cooperate with Alÿs are beguiled, even abused - for his stunts are, on examination, trivial?


For the last decade Alÿs has made videos of children’s games. Playtime is good for adults as well as children, but innocence belongs to childhood just as degeneration is inherent in old age. That he has wit and humour, and a very light touch, doesn’t obscure the care with which Alÿs avoids danger while embroiling others in his pranks. Alÿs himself is basically risk averse. The Tate’s exhibition and book are adulatory; there is no searching challenge to the man or evaluation of his worth. All is words, words, words. At best Alÿs is a flâneur, or, like ‘poor Yorick,’ a fellow of infinite jest.


It was, I must confess, a relief to leave Alÿs and his work in London and fly to Budapest, to be overwhelmed by the masterpieces of Goya, Tiepolo, da Vinci, Bellotto, Rembrandt and Schiele. Paintings by these exceptional fellows, plus another two hundred artworks, will be at the Royal Academy from 25 September. Happy we, for this over-flowing honeypot of treasures will be at Pooh’s disposal until 12 December.


To return to contemporary art - in Budapest I had the good fortune to see Andrea Bátorfi’s latest exhibition, Unfolding. On entering, the first impact is stunning; the opening gallery is a black void studded with intense, brilliant, sparkling images. Their authority is undeniable. I had seen nothing of their like, except that they reminded me of those Tibetan paintings which entrap the viewer and demand that the eye enters the whole and then alights on every detail.


Buddhist temples in the East have a particular atmosphere, one that wraps around the visitor’s sensibility as a mist rises in the early morning. The unfamiliar smells, sounds and shapes, the tinkle of bells and cymbals, the scent of burning incense, the scuffle of feet and soft intonation of the celebrants saturate the traveller. It is an immersion. Bátorfi’s Unfolding absorbs and encloses the onlooker in the same way. The architectural strength of each panel imposes itself on the viewer who is caught by his recognition of the familiar and shocked by its unanticipated magnetism.


Bátorfi sees reality in multiple layers. She records her vision through a camera. In her introductory text she explains her purpose and her procedure. What she creates come from her insight, her patience and her conviction that there is more to see than at first meets the eye. An adventurer, this confident, tall and slender artist has a formidable presence, one determined to pierce the shell and uncover the unanticipated forces within. Bátorfi is very much a contemporary explorer, one complete with a bubbling curiosity, and a quiet tenacity that confirms both sensibility and sense.


To justify my reluctance to analytically set out Bátorfi’s technique and objective I borrow from the Tibetan religious master, Tarananatha (1575-1635). “If one were to teach about this endless miracle, who could ever tell it well? However much a fool might try, it doesn’t seem to benefit anyone. It would be best to adopt, for the while, a discipline of no speaking.”


Each of Bátorfi’s panels is complete in itself and independent of its neighbours. But as the eye travels from one to the other they form a duo, a trio, quartet or quintet, and end as a glorious orchestra peaking and swirling like an eighteenth century cantata. The conclusion is mighty and glorious. Her nine-minute film sweeps up all that has gone before, and thus underlines Bátorfi’s affirmation of the natural world.


The film is of linked and morphing photo-graphics. In seamless order, sequences of four or more layers intertwine, rise and fall, slip and slide, moving and merging so the viewer is hypnotized by a reality that is both vivid and vital, unsettled and unsettling. As each layer is in transition, a heartbeat, as in nature, pervades the changing whole. The accompanying music is derived from the slurping of the Danube, the crunch of footsteps on shingle, the sound of birds and the soft, sharp cruel and obtrusive noises that add up to each day’s cacophony.


Let us hope that this inventive, surprising and invigorating modern work will soon be seen London. For it is awesome and seductive, reminiscent of Aztec art. Its music is in a minor key, almost soundless, but as it seeps into the ear and heart of the audience its power is irresistible. The movement approaches that of the human, as if Maurice Béjart was choreographing each scene. The mysterious, as this is, is a gift from the gods. It would be perfectly at home in the Serpentine Gallery.


Angus Stewart
International Vice President, British Section
AICA International Association Of Art Critics
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