Thursday, February 01, 2007

When Faith Moves Mountains

Among the interesting works of landscape art in Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar's book Place is one they describe as having 'great simplicity and poetic richness': When Faith Moves Mountains by Francis Alÿs. The artist was struck by the hardship of life on the edge of Lima, where seventy thousand people live in shanty towns without running water or electricity. Displaced from the city by social unrest and economic crises, they came to live on the Ventanilla dunes, slowly moving hills of sand that seem like metaphors for the forces acting on the people of Lima. On April 11 2002, Alÿs organised an action he describes as 'at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent.' Five hundred volunteers formed a line at the foot of a dune and working only with shovels managed to mve it about four inches from its original position.

There is an Artforum article in which Alÿs discusses this work. "When Faith Moves Mountains is my attempt to deromanticize Land art. When Richard Long made his walks in the Peruvian desert, he was pursuing a contemplative practice that distanced him from the immediate social context. When Robert Smithson built the Spiral Jetty on the Salt Lake in Utah, he was turning civil engineering into sculpture and vice versa. Here, we have attempted to create a kind of Land art for the land-less, and, with the help of hundreds of people and shovels, we created a social allegory. This story is not validated by any physical trace or addition to the landscape. We shall now leave the care of our story to oral tradition, as Plato says in the Republic. Only in its repetition and transmission is the work actualized. In this respect, art can never free itself from myth. Indeed, in modem no less than premodern societies, art operates precisely within the space of myth."

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