Francis Alÿs, Tornado, 2010. © Francis Alÿs. Courtesy of the artist + David Zwirner Gallery
Some truths told in titles: Sometimes Doing is Undoing and Sometimes Undoing is Doing (2005), Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing (1997), Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic (2013). The artist is Francis Alÿs; his guiding sentiment: “maximum effort, minimal result.” Primary form: repetition. Medium of choice: “metaphors.” But then only sometimes.
Here, a 55-minute film and a single word. The proposition is simple: a man runs into twisters in search of their still centre, looks for clarity in a dust cloud, for order within disorder. The quiet eye of the storm, however, is a fugitive fact, more apparent as a figure of speech than it is in a whirlwind. But still, the artist pursues its promise, runs time and again into the tornado’s spiralling chaos.
To begin again: In spring, in the dry season, in the Milpa Alpa highlands south of Mexico City, the wind kicks up dust. Nothing grows, the harvest come and gone. The ploughed fields a uniform brown. On clear days with few clouds, in the hottest hours of the afternoon, tornadoes appear. For ten years, on these plains, the artist Francis Alÿs ran towards the sucking updraft of countless twisters.
Tornado (2010) is many things. A film, a performance, a landscape painting. It is as much a parable of pursuit as it is a very real pursuit: the artist throwing himself into whirlwinds with blind faith and blind commitment. Blinded too by the dust, thrown off-balance, disorientated. “In the eye of the tornado,” Alÿs says, “there’s no more high and low, no floor and sky.” Brown obscures, a rush of noise. The pictorial fades out. Any narrative collapses into a momentary abstraction. The film shifts between these two contrasting tones: the silent, breathless approach and the eclipsing chaos that rewards it.
To begin again, again: Francis Alÿs's Tornado is a gesture of continued commitment. It is elliptical but not futile; suffuse with dust and aspiration. And perhaps too, a certain joy in its repetitions. “The pleasure,” as poet Maggie Nelson writes, “of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence…The pleasure of recognising that one may have to undergo the same realisations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again – not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.” So too is art a process of slow accumulations. The sum not of its discrete gestures, but something else besides: the coincidence of intent and time. There are no conclusions here, no endings. The film loops back on itself, sends the artist forever running; performing, as he says, “the search for the sublime.”
Another truth, another title: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream (2013). “It took me years,” the artist says, “to figure out what I was looking for.”