Knots is an installation of rope accompanied by three pencil drawings. The rope is several metres long and is suspended vertically from the ceiling. The excess rope pools in a heap on the floor. The size of this heap is dependent on the ceiling height of the space in which the work is installed. The rope is interspersed along its length with a variety of knots. On an adjacent wall three works on paper are hung in a horizontal line. These pencil drawings provide a key to various knots that punctuate the string. Each knot is classified by a typewritten label, but rather than the expected name of the knot, they are ascribed an action. For example, the straight length of string drawn in the upper left hand corner of the first panel is labelled ‘I walk straight’, while the alpine butterfly knot on the second panel is labelled ‘I turn left’.
The installation represents the codified result of a walk through London undertaken by the artist in 2005. Each of the three drawings has a pencil addition in the lower right hand corner (where an artist’s signature might be expected) which reads ‘The Story of a Walk’. These pencil additions contrast with the typewritten labels on the panel and remind the viewer that this installation represents Alÿs’s own journey. The key aids the viewer in piecing the walk’s narrative back together but omits other information, such as location or weather, so that the walk cannot be wholly reimagined. This ambiguity has been noted by the curator Mark Godfrey: ‘Here was a work that provided the tools for its own decryption while making any comprehensive interpretation impossible: a neat allegory for Alÿs’s recent practice’ (Godfrey 2006, p.262).
Alÿs’s decision to translate his walk into the form of complex knots aligns him with other groups which share this skill. Traditionally, knots have been used by sailors, climbers or fishermen; groups of people who are also preoccupied with navigation and mapping. Alÿs mapped out his walk by breaking it into thirteen distinct actions, which are translated from his own time-bound experience into a permanent sculptural form. Alÿs’s interest with this process of translation is described by his frequent collaborator Cuauhtémoc Medina as follows:
Knots provides its own code for registering the incidents of a walk: the stroller’s small reactions and movements, the accidents that befall him … The result is a kind of memory that, once the code is learned, can be read eyes closed by running the rope through one’s fingers like a rosary, or an Inca quipu. But it also illustrates the way Alÿs once again establishes a certain commonality between his actions and the research into a vocabulary of sculpture.
(Quoted in Tate Modern 2010, p.156.)
Knots is one of nine works in Tate’s collection from Alÿs’s series Seven Walks. The series was created over the course of six years, as Alÿs wandered the streets of London and mapped its habits, rhythms and rituals in a range of different media. In 2005 the resulting films, videos, paintings, photographs and drawings became Seven Walks; works which either documented the artist’s own walks or those enacted by others on his behalf. The art critic Coline Milliard has stressed how the series humanises the city in which it was made:
Alÿs’s walking creates a ground-level image of the city, fragmented, subjective and incomplete. It claims space for the fragile, the ephemeral and the poetic. In a commuter city where pedestrianism fights for survival, ‘Seven Walks’ transforms increasingly alienating surroundings into a new space tailored to human dimensions.
(Milliard 2010, p.4.)
Alÿs has used walking as an impetus for his work throughout his career, including in early pieces such as The Last Clown 1995–2000 (Tate T07993) and Pebble Walk 1999 (Tate T12193). Other works in the Seven Walks series include Sunny/Shady 2004 (Tate T12197), Railings 2004 (Tate T12194) and The Nightwatch 2004 (Tate T12195).
Mark Godfrey, ‘Walking the Line’, Artforum, May 2006, pp.260–7.
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2010.
Coline Milliard, ‘Walks of Life’, Art Monthly, vol.337, June 2010, pp.1–4.