Sunny/Shady is comprised of a pair of framed photographs on paper and a pair of framed maps. The first photograph depicts an Asian family sitting in the shade of a tree in a London park. The group appears to be enjoying a picnic, as they are surrounded by food and have removed their shoes. This small landscape orientated photograph is framed within an A4-sized portrait-orientated wooden frame. The photograph is mounted in the top half of the cream coloured paper, which fills the frame. On the paper above the photograph is a typewritten caption: ‘A walk in South East London on the shady side of the street always’. The second photograph, similarly framed, depicts an equivalent scene in the park. However, in this image the foreground is in the shade and devoid of people. Behind, in the sunshine, a scattered group of apparently white people are seen sunbathing or reading. The photograph is captioned ‘A walk in South East London on the sunny side of the street always’. Each of these works has an accompanying road map of the centre of London, with a route overlaid upon it in red pen. The works are displayed in a vertical line, with each of the photographs displayed first, followed by their accompanying map.
The pen marks on the maps document the route of a pair of walks undertaken by the artist in 2004. On one of these routes he always walked on the sunny side of the street, and on the other he always walked on the shady side of the street, examining the relationship of a city dweller to the sun. The framed photographs also explore this relationship. When walking in London’s parks Alÿs observed that only people with light skin rested in the sunshine, whereas people with dark skin rested in shade. For Alÿs this reflects the way the layers of London’s history determines the behaviour of its contemporary inhabitants:
My experience reflects on the identity of the city in a certain moment in history. The projects are based on things that I’ve witnessed, they are made with ingredients that are alive and contemporary. The Empire, or post-Empire issue for example, if you take a long historical perspective, it’s almost yesterday, it’s only half a century. It is so embedded that, regardless of the present state of things, it’s a major component of the culture.
(Alÿs in 21 Portman Square 2005, p.52.)
Sunny/Shady has parallels with Alÿs’s earlier work Zocalo 1999, in which he filmed twelve hours of activity in the main square of Mexico City from an aerial view. As the artist has noted: ‘[Sunny/Shady] is presenting a very specific situation, the relationship to the sun, the way people expose or protect themselves. When I noticed it in London, there was an immediate echo of the piece I made in the Zocalo in Mexico City’ (Alÿs in 21 Portman Square 2005, p.56). Alÿs’s rule-based action and its documentation also recalls early performance art works which operated under similar conceptual constraints and relied on the participation of unwitting strangers, such as Vito Acconci’s Following Piece 1969 (related documents held by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne 1979 (documentation published as Sophie Calle: Suite Vénitienne, Los Angeles 2015).
Sunny/Shady 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 Railings 2004 (Tate T12194) and The Nightwatch 2004 (Tate T12195).
Francis Alÿs: Seven Walks, London 2004–5, exhibition catalogue, 21 Portman Square, London 2005.
Nicholas Whybrown, Art and the City, London 2010.
Coline Milliard, ‘Walks of Life’, Art Monthly, vol.337, June 2010, pp.1–4.