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Francis Alÿs: Ricochets

Francis Alys at the Barbican

Francis Alÿs, 2023, Barbican, London © Louise Yeowart / Barbican Art Gallery

The Barbican presents a major new exhibition by internationally renowned, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs (b.1959, Antwerp, Belgium). The artist’s largest institutional solo exhibition in the UK for almost 15 years will transform the brutalist architecture of the Barbican Art Gallery into a cinematic playground dedicated to play. Francis Alÿs: Ricochets includes his critically acclaimed series Children's Games (1999 - present) presented for the first time in the UK, alongside a significant new body of work.

For the past two decades Alÿs has travelled to over 15 countries around the world to film children’s games – from ‘musical chairs’ in Mexico to ‘leapfrog’ in Iraq, ‘jump rope’ in Hong Kong and ‘wolf and lamb’ in Afghanistan. Recording the universality and ingenuity of play, Children's Games foregrounds social interactions which are in decline due to rapid urbanisation, the erosion of communities and the prevalence of digital entertainment. 

Staged in dialogue with an expansive selection of paintings spanning the artist’s 40-year      careeran immersive multi-screen installation of the Children’s Games features the largest survey of the games to date. Each film records lived experiences of play in different contexts and environments around the world, including Nepal, Belgium, Morocco, Canada, and Cuba.

Alÿs also debuts a new body of animation films depicting both traditional and lesser-known hand games played by children and adults alike, including ‘thumb war’ and ‘hand-stack’. Each work is composed of hundreds of simple, black line illustrations of animated hand movements. Contrasting with the brightly saturated Children’s Games films, these silent animations focus on meditative gestures of play.

Designed as a welcoming space for all children to visit, Francis Alÿs: Ricochets integrates play as a central part of the experience of the exhibition. Two playrooms developed by the Barbican with Alÿs’s long-time collaborator Rafael Ortega invite visitors to perform their own games. Visitors are encouraged to use their bodies to cast shadows and play with scale and are prompted to act out playful instructions conceived by children from three schools local to the Barbican.

This is one outcome in a year-long art and learning programme inspired by the Children’s Games series, involving three classes of 60 primary school students aged between 6 and 11, from Prior Weston Primary School, Richard Cloudesley School and St Luke’s Church of England Primary School. The games played by these children reflect a unique transhistorical legacy of play in and around the Barbican.  Razed to the ground during the Second World War, this part of the city saw the earliest adventure playgrounds emerge from the rubble, activated by children through play. This site-specific history resonates with Alÿs, who frequently documents children’s creative resilience in conflict zones, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Ukraine. 

Shanay Jhaveri, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, said: “We are thrilled to be staging this major exhibition exploring the fascinating, interdisciplinary work of Francis Alÿs, and delighted that the artist is creating this presentation specifically for the Barbican. Celebrating the universal joy of children at play, we look forward to Alÿs’ playful sensibility working its way through the wider Centre, reflecting the Barbican's own commitment to fostering a joyful and inclusive environment.”

With a career spanning four decades, Francis Alÿs has forged a unique and radical practice ranging from painting and drawing to film and animation. Trained as an architect and urbanist in Tournai, Belgium and Venice, Italy, Alÿs moved to Mexico City in 1986. The rapidly shifting urban context and the consequent changes to social dynamics in the late 1980s inspired him to become a visual artist, developing his early public interventions. Works like Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), 1997, wherein Alÿs pushed a large block of melting ice through the streets of Mexico City for nine hours, quickly established him as a leading artist of his generation.

Working in collaboration with local communities around the world, his engagement with cross-cultural contexts from Latin America to North Africa and the Middle East operates beyond dominant, Western-centric narratives. What emerges is a lifelong exploration of art as a vehicle for witnessing social and political change.

Major solo exhibitions include (selection): WIELS, Brussels (2023); MUAC, Mexico City (2023); The Belgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale (2022); Fragmentos, Bogota (2020); Tai Kwun, Hong Kong (2020); Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2018); Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2017); Secession, Vienna (2016); Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2015); Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (2015); Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2013); Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (2013); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011); Tate Modern, London (2010) and Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2003). Recent major international group exhibitions include (selection): Shanghai Biennial (2018); Iraqi Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale (2017); dOCUMENTA(13), Kassel (2012).