“When I was there, I was stunned and very dependent on the way the things were moving,” Alÿs admits. “[The Peshmerga soldiers] were very politely dragging me around, but my level of initiative was minimum—and that was OK, that was our contract.” He pauses, then adds: “The only restriction is that you have to try to remember which side you are on. The rules were pretty basic: always stick to the line.”
That line wasn’t always straightforward, though. Alÿs’s car once got lost in a snowstorm; he found himself in enemy territory, in a field of rubble within easy range of ISIS snipers. “My instinctive reaction was to look at it through my iPhone,” he recalls. “It made it much more bearable. It was like a fictionalization of the reality of the situation I was in.”
Likewise, canvas and video camera provided the artist with additional buffers, allowing one-step-removed engagement with a scene that might otherwise be too difficult to process.
When I ask Alÿs how he dealt with his position as an army-embedded Westerner in a Middle Eastern war—a position that, given the region’s recent history, many would see as politically conflicted—the answer is unambiguous: “I didn’t feel it was an issue there,” he says. “The main issue was the language barrier. I was clearly not a journalist, nor some sort of U.S. military advisor. They were very oblivious of my presence, if anything calling me when the food was there, and when we had to move on.” Thinking it over a bit more, he does concede that his status as a Western artist-observer “might have been a filter that limited some of my access to certain places.”
The part the West played in Iraq’s contemporary woes is, however, firmly acknowledged in Alÿs’s Venice presentation. A map showing how Britain and France split up the Greater Syrian territories with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, as they anticipated the fall of the Ottoman Empire, occupies a large table between Alÿs’s video and his paintings. Hand-drawn frontiers scar the paper, with complete disregard for the tribal alliances of the nomadic people who occupied this border-less land. The map, Alÿs says, is an attempt “to relocate where part of the problem started.”
The notion of borders has long been central to Alÿs’s practice, who permanently relocated to Mexico and has long examined complex geographies: the divide between San Diego and Tijuana; the Gibraltar Strait; the waters separating Cuba from Florida. These concerns, he notes, now seem more urgent than ever. “I was reading that we all thought 1989 was ‘the end of the wall,’” he says. “But apparently way more walls have been built since 1989 than before. It’s not an abstract concept. Borders are more and more in our lives.” He pauses. “And I think it will get worse.”