Francis Alÿs

Zocalo May 20 1999. Running time: 12 hours

This film captures twelve hours of uninterrupted footage of Mexico City’s central plaza, known as the Zocalo. This vast square, second in size only to Moscow’s Red Square, is a favoured location for political demonstrations. However, Alÿs chooses to focus on an uneventful day in the square’s history. The flagpole dominates the square, creating a long shadow in the intense Mexican sun. Like a giant sundial, it demarcates both space and time. The main characters in the film are members of the public who traverse the square and line up in the cool refuge of the flagpole’s narrow shadow. Over the course of the footage, Alÿs reveals a social choreography that is largely determined by the position of the sun.

Alÿs’s work is often based in performance – the inadvertent performance of the public in the case of Zocalo. More often, he himself is the protagonist. In 1990, he began performing ‘paseos’, or walks, through downtown Mexico City. As he walked, he would leave some residue as evidence of his passage, such as a wet trail left by a melting block of ice, the unravelling wool of a sweater, or a line of paint from a punctured paint tin. Alÿs has commented: ‘Each of my interventions is another fragment of the story that I am inventing, of the city that I am mapping.’

Francis Alÿs was born in 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium. He lives and works in Mexico City.

Fikret Atay

Rebels of the Dance 2002. Running time: 11 min

Rebels of the Dance shows two young boys performing what appears to be a traditional dance within the confines of a cash machine lobby. In this unlikely location they launch into a stream of synchronised chanting and polyphony with no recognisable words other than a Kurdish phrase at the end: ‘Who is the pasha? Who is the groom?’ Throughout, the boys seem perfectly attuned, as though they are co-ordinating their actions through a hidden code. Try as we might to crack the code, we are ultimately left wondering if this is just a mischievous prank.

Atay uses video to document events in his home town of Batman, Eastern Turkey, often filming local traditions, rituals and children’s games. Batman is representative of the collision between ancient customs and harsh corporate realities that took hold after the discovery of oil in the region in the mid-1950s. Since then, Batman has become a repressive oil-refining town where the Kurdish population is under the strict supervision of state-controlled security. Even with such wealth being generated locally, Batman suffers from high unemployment and the well-being of its citizens is largely ignored by big business. Singing Kurdish melodies in front of a cash machine could be seen as an act of defiance against this state of affairs, especially since Kurdish music was banned in Turkey for much of the twentieth century. As Atay shows in his intimate portrayal of local life, the townsfolk remain a close-knit and proud community.

Fikret Atay was born in 1976 in Batman, Turkey, where he continues to live and work

Yael Bartana

Kings of the Hill 2003. Running time: 7 min

Bartana’s work examines the value-systems of her native country, Israel, in its ongoing political struggle with neighbouring Arab countries. As she explains, ‘I am focusing on Israel in order to ask: what is this place where I grew up? How long will this troubled nation continue to perpetuate this pattern of ignorance?’ Taking the role of a distanced observer, she documents various social and religious practices, with the hope that her work will ‘provoke honest responses and perhaps replace the predictable, controlled reactions encouraged by the state’.

Yael Bartana was born in 1970 in Afula, Israel, and lives and works in Israel and Amsterdam.

Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij

Untitled 2001 / Running time: 10 min

We are presented with a static shot of an overgrown graveyard, behind which looms an anonymous Asian city, rigid skyscrapers juxtaposed with organic vegetation. The action is minimal. Figures gradually appear in the graveyard, but their role remains unclear: are they workers, actors, or mourners? The careful framing and static camerawork create a meditative quality that suggests a concentration of perception. An image that might otherwise be absorbed at a glance is allowed to linger. It is the gradual exposure to this vista, its revelation through time, that is significant, rather than any missed or missing narrative. The artists add to this intensity by installing their films in a spare environment, with fixed intervals between each screening. Visitors are encouraged to watch the film, which lasts about ten minutes, from beginning to end.

The stillness of the image belies the amount of information it contains, information that we generally expect to gather in film from the constantly changing picture. Untitled contains references to the history of colonialism and capitalism. The city in the background is Jakarta and the rapid expansion of this Indonesian capital, as evidenced by the construction, is largely the work of the Chinese population, who occupy a dominant position in the economy while remaining socially marginalised. The graveyard remains untouched by this expansion, not for sentimental or religious reasons, but because it is the burial site of Ibu Fatmawati Soekarno, the wife of the first President of Indonesia. According to tradition, it was Mrs Soekarno who sewed the first Indonesian flag by hand.

Jeroen de Rijke was born in 1970, in Brouwershaven, The Netherlands. Willem de Rooij was born in 1969 in Beverwijk, The Netherlands. They began collaborating in 1994, and live and work in Amsterdam.

Yang Fudong

Liu Lan 2003. Running time: 14 min

Liu Lan begins with a young man in a westernised suit arriving at a lake, where he finds a woman in traditional dress sitting on a boat and doing needlework. The man boards the boat and a journey begins, to the accompaniment of a folk song. The lyric describes the silence of a beautiful girl, lamenting ‘why are people in love always apart?’ The passing landscape recalls traditional Chinese scroll painting, and for the duration of the film the man and woman remain distant, despite their physical proximity, as if occupying two different worlds or tempos. The spectator is caught somewhere between these two registers, between dream and reality, past and present.

Yang’s video portrays a rupture between modernity and tradition, reflecting China’s sense of cultural confusion in the wake of rapid social and technological change. The simultaneity of past, present and future is evoked by Yang’s painterly imagery, and by his use of black-and-white film, which gives the work a nostalgic quality.

Yang Fudong was born in 1971 in Beijing, China, and lives and works in Shanghai.

Anri Sala

Blindfold 2002. Running time: 15 min

Blindfold is a double projection showing two empty billboard sites. The metallic surface of the hoardings reflects the setting sun.

At times the reflection is so bright it is uncomfortable to look directly at the billboards; but as the sun’s angle changes, the reflected light dims and the surroundings are gradually revealed. On one screen we see a makeshift balcony clinging to the side of a rundown building. Unexpectedly, a woman appears and sweeps the balcony, reminding us of the ‘real time’ of the scene. On the other screen we see a wasteland of rubble with a rough path by the side of a road. The forms of passers-by can be made out through the glare.

Street sounds are interspersed with staccato violin notes that seem to relate to the piercing light, creating a sense of unease.

The background noise helps us to glean further details about the surroundings – the frequency of the cars, the pace of pedestrians and the unpaved ground. The location seems to be in a state of economic transition: the vacant plot of land and the empty hoardings could portend either economic progress or recession. We are not told where it is, though the uneven pace of development suggests the artist’s native Albania.

Sala grew up in Tirana during the Communist era and witnessed Albania’s arduous conversion to capitalism. In this, as in a number of his other works, he allows an everyday situation to stand as an allegory for a troubled society in transition.

Anri Sala was born in 1974 in Tirana, Albania, and lives and works in Paris.

Bojan Sarcevic

Untitled (Bangkok) 2002. Running time: 8 min

We see the artist with a newspaper in his hand, taking a short circular walk through the streets and alleys of Bangkok. Two cameras record him advancing and then receding in repeated succession as he turns another corner in the city. His pace is steady and deliberate, he is clearly familiar with the route and the newspaper in his hand gives the scene an everyday air. However, it soon becomes apparent that no-one acknowledges him. As a westerner he is rendered invisible, as if he belonged to a different time zone. Sarcevic creates a haunting image of alienation, suggesting that foreigners, though a familiar sight as tourists in the Thai capital, remain distanced from the local population.

Sarcevic’s artistic practice exposes the social and cultural conventions of particular places, often by introducing an ‘alien’ element, or by creating unlikely juxtapositions. An earlier project, Cover Version (2001), involved filming a group of traditional Turkish singers as they performed popular hits by Nirvana and the Chemical Brothers, amongst others, in their own musical style. In Corner of the World (1999), Sarcevic literally displaced a section from the wall of an apartment in Amsterdam, transporting it to galleries in different countries, where the method of its construction emphasised either similarities or differences in relation to the new context in which it was placed.

Bojan Sarcevic was born in 1974 in Belgrade, Serbia, former Yugoslavia. He lives and works in Paris and Berlin.

Wolfgang Staehle

Comburg 2001. Running time: Continuous live feed

This live web-cam picture of an eleventh-century monastery in rural Germany is continuously updated every four seconds, and transmitted via the internet. The slow, incremental changes are barely perceptible, revealed through changes in the light and the weather. A counter at the bottom marks the date and time. Static, and at the same time moving; near and yet far, such web-cam projections collapse the usual codes governing the way we view our surroundings. Staehle has commented: ‘I wanted viewers to consider how they experience time… We’re all running around all the time. I wanted to make people feel aware.’

One of Staehle’s first web-cam works was Empire 24/7, a single shot of New York’s Empire State Building, which referenced Andy Warhol’s film Empire (1964) – itself a locked-off shot of the building, notoriously lasting over eight hours. This projection, Comburg, was originally shown in an exhibition that opened in New York in September 2001. Alongside it was a panoramic web-cam view of lower Manhattan. Soon after the exhibition opened, Staehle’s live feed captured the unfolding events of ‘9/11’, becoming an impassive, second by second witness to the tragedy.

Wolfgang Staehle was born in 1950 in Stuttgart, Germany, and lives and works in New York. 

Fiona Tan

Saint Sebastian 2001. Running time: Continuous loop

Saint Sebastian is a documentary-style account of the annual Toshiya ceremony in Kyoto, Japan, a festival that brings together the finest young archers from around Japan to celebrate the passing from childhood into adulthood. The ceremony has been held in the Sanjusangen-do temple for over four hundred years, and involves a style of archery that is not simply a test of hitting a target with an arrow, but a state of mind, in which the archers strive for fluidity in their shooting.

Tan’s work lies somewhere in between the still photograph and the moving picture. In this film there are two projections, one on either side of a single screen. One shows details such as the participants’ headwear and elaborate costumes, while the other depicts the moment when the bow string is drawn past the cheek of a young girl and she lets fly a feathered arrow. For Tan, the process of setting out to make such a film, in a destination far from home, echoes the journeys of European travellers in the early twentieth century, who explored the world and brought back anthropological films (examples of which Tan has incorporated into some of her other works). The title, Saint Sebastian, is rooted in the Western Christian tradition, and perhaps serves to draw attention to the artist and viewer’s roles as cultural outsiders in observing this ritual.

Rain was shot during an Indonesian downpour. This single film is shown on two monitors stacked one above the other in order to confuse our sense of the cloud-burst having any beginning or end. The shot shows two blue buckets filling up with rain water while a dog shelters nearby. The images are out of sync and edited into a loop, giving the impression of an infinite cycle.

Fiona Tan was born in 1966 in Pekan Baru, Indonesia. She lives and works in Amsterdam.