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Spinning Reels

Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi), Reel-Unreel (2011) at the Adam Art Gallery. Single channel video projection, 19:28min, color, sound. Photo: Shaun Waugh.
Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi), still from Reel-Unreel, 2011. Video documentation of an action. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.
Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi), production still from Reel-Unreel, 2011. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo: Ajmal Maiwandi.
Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi), production still from Reel-Unreel, 2011. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo: Ajmal Maiwandi.
Mark Amery on new takes on the documentary in the wake of disaster and crisis.

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By Mark Amery

In the midst of the New Zealand International Film Festival one of the finest pieces of moving image you could hope to find fitting the brief is outside the programme, in the depths of the Adam Art Gallery: Francis Alys’s Reel – Unreel.

Reel - Unreel was commissioned from the Belgium-born, Mexican-based artist as an off-site project for this year’s leading European art event Documenta. And when I say off-site: the work premiered in a bombed-out cinema in Kabul, Afghanistan.

And yet this 20 minute film may also be viewed and downloaded as creative commons from the artist’s website. The work’s free digital distribution is not only refreshing; it is bound up beautifully with the work’s international agency. Alys explores film’s power both as an action in a place as an act of belonging, and its liberation in constant countless transmissions out in digital space. Receiving its first installation in the Southern Hemisphere at the Adam, it feels right to see it both on a personal device and in the gallery. 

In 2001, on the outskirts of Kabul the Taliban destroyed much of the contents of the Afghani national film archive. The fire burnt for two weeks. What they didn’t realise apparently was that what they burnt were copies, not originals. We are told this in titles over a scene in the film in which a group of boys examine frames from streams of film (“all these people are locked up” one comments, enigmatically). Another boy frames in his sights with his fingers one of the military helicopters that hover ominously above the city, as if a budding filmmaker sizing up a shot. Like spores to the wind, Reel – Unreel sends images of the streets of Kabul out into the world beyond this surveillance. In its empowerment, poetically it suggests film has the potential to be even more powerful than we realize.

In his filmed performance art pieces Alys brings a lightness of touch to the heaviest of subjects, claiming public commons space through movement. In one famous work 500 volunteers attempted to shovel a sand dune 10 centimeters. I’ve long been a fan, but this film is something else. Not just in its resonances as a film about film-making, but also the bravado of the film-making itself, a collaboration with filmmaker Julien Vevaux.

Belying its digital presentation, film in the work is treated as physically as possible. Inspired by a popular local children’s game of rolling a bicycle tyre with a stick, the camera follows children taking turns at running with two metal film reels, with a film slithering and slapping across the ground of the city between them, recording the city like a print. In this race one child tries to catch up with the other. It is as if the past is trying to catch up with the present. Through alleyways and along traffic-choked major arteries, camera and children roll through their city, as if in some playful flaneur exercise of claiming it. It’s a powerful urban form of landscape art. As a circuit sport the children take over the city like a motorcar street-race does a Western city. With the film-making there is the visceral thrill of skate video camerawork. There is no sense of trauma or sadness, just pure joy. I’m reminded of Len Lye’s description of his first ‘eureka’ art moment as a child – the light and sound effects capable from kicking a shiny tin can.

At the gallery you experience the film in conjunction with two other exhibitions exploring the powerful relationship between people and documentation after a disaster. Paul John’s installation (interesting but a little distant in effect) features memento's of his mothers’ time working at the now badly damaged Christchurch Odean Theatre. Lieko Shiga’s installation records the reconnection of people with 1000s of found photographs in the small Japanese village in which she lives after the 2011 Tsunami. Most extraordinary is Shiga’s own surreal series of images here. Photography becomes a charged, ritualistic process by which emotions are released through performances for and with the camera, to inventive and touching effect. Photography rarely feels this involved and visceral.

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Written by

Mark Amery

8 Aug 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.