Known alternately as a poet of politics, a mawkish master of the absurd and a wonderful nut, Belgian-born Francis de Smedt arrived in Mexico in 1986 as an architect to work for nongovernmental organisations just after the earthquake of 1985, a disaster that left angry scars of political ruin and urban rubble in Mexico City for decades. Since making the transition from architect to artist at the end of the 1980s and adopting the nom de plume Alÿs along the way, he has developed an action-based practice in which featherweight provocation, documentation and political gesture intermingle through the emulsifying magic of humour, beauty and a reverence for the preposterous.
His early work is characterised by a scratching at what friend and curator Cuauhtémoc Medina has called ‘those alternative moments that oppose the rationale of city planning and understanding of modernization as social engineering’. Working, or more specifically walking, in the historic centre around the Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square), Alÿs, in his practice from this period, deployed something of the methodology of the Situationist dérive, as a call and response exchange with the psychogeographical rhythms of Mexico’s urban life (for Situationist International leader Guy Debord, a dérive aimed to be ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’). Works like Placing Pillows (1990), The Collector (1990–92), Seven Lives of Garbage (1995) and Doppelganger (1999–) are meant to play with the strings of the social fabric rather than disrupt or document them.