Trained as an architect, Alÿs turned to a visual arts based practice in the early 1990s as a more immediate, direct, and effective way of exploring issues related to urbanization, to the ordering and signification of urban space and to the semiotics of its use. His work initiates with a simple action, either by him or others, which is then documented in a range of media. Alÿs explores subjects such as modernizing programs in Latin America and border zones in areas of conflict, often asking about the relevance of poetic acts in politicized situations. Documentation is central to his practice as well as painting, drawing, and video. In his work, When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) made in collaboration with Mexican critic Cuauhtemoc Medina, Alÿs recruited 500 volunteers outside of Lima, Peru. Each person moved a shovel full of sand one step at a time form one side of a dune to the other, and together they moved the entire geographical location of the dune by a few inches. Critic Jean Fisher linked Alÿs’ work to the radical event of precipitating a crisis of meaning, where the exposure of a void of meaning is confronted by its social situation, leading up to some kind of truth.
Francis Alÿs was born in Belgium in 1959. He lives and works in Mexico City.