Francis Alÿs: Ricochets

Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event.” –Gaston Bachelard


When Phillipe Aries wrote ‘Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life’(1960) it developed a notion that the concept of childhood was a modern development dating as late as the seventeenth century. Previously children were regarded as little adults, but what is clear, is that childhood as a category of being has undergone several distinct transformations over the modern period. The exhibition,Francis Alÿs:Ricochets, which begun life as a project in 1999 forms an archive or document that records a myriad of children’s game. Many of the games have existed for centuries, and around the upper section of the space there is the visual and diagrammatic evidence recorded in artefacts of these history of games.

There is a self-evident anxiety attached to this project in that the memory systems that have served to sustain this culture of play is under threat, firstly through the advent of electronic media and the ubiquity of devices that support it but also the disintegration of stable patterns of life that affect large parts of the globe. This mixture of excessive over development and severe modes of under-development erode cultural continuity which enable tradition to be sustained. In this respect the work has both an ethical and aesthetic foundation.

Untitled, 2016, by Francis Alÿs, oil and gold leaf on canvas.

There is a small painting at the entrance of the exhibition of eyes on a gilt background. These painted eyes derive from Yazidi children taken by the artist in a refugee camp in Iraq from multiple journeys to this region between 2016 and 2020. An optical condition is established in this work that establishes the play between looking into and being looked at demarking the division between vision and the gaze. In fact the paintings within the darked space of the exhibition serve to generate a curious form of after life within the space as at first glance they are not necessarily a part of the visual construction of the relationship of the visual experience on offer. There is one compelling example of this which a stage within a darkened space where all that is rendered visible is the threshold hint of illumination. The postcard size image is of a figure within a forest hide and seek. This is an example of the presentation of art at it most sparse.

Francis Alÿs, Hide and Seek.

As a journey is made from screen to screen, an exposure to the different cultural frameworks, or worlds, become evident. There are enough episodes for it not to be too thin in its presentation nor too many for it to become repetitive. As an archive of sorts it suggests a historical record of existing games, whilst providing evidence as well of the conditions of life out of which these episodes emerge. On the upper part of the exhibition there are several animations in starkly defined graphically in black and white graphical notations. These schematic drawings show a sensitive rendering of the gestural economy at the root of much of the structure of games.

So, what are the skills and attributes of this presentation? It might be claimed that they are multiple in that they combine research models, documentation skills, animation, painting, participation structures, art history and conceptual framing, but the sense of these differences are themselves subsumed into a compelling totality which resides in art itself. What shines forth though, is a consistent ethics of care throughout the manifestation. The question of not only childhood games, but the vulnerability of children to forces that appear as paradigms of a culture of forgetting. There is a subtle mixing of fascination of actual games played, with an after dread that we might be witnesses the partial disintegration of what gives rise to this fascination.


Francis Alÿs : Ricochets
Barbican Art Gallery
27 June – 1 September 2024


Text by Jonathan Miles

Edited by Michelle Yu


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