Boundless Fun - Part 1
The exhibition room is filled with the joyful laughter of children - a rare sound in a museum. In his ongoing video series, “Children's Games,” the artist, born in Antwerp in 1959, captures the essence of games played by children around the world. The Wiels exhibition in Brussels showcases a selection of these films, each lasting just a few minutes, yet profoundly captivating. Titled “The Nature of the Game,” the exhibition leaves a lasting impression as we witness children playing in the snowy Swiss Alps, a boy careening downhill in a car tire in Lubumbashi, his hometown, and a young girl skipping through the bustling streets of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Belgian children stage a snail race on a quiet country road. These works exude a quiet humor reminiscent of Alÿs' early pieces, which catapulted him to international acclaim. In his 1997 video, "Paradox on Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing)," he pushed a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City, his adopted home for decades, until the ice fully melted. For his video works and paintings, which are poetic and often political, Alÿs will be honored with the Wolfgang Hahn Prize on November 17 in Cologne.
In the film "Children's Game #30: La Roue", made in 2021 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a boy laboriously rolls a tyre up a hill - and then races down in it. Copyright: Francis Alÿs/Courtesy of the galleries Peter Kilchmann, Jan Mot and David Zwirner
Mr. Alÿs, what was your favorite childhood game to pass the time?
Francis Alÿs: "I enjoyed playing hide and seek. As a child, we played it at night, which added an element of eeriness to the experience. The seekers had flashlights, and the interplay of light and shadow left a lasting impression on me. You must understand, I grew up without access to television or movies, as my family rejected such entertainment. Hiding at night became my own form of entertainment - a moment of playing with light. I was hidden in the darkness, observing the seekers, the shadows, and the images projected onto the trees. It created a form of cinema in my imagination."
In your first filmed “Children's Game” from 1999, you captured a boy kicking a plastic bottle uphill on a street for over four and a half minutes. Did you already envision it as part of a series documenting children’s games worldwide?
Francis Alÿs: "No, not at all. Initially, these early videos were made as correspondences or in parallel with other official projects. For example, the film 'Caracoles' was shot in the suburbs of Mexico City, where we also filmed the video series 'Rehearsal'."
In 'Rehearsal', you repeatedly attempt to drive a red VW Beetle up a steep hill in vain..
Francis Alÿs: "That's correct. The same approach was applied to the other 'Children's Games'. For instance, the film 'Sandcastles' is linked to a project in Lima, while 'Stick and Wheels' was shot in Afghanistan before the film 'Reel-Unreel' (2011), where children unspool a reel of film on the streets of Kabul. Initially, filming children and their games served as a means to establish contact with people. As a contemporary artist, I was often asked to comment on cultures I had no direct connection to. When I was first invited to Afghanistan, filming with children provided a shortcut to make contact and understand cultural nu-ances. It allowed me to navigate questions such as: What can I film? What should I avoid filming? Who is willing to participate in a project? Who talks to strangers? It was a straightforward way to initiate conversations in unfamiliar places."
How did this evolve into a project of its own?
Francis Alÿs: "Sometime around 2017-2018, after having shot approximately fifteen of these 'Children's Games', I realized that I had accumulated a compilation of diverse videos focusing on traditional and contemporary games set in various cultural landscapes. Simultaneously, I noticed that children playing in public spaces were becoming increasingly rare, a trend accentuated by the pandemic. However, this shift had begun earlier, influenced by factors like the pervasive presence of cars in urban areas and the dominance of social media. Above all, it was driven by parental concerns about letting their children play freely outdoors. All these factors ignited my desire to document this transformation, intensifying the urgency of the project."
"Game #22: Jump Rope" was filmed by Alÿs in Hong Kong in 2020, capturing girls competing in a breathtaking jump rope performance. Copyright: Francis Alÿs/Courtesy of the galleries Peter Kilchmann, Jan Mot and David Zwirner
How do you select the games you document?
Francis Alÿs: "Often, the games are suggested by people in the local communities. For instance, during my exhibition in Copenhagen last year, curators suggested the game “'Kluddermor'.”
Is this one of the two new films from Copenhagen, where a dozen children join hands and create an almost inextricable knot?
Francis Alÿs: "Yes, it seamlessly fit into the series. However, I actively search for specific games on occasion. For instance, the film 'Kisolo', shot in 2021 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, captures a centuries-old game played with troughs and stones. This game is said to be 3,500 years old. When we looked for it in the suburbs of Lubumbashi, we often saw adults playing it. However, finding children familiar with Kisolo was challenging. Witnessing this loss of knowledge within just one generation made me realize the importance of documenting as many disappearing games as possible."
There are also games that reflect current phenomena. Two new videos in the exhibition show children in Ukraine setting up roadblocks or imitating alarm sirens with their voices. How did these films come about?
Francis Alÿs: "One of the curators I collaborated with during Manifesta in St. Petersburg in 2016 happened to be Ukrainian. At the onset of the Russian invasion, we corresponded, and she shared insights about the games being played. It felt natural to accept her invitation and document the events. Particularly, the film 'Parol' is notable because it introduces two new elements: firstly, it incorporates wordplay."
The children stop cars, whose occupants then have to say a slogan that Russian speakers can't pronounce correctly. It is the word for 'bread'.
Francis Alÿs: "Adults thus become - albeit passively - participants in the game. This is the second new element."
Isn't there a third element as well? This is a 'Children's Game' you recorded directly in a war zone.
Francis Alÿs: "Indeed, the films in Afghanistan and Iraq were also produced within the context of armed conflict. However, in those instances, the war itself inspired these specific games. Furthermore, they were copycat games; there was an official checkpoint located 300 meters down the road. Thus, the children were mimicking the realities of adults, not only to be part of that world and express solidarity with the national cause, but also to reclaim their right to play and establish their own territory."