Seven Walks - A Stroll Around London With Artist Francis Alÿs

By Paul Fitzpatrick | 07 October 2005
Shows a still of a highly-polished pair of black boots on a brightly-coloured cloth.

Shoeshine from Seven Walks by Francis Alÿs, commissioned and produced by Artangel, 2005.

Paul Fitzpatrick went in for a spot of walking in central London...

Over the past five years artist Francis Alÿs has been walking the streets of London. The result is Seven Walks, on until November 20 2005 at 21 Portman Square and at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Walking in different parts of the capital including Hyde Park, The Barbican and the Square Mile he has mapped out his own ideas of London using films, paintings and drawings.

"A journey implies a destination," says Alÿs, "so many miles to be consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way."

Commissioned by Artangel, this is the Belgian-born artist's first major public presentation in Britain. His past work includes getting 1,000 people to move a sand dune in the hills above Lima, Peru.

Expecting the unexpected then, I travelled downtown to visit his show.

Shows a still of a man running a stick along railings in front of a crescent of houses in Regents Park.

Railings from Seven Walks by Francis Alÿs, commissioned and produced by Artangel, 2005.

Most of the work can be found displayed within the peeling stucco walls of 21 Portman Square. Designed by James Adam in the late 18th century it's a distinctive neo-classical building chosen by Alÿs for its association with ‘the Establishment’.

A video shows the artist rattling a stick along railings of the crescents in Regents Park. This may not sound promising but as this lone figure wanders at variance with the surrounding buildings, the effect is subtly disturbing.

Maps of London on the walls are marked in pencil showing Alÿs' serpentine routes through the city.

In Ice4Milk slide images of a large block of ice being pushed through the streets of Mexico City (where the artist now lives) are shown alongside projections of the morning delivery of milk bottles to London doorsteps (they must be privileged if they're still getting their pints delivered). Pebble Walk, meanwhile, is based on a walk Alÿs took through Hyde Park in 1999.

Shows a still of a person dressed as a member of the Guards walking along a narrow street in London. A CCTV camera appears to be watching him.

Guards from Seven Walks by Francis Alÿs, commissioned and produced by Artangel, 2005.

The centrepiece at Portman Square is another video, Guards, this time filmed in the city's Square Mile. At the outset a lone soldier is seen marching through the empty streets. As time goes on he's joined by other guards, their red uniforms and bearskins moving through the district's suits and tourists.

The stamp of the soldier's marching boots is amplified, sound and image creating a hypnotic air of menace. Alÿs off-sets this by highlighting the soldiers forming a perfect square of 64 (figures) in a strangely beautiful choreography of power.

He deliberately used the vantage point of the city's CCTV cameras to film from: “Apparently the average Londoner is filmed something like 300 times a day,” he says. “That already says something about the relationship people in London have to a public sphere.”

Shows a still of a fox walking in front of a portrait of Elizabeth I at the National Portrait Gallery.

Nightwatch from Seven Walks by Francis Alÿs, commissioned and produced by Artangel, 2005.

These themes are explored in The Nightwatch. A fox is filmed as it moves at night through the Tudor and Georgian rooms of the National Portrait Gallery. The film, shown on a bank of television monitors in the Main Hall of the NPG, slowly draws you into a nocturnal world of surveillance.

Seven Walks is an outsider's surreal take on the modern metropolis. Francis Alÿs gently subverts the picture-postcard image of London to create a sense of dislocation.

The familiar is made strange and, through this, he succeeds in challenging perceptions of power and place.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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