The Thief (2001)

This project was commissioned by the Dia Center for the Arts with support from the New York State Council for the Arts.

Full Description

Introduction to The Thief by Lynne Cooke

With his systematization of a one-point perspectival system for illusionistic representation, Leon Battista Alberti offered painters a method of constructing a space that was coherent and cohesive when viewed from a single position: painting thus came to simulate a window onto a world beyond, a fictional yet mimetically convincing milieu. For the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, the momentous influence of Alberti's codification on subsequent methods of visual representation finds a telling contemporary analogue in the spatial tenets embodied in today's ubiquitous electronic technologies. Arguably, Windows 95 may embody and consequently canonize for virtual space much of the revolutionary potential that Alberti's model did for those illusory worlds first limned in the early Renaissance.

Alÿs took this hypothesis as his starting point when invited to make a website project at Dia. For this, his first engagement with the medium of the internet, he has proposed a screen saver, accompanied by an website component that expounds his thesis. Originally devised to prevent the transparency of the computer screen from being blemished by static pixels burning into its surface, the screen saver has become almost anachronistic, a decorative mask, a prelude to entry into the electronic matrix proper.

The Thief presents a black field in which an obliquely angled window gradually is revealed, giving on to pure light. Emerging slowly from the penumbrous foreground recesses, the shadow of a figure approaches the window and nimbly clambers through. Some ambiguity surrounds this exit, however, for the final moments in this sequence can also be read in reverse so that the figure seems to fall forward, dropping out of sight into the uncharted nearer depths.

Shot in film then manipulated for the computer screen, this episode carries within cinematic echoes, which are reinforced by the introduction of a filmstrip as the key to eliciting the texts that amplify Alÿs's thesis within the web component of his artwork. This confirms, retrospectively, the hint that the white frame of the isolated window, prior to the appearance of the figure, should also be read as a movie screen, as a projection in short. Looping at short intervals, the brief action mimics those compulsive, scatter-shot forays into new terrain that have come to characterize browsing in this boundless, immaterial realm.

Trained as an architect, Alÿs turned to a visual arts based practice in the early 1990s as a more immediate, direct, and effective way of exploring issues related to urbanization, to the ordering and signification of urban space and to the semiotics of its use. As in his previous professional undertakings, he continues to prefer to work collaboratively, or when this is not appropriate, to operate within a public arena. For some of his best known works, he initiates a design, which is copied and reworked by a team of trained sign painters in Mexico City, where Alÿs currently lives. Other projects, presented as video projections, have involved making journeys through the city with some appendage or prosthesis conditioning his passage, as he tracks or inscribes a provisional cartography onto its generic forms. When conceiving this piece for Dia, he not only drew on specialists for technical assistance but sought through visual and verbal quotation to engage once more with multiple, related voices and viewpoints.

-Lynne Cooke

This project was commissioned by the Dia Center for the Arts with support from the New York State Council for the Arts.

Work metadata

Want to see more?
Take full advantage of the ArtBase by Becoming a Member
Artist Statement

With his systematization of a one-point perspectival system for illusionistic representation, Leon Battista Alberti offered painters a method of constructing a space that was coherent and cohesive when viewed from a single position: painting thus came to simulate a window onto a world beyond, a fictional yet mimetically convincing milieu. For the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, the momentous influence of Alberti's codification on subsequent methods of visual representation finds a telling contemporary analogue in the spatial tenets embodied in today's ubiquitous electronic technologies. Arguably, Windows 95 may embody and consequently canonize for virtual space much of the revolutionary potential that Alberti's model did for those illusory worlds first limned in the early Renaissance.

Related works

Comments

This artwork has no comments. You should add one!
Leave a Comment