Francis Alÿs, in collaboration with Julien Devaux, Rafael Ortega, Alejandro Morales, and Félix Blume: Paradox of Praxis 5: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream, Ciudad Juárez, México, 2013, video, 7 minutes, 49 seconds; at David Zwirner.

“When the operative system of a society collapses, can art bring about an alternative way of thinking . . . ?” Francis Alÿs wrote this question on a notebook page reproduced in the brochure accompanying “Ciudad Juárez Projects,” his powerful exhibition at David Zwirner in London. For the works on view, Alÿs brought his poetic sensibility to Mexico’s most lawless city, Ciudad Juárez, which borders El Paso and is plagued with drug-cartel turf battles, police corruption, economic decline, and the unsolved murders of hundreds of young female factory workers.

The exhibition comprised paintings, drawings, and videos dating from 2010 to 2015. Alÿs made the videos with a number of collaborators and, as with many of his videos, has chosen not to sell them but to offer them for free on his website. The undoubted highlight of the show was the video Paradox of Praxis 5: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream, Ciudad Juárez, México (2013). We watch Alÿs kick a burning soccer ball at night across noisy crossroads and down eerie unlit streets, the flames briefly illuminating prostitutes’ legs, the odd scrawny dog, stray loiterers; we follow his progress along a railway track and into the outlying scrubland, where the ball eventually disintegrates, spraying embers in its wake. The threat of violence is implicit throughout: we fear for the artist’s safety, due to both the fiery ball and the shadowy figures it allows us to glimpse. 

Belgian-born Alÿs moved to Mexico in 1986 and has found rich material there for exploring life’s absurdities and pathos in his characteristically understated way, particularly through his performative walking pieces. In his 1997 film Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing, the artist pushes a large block of ice for nine hours through Mexico City’s bustling streets until it fully melts. Since 2004 Alÿs has turned his focus to border areas like Ciudad Juárez, testing what function his artistic perambulations might have in such socio-politically charged places. In Jerusalem, he performed a walk leaving a trail of green paint along the so-called Green Line, which designated the armistice border at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and remained in place until the Six-Day War in 1967.

Another strand of Alÿs’s work—this one stretching back to 1999—consists of videos that focus on children’s games that are played universally, in societies around the world, transcending differences in language and culture. Children’s Game #15: Espejos, Ciudad Juárez, México (2013), on view in the Zwirner exhibition, shows young boys shooting each other with pretend guns. Here, the “guns” are mirror shards. The boys dart in and out of abandoned prefabricated houses, pointing the shards to beam the sun’s rays at one another as they replicate in play the real-life violence of their metropolis. Their raw delight contrasts sharply with the brutalized, rubble-strewn surroundings.

A handful of small paintings and postcards complemented the video works. In one painting, children are seen shining mirrors at one another from behind the corners of imposing buildings with blackened windows. In another, a crowd of onlookers observes a car in flames, conveying the primal fear and fascination that burning objects induce. A third painting presents Ciudad Juárez as a word map, with narco-violence at its center, surrounded by opposing forces such as dream/reality, life/death, and representation/abstraction. The postcards, which show Ciudad Juárez at night, further contribute to the impression of moral darkness enveloping the city; the artist has blacked out the images almost entirely, leaving just the blur of car headlights or a lone female figure.

Alÿs does not pretend to answer his own question about art’s role in a broken society like Ciudad Juárez’s. But in capturing the innocent joy of the children’s mirror game and in the symbolic act of lighting up the city’s darkness through his walking performance, the artist suggests, obliquely, that art might yet offer some transformative potential.