As one would expect of a Francis Alÿs’ project, “Reel-Unreel” came about as a result of a cooperative effort. This time, he joined forces with Afghani architect Ajmal Maiwandi and French film-maker Julien Delvaux. The exhibition’s titular work is a video that depicts two youths engaged in a simple, ludic action. Both boys run rather swiftly; the first unreels 35-mm film from a red spool that he steers with a stick, while the second rewinds the film left on the dusty streets back to his blue spool. They are pursued by an enthusiastic band of companions, filing along the streets of Kabul, past traffic, commerce, indifferent adults, goats, and curious young girls. The video achieves a lively expression of Kabul’s idiosyncratic texture. It starts and culminates with an overview of the cityscape from a drumlin. At its climax there is a dramatic loss, on the one hand, of the continuity of celluloid to an odd fire, and, on the other, of the first spool, which leaps over the cliff.
Also on view were three videos from the series Children’s Games, which Alÿs started to shoot in various cities in 2008. Among those shown was one featuring kids kite-running. Children, like animals—another constant feature of Alÿs’ work—fall outside of the rational urban context. Allowed to operate on the very boundaries of sanitary organizational functionality, the child, in her pre-linguistic jouissance and rambunctiously regressive ludic rituals, broadens the dominant symbolic order.
Accompanied by preparatory materials on a table, the videos are one half of the exhibition, the second being paintings, dozens of which were executed in Mexico, where Alÿs had retreated between trips to Afghanistan. Familiar features, such as small-scale renderings, are complemented with a new iconographic element that unites most paintings: color-bar combinations, like those that you might see on TV during technical adjustment or in the very late hours. These impersonal color bars, not unlike abstract technology, are laid over Afghan city scenes, barring figurative access to the represented historical reality.
However, mediation by means of representation is not what haunts these canvases, for if the viewer is attentive enough to the allure of the riddle offered, she cannot avoid drawing the swift conclusion suggested by an ominous clue left on the table. The clue is a photograph printed on standard letter paper, found among some dreary news reports. It shows an officer seated in front of numerous monitors, some showing similar color bars, others topographical renderings of the battlefield. One might think he manipulates unmanned aerial vehicles, and then the “image of Afghanistan conveyed by the media in the West” assumes almost the role of the target.