Artist rolls out his Sisyphus side

Times Staff Writer

One morning a decade ago, on a day like most any other, Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs had a large, knee-high block of ice delivered to the street outside his Mexico City studio. Shortly after 9 a.m., and dressed in a work shirt, chinos and red sneakers, the lanky artist bent over and began to push the heavy rectangular block along the pavement.

For the next nine hours, cameraman Rafael Ortega recorded the quirky journey on video, which is now on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Alÿs slid the block around the sprawling metropolis, up one urban street and down another, past shops, parks and apartments. As the day wore on, the ice slowly melted, thanks to a combination of temperature and friction.

By midafternoon Alÿs was able to shove along the block, now just ankle-high, with his foot. The process was awkward -- a couple of steps and kick, a couple of steps and kick -- but at least the backbreaking effort of bending over had been eased.

Either way, few people on the street seemed to notice. Eventually, when the block had been reduced to little more than a large ice cube, the exertion changed into something closer to eccentric play. Alÿs kicked the frozen chunk like a ball.

Finally, at 6:47 p.m., all that was left was a small stain of melted water on the pavement. Exactly where this anticlimactic moment occurred is not recorded.

Alÿs' 9 1/2 -hour performance was condensed into the irresistible five-minute video on view in the Hammer's sharply focused, thoroughly captivating 10-year survey of his work. The show, organized by UCLA art department Chairman Russell Ferguson, confirms what has seemed increasingly apparent in the last several years.

At 48, Alÿs is among the most gifted and potentially consequential mid-career artists working today.

Starting with the established formal conventions of Minimal and Conceptual art, and adding the egalitarian social concerns of Pop, he turned the whole thing inside-out in ways surprising and productive. The ice-block video is exemplary.

Titled "The Paradox of Praxis I," it records a marvelous contradiction. All that labor, all that sweat-equity, human effort and grueling exertion over the course of a day leads to -- nothing.

Praxis is the translation of an idea into action. Here, the idea is the deep modern conviction that hard work brings tangible benefits.

But Alÿs' icy paradox is a zero-sum game. The struggle slowly, steadily, inexorably dissipates, transforming first into idle distraction, eventually into inconsequential sport and finally into a soon-to-be-forgotten smudge evaporating on an anonymous urban byway.

Lots of artists consider the nature of art in their work -- what art is, the way context confers meaning, how art operates in social networks and more. Not Alÿs. He takes art pretty much for granted, as in the ordinary block of ice with its inherent form of a Minimalist sculpture.

Instead, he turns the usual equation around. Alÿs considers the nature of work in his art.

Just inside the show's entrance, three small pieces of chewing gum -- green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag -- unceremoniously stuck to the wall comprise a clever emblem for rumination. Appropriately, each subsequent exhibition room is fitted out with simple wooden worktables illuminated by inexpensive metal pendant lamps.

Some books are on the tables. Event posters, performance photographs and typed or handwritten descriptions of individual works are displayed beneath the plexiglass tabletops.

There are also drawings in pencil, chalk and watercolor, typically made on tracing paper. Often a drawing is pieced together from more than one sheet, attached with bits of masking tape. These materials make the drawings seem like temporary aesthetic solutions to problems that will change. Several small paintings appear similarly provisional.

Gallery walls are painted white, beige or gray. Most videos are projected onto the walls, while simple modern sofas and stools (also white or gray) provide a comfortable place to sit, watch and -- improbably -- think about what you're seeing.

Design-wise (think IKEA), the installation looks as spare and Minimalist as the ordinary ice cube in "The Paradox of Praxis I." A viewer is wordlessly inserted into a distinctly modern workspace.

Mexico is a Latin American country that survived the brutalities of colonialism only to be faced with the subsequent imposition of capital-M Modernity. With fascinating results, Alÿs has made the collision of Modernism and Mexico (and Latin America more generally) a primary subject of his art. As an expatriate artist from Antwerp, capital of a Western European nation with a controversial history of colonial exploitation, he's approached the task with a critical turn of mind.

"When Faith Moves Mountains" (2002) turns the one-man ice performance into a huge social event. Alÿs assembled 500 volunteers on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, in an area dotted with enormous sand dunes at the steadily expanding city's edge. Each was given a shovel and a work shirt and instructed to form a single line at the base of one dune. They advance up the hill while shoveling sand in front of them.

In the video, close-ups of the labor alternate with aerial views, as shovels scraping earth fills the soundtrack. You witness the collective work, but you can't see the mountain move. Conceptually it certainly does, but to what effect?

"Rehearsal I" combines a soundtrack recorded in a southeastern Mexican village with a video shot in Tijuana, at the opposite northwest corner of the country. Wit collides with poignancy, finally giving way to wonder.

A brass band is rehearsing a loud and raucous number. As it stops and starts, with deliberative chatting among musicians in between, a red Volkswagen (driven by the artist) tries without success to climb a steep dirt road in a ramshackle neighborhood.

The picture is synchronized with the sound, so that each time the car struggles up the hill, the brass band bursts into noisy, enthusiastic action. The vehicle's inevitable slide back down is accompanied by the considered murmuring of voices.

For a viewer inculcated with the American optimism of "The Little Engine That Could," a startling contradiction is offered by Alÿs' mesmerizing video, where a quintessentially modern little engine -- "the people's car" -- ultimately cannot. Like the equally enchanting ice cube and sand dune videos, this one proposes the repeated exertion of concentrated modern labor as leading to naught -- at least, to nothing as measured by values of progress established as a Western ideal.

Suddenly the received idea of Mexico, Peru, the rest of Latin America and countless other non-Western global places as "underdeveloped" nations gets thrown into sharp relief. The survey and a revealing video in the show's entrance are titled "Politics of Rehearsal." Why politics? The video (a DVD of which is generously included in the exhibition catalog) employs footage of Harry S. Truman's 1949 presidential inaugural address, in which the modern concept of underdeveloped nations was first articulated.

In the Cold War contest with the Soviet Union for influence in Latin America, Truman promised the imposition of modern Western values as the winning strategy. (To learn how that turned out, ask Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or Bolivia's Evo Morales.)

The "Politics of Rehearsal" video compares this approach to a stripper's dance. On a shabby cocktail lounge's red-velvet stage, a piano player accompanies a soprano as an erotic entertainer slowly disrobes to the music.

The unending tease is what counts. Preventing consummation is a necessity.

Modernism is pornography, a subtitle says, with the goal of both being a permanent state of arousal. The point is hard to argue. And it's especially difficult when faced with Alÿs' own uncannily magnanimous work.

In the high art/low art collision of the soprano and the stripper, the scraping of shovels and honking of saxophones in Latin America, or the Minimalist block of ice in the modern city, the conviction that hard work brings happiness takes a crucial turn. For Alÿs, work matters because it produces what we encounter here: improbable music and art. And there's nothing even slightly underdeveloped about that.

christopher.knight@latimes. com

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Francis Alÿs

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 10

Price: $5

Contact: (310) 443-7000, www.hammer.ucla.edu

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