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Francis Alÿs
Artwork 2008
A still frame from Francis Alÿs’ video work ‘Painting/Retoque’ shows a person crouched on a tarred road repainting a faded road marking with yellow paint.
Artwork: Francis Alÿs, Painting/Retoque (2008). Single-channel video, sound. 8 min 31 sec. Courtesy of the artist.
Artist Francis Alÿs Title Painting/Retoque Date 2008 Materials Single-channel video, sound Dimensions 8 min 31 sec Credit Courtesy of the artist

In a characteristically futile and lyrical performance, Alÿs repainted – with slow precision better suited to easel paintings – the weathered centerline on the road of the former Panama Canal Zone, the symbolic divide that cleaves North and South America. The action took three days; the artist restoring 60 lines “erased by the passage of time.” The documentation, however, records the painting of only a single yellow strip at Paraiso, an ex-US military base. Alÿs walks into frame with paint can and brushes. Onlookers pause to watch the artist at his work, cars pass; buses. In the distance, large container ships move along the canal. Voices and birdsong accompany the scene, a radio plays. Impassive, the artist continues in his labour. Nothing happens. The gesture completed, the artist leaves – the brilliant yellow of the restored centreline bright against its faded counterparts.

In Francis Alÿs’s practice, expansive themes are distilled in the simplest of gestures. Walking becomes form; metaphors, the artist’s medium. Gestures last only as long as they can be sustained; the exhaustion of the action more often necessary to the work’s logic. “Maximum effort, minimal result,” remains Alÿs’s guiding phrase. That Alÿs is drawn to cooperative play, as apparent in his ongoing project Children’s Games (1999–), is perhaps telling. With their repetition, their rules, their invitations to chance and happenstance, and metaphorical resonance, games offer a compelling parallel to the artist’s wider inquiry.