The Silence of the Observer

An international cast of anonymous protagonists populates Francis Alÿs’s Children’s Games. But from what vantage point can the artist and today’s viewers connect across time, space, and cultures?

Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #12, Musical Chairs Oaxaca, Mexico 2012, 5:05 min. In collaboration with Elena Pardo and Félix Blume.

For a moment, I was worried. As I stood in line outside Copenhagen Contemporary waiting to buy my ticket, the noise from inside the exhibition space sounded as if there was a real indoor playground. Was Francis Alÿs going to change the game and present the real thing? After all, his video series Children’s Games (1999–ongoing) has been shown around the world, and, for a few more weeks, a large selection is being presented at the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The Copenhagen show is for completists: it features the whole series and promises the inclusion of two new works realised in Denmark, which weren’t up when I saw the show.

Turning the corner, it’s still overwhelming, as is typical in exhibition venues as large as these (this would merit a whole different discussion), where the two main halls on the ground floor are entirely darkened and filled with video projections – thirty-two to be precise – forming a maze of moving images and sounds. The videos are presented as loops with durations of between two and a half to a little over eight minutes in length, which makes for rather competitive viewing, as images contend for the viewers’ attention. After a while, the few chairs dispersed in between the screens start making sense.

The series has been ongoing since 1999, when the artist first recorded a boy kicking a plastic bottle up a steep road (Children’s Game #1: Caracoles), so it keeps on rolling back, just to be given another kick. Passersby walk in and out of the frame, a stray dog takes interest; later on, the bottle escapes a kick, rolls down the street, and the boy dashes after it.

It feels like a sketch to one of Alÿs’s most well-known works, the half-hour long video Rehearsal I (1999-2001) of a bright red Volkswagen Beetle tirelessly trying – and failing – to climb a steep hill in the border region of Mexico and the US, to the sound of a brass band. The car folds two into one: Sisyphus and the stone he never succeeds rolling up the mountain. Here, it’s a metaphor for the discourse of ‘developing countries’ such as Mexico: always rehearsing, moving towards, but never quite reaching  ‘developed’ status – if not modernity as such.

But this rather precise work was not part of this exhibition. Instead, we see kids at play – with snow in Switzerland, building sandcastles on a Belgian beach, skipping stones across a lake in Morocco. Other videos show more complex games with more complex rules, which require a bit of time to detect and grasp. The work displays its finest moments when visitors grapple with what they see, which leads to conversations, sharing of observations and memories of experiences with similar, or totally different games than those depicted.

In these conversations, the videos seem to recreate a sense of universalism in an undisturbed, if not innocent children’s world of archaic cultural artefacts practiced, owned, and passed on by children. The work suggests a nod to German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schiller and his idea of the redeeming quality of play, which, for him, meant enjoying the liberty of acting without necessity and duty: “for man [sic] plays only where he is man in the full meaning of the word, and he is fully man only where he plays.”

Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #23, Step on a Crack Hong Kong 2020. 4:57 min. In collaboration with Rafael Ortega, Julien Devaux, and Félix Blume.

Current times enter this narrative primarily as props, costumes, or backdrops: a Superman piñata, the jerseys of international football clubs worn by many boys in the videos, the cityscape of Hong Kong. Only in Children’s Game #16: Hopscotch (2016) do we see a dreary tent city that situates the game in the Sharya Refugee Camp, Iraq. The final subtitles inform us that the game marks the passage from hell to heaven, that the players literally “hop between worlds,” a remarkable description of the situation of the young refugees playing the game for the artist and his camera. It infuses this particular work with a sense of urgency that feels uncomfortably unresolved – a quality otherwise largely missing in this series.

I also wonder where the actors in any of these videos are now – after all, it’s been nearly twenty-four years since the boy kicked that bottle around. While the credits share titles, locations, dates, and creative collaborators for every video, the key protagonists often go – bar a few exceptions – unmentioned. What does the absence of this acknowledgment represent? Could it change the perception of this series and how we observe children’s games in general?

There is a discernible refinement in terms of technology and camera-use, from the simple shots in the early videos to the bravura of camera work and editing of the most recent films, with their increasingly lush images. But the general perspective of the passive observer/photographer has remained unchanged.

What started out as sharing merely an observation – poetic and humorous in its restraint representation – of the seemingly banal has, in the process of rendering thirty-two children’s games, become a somewhat anthropological research project itself. And thereby, Alÿs gets entangled in the problem that presently burdens the field of anthropology: its sense of perspective. The larger game is about negotiating the rules we apply when humans observe other humans. To negotiate, one needs to speak up.

Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #27, Rubi Tabacongo, DR Congo 2021, 6:17 min. In collaboration with Julien Devaux and Félix Blume.