A man walks into a tornado with a video camera. As the killer winds whip around him and dirt gets in his lungs, he records the experience for posterity.
The man is 50-year-old Francis Alys, a Belgian-born artist. He has plunged into tornadoes in the Mexican countryside several times over 10 years, all in the name of art.
The resulting video work “Tornado” (2000-10) is a highlight of his one-man show at London’s Tate Modern (through Sept. 5), which is at New York’s Museum of Modern Art next year.
An architect by training, Alys went to Mexico in 1986 to rebuild quake-hit areas and never left. He is known for his films: poetic commentaries on politics, injustice, conflict and, ultimately, the futility of life.
Tall and lanky with long gray hair, Alys dresses like a trendy teenager, pairing baggy trousers with Converse sneakers. Aloof in the way artists can be, he’s late for a lunch with rich patrons, and unfazed about it. He lingers in the gallery, explaining his art to anyone who cares to ask.
For Alys, the Tate show is a privilege and a pleasant surprise. It was not always thus; in 2001, when invited to take part in the Venice Biennale, he sent a peacock in his place. The bird “was about a certain vanity of the arts within the crude reality of our times,” he says, as we settle on a windswept Tate terrace overlooking the Thames.
What made him decide to tackle the Mexican elements?
“In the eye of the tornado, there’s no more high and low, no floor and sky,” he says, describing that “monochrome” moment.
Alys wrecked six cameras in the years it took to produce the 40-minute video, as he braved the tornadoes with a handkerchief tied over his mouth. He damaged his lungs, too, and gave up smoking right after.
“It’s hard to resist the attraction and the adrenaline,” he says. “A friend of mine was comparing it to a surfer catching the wave. When you hit it right, it’s a sublime moment.”
In the video, you see him from afar, a stick man gobbled up by a moving whirlpool. Then you experience the tornado from up close: With his handheld camera, the panting Alys catapults you into the cloud.
Beyond the “very primitive relation to the elements,” Alys suggests a metaphorical reading of the work. In an era of hurricanes and tsunamis, “we’ve lost control of this planet somewhere,” he says. “There’s an echo in that kind of tornado situation, where you’re powerless facing those phenomena.”
Tate has more of Alys’s movies. In “Re-enactments” (2000), he buys a handgun and wanders around Mexico City with it, until a police car pulls up and officers arrest him. The next day, he reenacts the whole experiment, cops and all.
In “The Green Line” (2004), he pierces a small can of light-green paint and draws a dribbly line along the former border between East and West Jerusalem. You watch him do it on a big screen, and pick your commentary from a choice of Arab and Israeli voices.
“Francis Alys: A Story of Deception” runs through Sept. 5 at Tate Modern, 53 Bankside, London SE1 9TG. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888.
(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)