Francis Alÿs

Francis Alÿs

The Nature of the Game

Following his presentation for the Flemish entry for the Belgian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, Alÿs presents this new, more comprehensive version of the exhibition The Nature of the Game, twelve years after the artist’s memorable retrospective at WIELS that introduced Belgian audiences to the full scope of his work.

Since 1999, during his many travels, Francis Alÿs has documented children playing in public places. At the Venice Biennale, Alÿs presented a series of filmed children games made during the pandemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium, Hong Kong, Mexico and Switzerland, in dialogue with a group of his discreet small-format paintings. For the presentation at WIELS, he completes several new films, including children's games he recently saw in Ukraine. He confronts them with the film installation The Silence of Ani (2015), in which children play hide-and-seek in the ruins of an ancient Armenian city on the edge of present-day Turkey. Using bird calls, the children create the illusion that the city is coming back to life.

“Whereas adults are more likely to use speech to process experiences - whereas adults speak -, children play to assimilate the realities they encounter. Their games mimic, mock or defy the rules of the adult society that surrounds them. The act of playing can also help them to cope with traumatic experiences such as those of war by creating a simulacrum of the real and turning the dramatic circumstances around them into a more fictional, ludic world. But the magical thing about a child’s game is that it holds no secrets, ‘it’s all there is’. We as adults should be faithful to the children we were; remember and trust that moment, the most precious one of our existence.” – Fracis Alÿs

Play is a basic natural human need, just like eating and sleeping. As children, we learn it instinctively or through imitating others. Children’s play should be seen as a creative relationship between children and the world they live in, as an activity that can sometimes conceal a socio-political dimension. However, as social interactions increasingly take place online in a virtual world, Alÿs captures this moment of profound transition that our society is undergoing and gathers a memory of children’s games before they disappear. While some of the games relate to the traditions of a specific area, others are more universal. Many of these games can also be found in the 16th-century painting Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a work that made a strong impression on Alÿs when he first saw it as a child.

Observing and documenting human behaviour in urban environments is a constant theme in Alÿs’s work. His films record both cultural traditions and children’s spontaneous and unconstrained actions, in the street, as well as in conflict zones and the turbulence of modern life. Children’s games play an important role in investigating the persistence of patterns of popular social behaviour. They have earned a central place in Alÿs’s practice so that he can use his camera to capture the culture and patterns by which people live, sometimes even in places where they seem least likely to occur.

Curated by Dirk Snauwaert and Hilde Teerlinck.

07 Sep 2023 - 07 Jan 2024
WIELS, Brussels