A tourist’s experience of a city will inevitably be of a completely different order to that of one of its residents. Whilst the city dweller is able to intuitively and instinctively gain a sense of the history and character of their home town from its smallest and most banal details, a tourist has to work harder, and to examine instead those more obviously symbolic features – the buildings, the traditions and the cultural signposts that betray the complex nature of a particular urban metropolis. With this in mind the Belgium-born and Mexico City-based artist Francis Alÿs has accepted the invitation by the public art commissioning body Artangel to engage in a project in which he would develop a response to the city of London; and the exhibition Seven Walks – shown in the late 18th-century James Adam-designed residence 21 Portman Square and at the National Portrait Gallery – is the result.
Two floors of the Portman Square building are filled with the artist’s drawings, writings, paintings, videos, slide-projections and photographs. The overall experience is a resonant one: these diverse attempts by Alÿs to respond to his time in London are given a solid grounding by virtue of their housing in the grandeur of this neo-classical landmark. In certain video works there is a literal connection with the venue: a projection shown in what appears to be a kitchen simply portrays the artist himself circling the garden of a square somewhere in Regency London, clanging the railings with a drumstick as he goes. His walk is unhurried, purposeless, even slightly bored-looking. It’s as if he’s somehow got lost here; en route to a destination now long forgotten, he listlessly passes the time – the residue of his internal thoughts betrayed only by the rhythmic tapping of ivory on metal. Despite the feeling of ennui, the backdrop looms large and eloquently speaks about our own experience of arriving at these beautiful yet strangely quiet and alien streets tucked behind the more familiar modern bustle of London’s West End.
Similarly in Guards – which focuses on a group of those bright red suited and black furry-hatted soldiers, the Coldstream Guards – a picture-postcard image of the capital is turned on its head, and something far more complex is allowed to emerge. The video, which forms the centre-piece of the exhibition at Portman Square, begins with a lone guard somewhat aimlessly wandering the streets of London’s financial Square Mile. It gradually becomes apparent that he is not alone; in fact a large number of lone guards are searching for each other. Unaware of their colleagues’ own routes they have been instructed, upon meeting, to start marching together. At first small groups of three or four form, then gradually these groups grow larger, until eventually a unit of eight by eight guards can be seen rather absurdly quick-marching along the occasionally curious though largely indifferent streets of the City. Finally, on reaching a bridge over the Thames, the unit disperses. The strict application of the logic of this bizarre premise again demonstrates Alÿs’s idiosyncratic ability to extract something at once flippant and affecting from the deeply ingrained psyche of the city.
At the National Portrait Gallery, a large bank of monitors show the effects of the similarly absurd gesture of letting a fox run loose at night in a public gallery. The footage is taken from the museum’s security cameras, and, appropriately, is silent. It’s often difficult to follow the action – in darting from one room to another, the fox is in effect darting from one screen to another, and since the layout of the installation does not follow the layout of the building, there results a further sense of estrangement for the viewer. These particular rooms house the Tudor and Georgian collections of the gallery, so it doesn’t take too much imagination to start thinking of the fox as an alter-ego for the artist himself, discreetly sloping by and making irrelevant these noteworthy figures of Britain’s illustrious past. Once again familiar markers of touristic interest are thrown into a skewed focus by the meandering curiosity of the lone walker.
So just what exactly is this idea of London being presented in Seven Walks? It certainly isn’t one promoted in tourist guides. And for that matter it isn’t one familiar to those who live in the city either. Alÿs’s project is a pointedly personal one, and his sense of discovery and of simply trying things out is vividly present here, especially in those more tentative and unfinished works and ideas that litter the exhibition. He talks of trying to make ‘sense of things without understanding them’ – and perhaps this is the key; for at the heart of this body of work lies an instinctively nomadic sensibility whose real interest is not in trying to understand a particular city, but instead examining the effects of place – any place – on its inhabitants.