Francis Alÿs
Cuando la fe mueve montañas
Lima, 2002

Francis Alÿs, When Faith Moves Mountains. The action was carried out on April 11, 2002—in the Ventanilla area, on the outskirts of Lima—in collaboration with Rafael Ortega and Cuauhtémoc Medina. The latter also served as curator.

If the Mountain Won’t Come to Lima, Lima Goes to the Mountain

by Cuauhtémoc Medina

New York. March 2002. I find sand in the bed where, at my sister’s generous invitation, I sleep in her apartment in Manhattan, and I have a vision that the dune in Lima has been through here. I realize that there are always dunes walking around the world, dragged by our feet from one place to another. I think of the pebbles that Francis Alÿs registered in his shoe after taking a walk around London in 1999:

Pebble Walk

A walk from the northwest end of Hyde Park to the southeast end of Kensington Gardens, from 12.25 pm till 1.35 pm concluded with 7 stones in my right shoe and 3 stones in my left shoe. (Francis Alÿs, 15 April 1999)

All the remains we carry around with our steps are a basic part of a much broader phenomenon: they are fragments of a constant and endless geological nomadism. The action at the dune in Lima must be a poetic enlargement of an experience/trifle like that walk and those pebbles.

The facts. On April 11, 2002, the artist gathered five hundred people to form a row that, with the help of shovels, moved a dune measuring some four hundred meters in diameter on the outskirts of Lima.

How much the dune was moved does not matter. Let’s just say it was moved as much as necessary.

Projects. Four days after Alÿs’s action in Ventanilla right outside Lima, Peru, I met up with Richard Perales, the president of the Architecture Students’ Union at the National University of Engineering in Peru. I asked him a question that I, personally, would have found terrifying. “And what now?”

Richard was unfazed. “We have a number of projects looking forward: drinking the Atlantic Ocean, painting the sky blue, perforating the Andes.”

Lima, Peru. October 2000. At the exact time the awards ceremony for the Bienal Nacional de Lima, which selects the local artists who will participate in the 2002 edition of the event, was taking place, there were clashes between police and protesters (students and workers) in Lima’s Plaza Mayor. While hackneyed speeches were being given and checks handed out to finance the production of the works selected, tear gas was being fired. What role can art play in those uprisings?

That morning, Francis Alÿs had gone to Ventanilla. He told me, with startling clarity, “A desperate situation calls for an absurd response.”

Biennial Epidemic. Lima, Tuesday, April 9. While waiting for the elevator at the Hotel Maury, Javier Tellez points out to Francis that there is a paradox in everything we are doing. Francis had sent to the Venice Biennale the previous year a peacock, the “Ambassador Mr. Peacock,” which wandered through the Biennale’s grounds in a gesture of indifference to the vanity fair of art biennials the world over.

With undying irony, Téllez says, “and you come to Lima with this whole circus … I don’t get it.” As if he himself were not doing something very much the same!

In fact, our presence at the Lima Biennial had to do with, among other things, a policy of absurd reciprocity: overblown investment in a territory and event apparently minor on the global art circle is more than an act of generosity. All of us who were there know, more or less consciously, that our participation in the Lima event was rooted in a call for solidarity. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that the Lima Biennial grew out of a symbolic coalition of resistance to Fujimorism.

For some of us, the invitation to the biennial came with an fortunate extortion: critic Gustavo Buntinx, who was involved in the Lava-bandera project of the Sociedad Civil collective, informed us that “the struggle against the dictatorship has brought together a wide front encompassing formerly divided factions of Peruvian culture and art.” Furthermore, the biennial was planning to take back Lima’s historic district for the people. It was never just a project, but a way to insert ourselves in a territory of political-symbolic negotiations on the place of art at a determined historical juncture.

Like earlier biennials in Havana and Johannesburg, this one in Lima used its context of crisis as launch fuel. The energy we witness today, even after the fall of Fujimorism, is part and parcel of a method some peripheries use to get a ticket into global art. The only way to keep our visit from turning into “cheap holiday in someone else’s misery” is for the biennial to provide local art with a healthy opportunism, a pathway from the visibility to the radicalization of the local.

The work of Fernando Bryce or of Giuliana Migliori, to cite just two examples, attests to the aptness of that formula. Any rise to fame for an artist from the global South depends on a certain dialectic between domestic tension and a foreign nod. The experiences of Johannesburg and Havana also act as warnings of the perils that operations of that sort hold. If local political and cultural elites don’t understand the possibility for dialogue and engagement offered by contemporary art, they may well let that ticket go to waste once the crisis’s political pressure seems to have lifted.

As a Mexican, as a half Peruvian, I think I have the right to cross the line of friendly criticism, at least slightly, and level a concise frontal critique. Given the energy invested by so many participating artists, the Lima Biennial’s decision to pay tribute to José Luis Cuevas (one of the countless local shining lights found throughout Latin American art history) was not only a distraction from the biennial’s contemporary program or a step backwards. It showed that institutions in countries like Mexico and Peru have failed to grasp the opportunities their dramatic situations afford.

As problematic as it may be, the role of biennials is crystal clear: to show only astonishing—extremely astonishing—art, art fresh out of the oven. Say no to canned national art.

Migration waves: Lima has been moving its dunes for some time as it expands into a megalopolis and, through “cholization,” undergoes racial transformation. Migrants exert pressure on the terrain, causing the landscape to disappear by dint of urbanization. Obvious conclusion: any megalopolis banishes its landscape.

One of the main motivations for the project was to formulate a dialogue with how the absence of planning is what generates the urban layout in Latin America. Ventanilla is a prime example of what we might call vernacular urbanism: with their houses of reed, migrants demarcate streets where, sometime later, the authorities find themselves forced to create sewage services, supply water, lay electrical and phone lines, etc. No matter how dreadful the landscape of these young settlements may be, the “favelas” in Brazil and what we in Mexico call the “lost cities” are great concentrations of hope. These towns usually house the most daring members of their local communities, people who use vines, wood, or aluminum to erect formally and architectonically extraordinary structures. With savvy use of cubes, cylinders, paraboloids, and prisms, the architecture they build, no matter how provisional or rudimentary it may look, constitutes a sort of spontaneous functionalism.

The time has come for the inhabitants of cities to recognize the energy and creativity of those we have always considered “invaders.” In the absence of capital or policy, we are indebted to them for the dynamism of what we pretentiously call “our city.”

Dialogue with engineers: It was for a number of reasons that most of the participants in When Faith Moves Mountains were students at Peru’s National University of Engineering. Some were practical in nature (a high concentration of students, the fact that members of the Students’ Union took interest in the project, the support of the university administration), but one was conceptual. The action was, after all, a work of civil engineering: hundreds of shovel-bearing men and women altered a territory. Furthermore, the action allowed us to bring the architecture students face to face with the popular constructions in Ventanilla’s neighborhoods, which might turn into a source of inspiration and a challenge. Finally, it was a chance to interact with people who did not have a set notion of what art is and what it is not. The participants accepted the project’s challenge on the basis of its possible meaning, not out of a conviction about what constitutes “the contemporary.”

But, as a student at the university’s school of economics put it, the action also meant engaging students at a technical and scientific university in an irrational act. Spread faith in absurdity at an institution dedicated to calculation.

April 15, 2002. Drinking an Inca Kola at Cordano bar in Lima, I show a group of colleagues photos of the April 11 action. Artist Liliana Porter remarks that, pretentious though it may sound, Francis Alÿs is a poet of sorts: the work is a simple image that communicates without the mediation of a complex theoretical discourse. And I can’t help saying to Liliana that Francis is indeed a poet, but “this time his verses were extremely intricate. Gongoristic doesn’t even say it. Their meter was possessed by the devil."

Complaint Department. The sun on top of the dune was brutal. We had not anticipated that the sand would rise up in clouds and burn participants’ eyes. I still can’t understand why they didn’t give up. I do understand that their commitment was born of a combination of conviction and sense of destiny. We took pains to convey the action’s metaphors, but once the hundreds of participants were there in the desert, each and every one of us knew there was no turning back. Solidarity is strikingly fatalistic: you cannot give up for fear of disappointing someone else doing the same thing you are. You even know that to give up would be catastrophic—it would lead others to desert. That is the logic of a mob mentality.

For the organizers, though, the pleasure of seeing the action take place was never without a pang of guilt: people would shout for water from the dune every so often. But the camera kept rolling.

Chinese tales. In China—curator Man Ray Hsu tells me—it is considered a misfortune to have a mountain in front of your house. And from there the moral to a popular tale: Once upon a time there was a man obsessed by the sad fact that there was a mountain right outside his door. One day, determined to get rid of it, he started carrying the soil away in a pail. A neighbor, alarmed by the sight, warned him that he would never finish up the job. The man said, “Maybe so, but I will have a son, and he will have a son, and my son’s son will have a son….”

On Tuesday, April 16, a student at the National University of Engineering told me he had once seen a Chinese magazine from the Maoist period with photos of one of the miracles attributed to Chairman Mao, among them an entire town that had moved a mountain by hand in order to fill in a ravine.

San Isidro, Saturday, April 13, 2002. We visited Huaca Juliana—those pyramidal structures that pre-Incan cultures built on the Peruvian coast—where we stumbled upon a unexpected sight. The pre-Columbian mound had been fenced in, trapped between the building walls and houses built around it. Not only didn’t the Huaca have any space to walk around in, but it was suffocating to death. It is, actually, the yard in back of the water tank that feeds the neighborhood’s tubing. Like the Indians themselves, this Huaca has been closed off in a reservation. All that fencing makes it look downright dangerous.

Social delay. The idea of hope has a delay effect worth thinking about. Faith is a negotiation, a mechanism where you resign something in the present as an investment in an abstract future promise—the Catholic trap par excellence. Be that as it may, any look to the future, and hence any action, depends to some extent on delaying both satisfaction and effect. Let’s set faith free from the domain of theology.

Illusionism. Throughout the project, Francis Alÿs bore in mind that what we were going to do in Lima would be a sort of illusionism. Like Uri Geller, who had crowds rub teaspoons promising they would be able to bend them, we were heading to Lima to convince hundreds of people that they could work a miracle.

Yet, in that hypothetical dialogue with the terrain of gurus and prophets, we knew that the invitation was ultimately atheist and enlightenment. When a miracle is an organized collective act, it is diminished. Its miraculousness is reduced to the act of convincing, of generating commitment, on the part of a group, to carry out a task. Once the participants—shovels in hand and shirts on back—were lined up in front of the dune, that is, before they had moved even a single grain of sand, the miracle was complete. That fact that those people would actually move the dune fell into the terrain of the remarkable.

Maximum effort, minimum results. When Faith Moves Mountains is a patent application of the Latin American non-developmentalist principle. It is an extension of the logic of failure, programmatic dilapidation, resistance, entropy, and economic erosion. At play was formulating a parable of sluggish productivity that also showed, epically, the effect of minimal changes enacted through collective effort. It was not about formulating a principle of non-action: concentrating in a specific time and space the mechanisms of an economy that resists the dogmas of modernization, neoliberalism, and the arithmetic perversion of “efficiency.”

By evoking that economy we of course become, to some extent, abettors of the evils of underdevelopment. Oiticica put it clearly, “From adversity we live.” Other minds, minds clearer than ours, will be left the task of determining if that abetment is as cynical as the abetment of the evils of development.

Images against smell. Impossible to convey the atmosphere in Ventanilla, its mix of the scent of fishmeal factories swept in by the breeze and garbage rotting in plastic bags at each step. Nor can we convey the feeling of astonishment upon seeing, from above, the houses of the settlements, the factories, and the blue line of the sea.

Mass movement. Simulation of social mobilization or invitation to physical mobilization. At a juncture when politics is ceasing to be Newtonian politics (it dawns on us that every time we speak of the masses and power, we equate the social and the physical), Alÿs’s act makes reference to the fact that, in Latin America, many of our battles have not yet entered the realm of what Foucault called the microphysics of power. They are still waged around the old questions of property, government, social rights, housing, water, land. In Mexico and Peru, even today taking political action means mobilizing masses in the streets, that is, protesting, showing the public power the ghost of rebellion. There are, however, reasons to believe that a crisis is imminent for this age of mass politics. The democratic change in Mexico in the year 2000 was largely indebted to telemarketing. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori fell not only because of social movements, but also the havoc wrecked by video.

Remote curating. Not being totally in control of the project, no choice but to perform the work of an “agent” or a “diplomat.” While working with institutions in the global North means disregarding practical concerns and concentrating only on conceptual questions, working with institutions in places like Lima or Mexico is in and of itself an act of faith. There are thousands of reasons this project could have failed. But, like gambling addicts, we just upped the stakes after each setback.

Relics. Any miracle requires physical proof. Moving a dune should not leave a trace.

At most, it combs the terrain. Francis Alÿs often imagined the multitude pushing the dune like an enormous comb where each worker is one of its teeth. Indeed, at the end of the act the dune was streaked as if a huge comb had swept over it. Those lines would soon be blown away by the wind and new constructions. The last thing we wanted to do was be another stop on the global South’s tourist circuit.

Land art for the landless. Land art has always been suspected of romanticism. It turns its back on the city, whether because it formulates an imaginary return to the Stone Age or to the works of so-called great civilizations, or simply because it entails an almost metaphysical relationship with the landscape. Like the Nazca Lines, Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field and Douglas Huebler’s trenches were dialogues with an absent god located far from any audience without the interference of modernization. Sculpture was banished to the desert to dodge the unfaithful competition of the city that, under capitalism, reinvents itself every second.

The dune action resocializes land art: it turns sculpture into an experience of the masses or, rather, into a relationship with those who search for land.

April 11, 2002. In the bus back to Lima. “So far, we have been a scam. From this moment on, all we will do is lie.”

Literature. Critics often associate Francis Alÿs’s art with literature. Many have attempted to find a connection between his actions and Borges or Kafka—and, in fact, Alÿs’s walks set out to be, first and foremost, fables, action/fictions. But it is mistaken to think that the anecdotal or the legendary always already takes us to the writer’s desk. It is not a question of making a literary work, but of going one step further back to the invention of an urban myth. Unlike literature, the real story is changed by each speaker who spreads it as rumor.

Before the Romantics captured folk tales in books, before the Brothers Grimm or Andersen, before Riva Palacio or Fernando Palma, events were recounted by word of mouth; they were always open to the narrator’s invention and fancy. The purpose of moving a mountain in Lima in April of the year 2002 was not for someone to write a definitive or perfect text. On the contrary, the artist set out to nourish the local imaginary, just like the circuit of anecdotes that, in a favorable light, is the realm of “neo-conceptualism” in the circle of artistic information.

Actually, each one of the hundreds of participants in the action are the authors of the story: insofar they went home and recounted what they had done, they saw to reinventing the memory of what went on and its associations. The work’s installation in an exhibition venue is just one more of the apparitions of this market of multiple voices: the viewer is not offered just an image, but also documents that attest to an event destined to be disclosed as, in verbal form, it makes its way back to the city that produced it. In an age of image proliferation, the action at the dune set out to multiple narrators—and that was its real political effect: to restore, momentarily, an oral community.

A thousand words: Francis Alys talks about When Faith Moves Mountains

© Artforum, Summer 2002, “1000 Words: Francis Alÿs,” with introduction by Saul Anton.

"In my city everything is temporary," writes Francis Alys. And Indeed, the ephemeral is the central aesthetic principle for this artist, who is perhaps best known for his "walks"--like The Collector, 1991-92, which entailed his pulling a magnetic toy on wheels through the streets of Mexico City, picking up bits of metal along the way; or Narcotourism, 1996, for which Alys traversed Copenhagen over the course of seven days under the influence of seven different drugs. Such works chart a literal and figurative path through an urban, social, or discursive space. One might say that Alys has invented an art of passing through.

The Belgian artist first encountered the city that inspired his peripatetic approach to art in 1987. Visiting the sprawling megalopolis as an architect, Alys soon repudiated that practice and turned to sculpture. Sculpture then gave way to painting, and painting, In turn, to the challenge of his more fleeting adventures. Yet these moves should not be understood simply as rejections. Not to be an architect, not a sculptor, not a painter, is not in Alys's case an act of negation. These gestures belong to the decidedly fuzzier logic of almost: almost architecture, almost sculpture, almost painting.

Last month Alys organized for the third Bienal Iberoamericana de Lima what is arguably his most ambitious work to date, When Faith Moves Mountains. In a conversation excerpted here, Alys describes the project, which involved the coordinated action of hundreds of volunteers on the arid dunes of Ventanilla, an area on the outskirts of Lima dotted with the makeshift shelters of a shantytown, as an attempt to interject a "social allegory" Into the cultural conversation that is Peru. Herein lies its peculiar strength: His work never tells any story in particular but rather crystallizes an image that demands storytelling as an active interpretive process. One day a mountain moved four inches. So begins a tale that we, the audience, must tell.

—Saul Anton


On April 11, 2002, five hundred volunteers were supplied with shovels and asked to form a single line at the foot of a giant sand dune in Ventanilla, an area outside Lima. This human comb pushed a certain quantity of sand a certain distance, thereby moving a sixteen-hundred-foot-long sand dune about four inches from its original position.

Lima, a city of nine million people, is situated on a strip of land along the Pacific coast of Peru. The city is surrounded by enormous sand dunes on which shantytowns have sprung up, populated by economic immigrants and political refugees who escaped the civil war fought during the '80s and '90s by the military and guerrilla groups like Shining Path. After a week of scouting, we chose the Ventanilla dunes, where more than seventy thousand people live with no electricity or running water.

When Faith Moves Mountains is a project of linear geological displacement. It has been germinating ever since I first visited Lima, with Cuauhtemoc Medina, the Mexican curator and critic. We were there for the last Lima Bienal, in October 2000, a month before the Fujimori dictatorship finally collapsed. The city was in turmoil. There were clashes on the street and the resistance movement strengthened. It was a desperate situation, and I felt that it called for an "epic response, a "beau geste" at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent. Insinuating a social allegory into those circumstances seemed to me more fitting than engaging in some sculptural exercise.
When Faith Moves Mountains attempts to translate social tensions into narratives that in turn intervene in the imaginal landscape of a place. The action is meant to infiltrate the local history and mythology of Peruvian society (including its art histories), to insert another rumor into its narratives. If the script meets the expectations and addresses the anxieties of that society at this time and place, it may become a story that survives the event itself. At that moment, it has the potential to become a fable or an urban myth. As Medina said while we were in Lima, "Faith is a means by which one resigns oneself to the present in order to invest in the abstract promise of the future." The dune moved: This wasn't a literary fiction; it really happened. It doesn't matter how far it moved, and in truth only an infinitesimal displacement occurred--but it would have taken the wind years to move an equivalent amount of sand. So it's a tiny miracle. The story starts there. The interpretations of it needn't be accur ate, but must be free to shape themselves along the way.

This process can also operate on the narratives of art history, not to mention those of the art world. Paradox of Praxis, 1997, a piece in which I pushed a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melted into a puddle of water, was a settling of accounts with Minimalist sculpture. Sometimes, to make something. is really to make nothing; and paradoxically, sometimes to make nothing is to make something.

Similarly, When Faith Moves Mountains is my attempt to deromanticize Land art. When Richard Long made his walks in the Peruvian desert, he was pursuing a contemplative practice that distanced him from the immediate social context. When Robert Smithson built the Spiral Jetty on the Salt Lake in Utah, he was turning civil engineering into sculpture and vice versa. Here, we have attempted to create a kind of Land art for the land-less, and, with the help of hundreds of people and shovels, we created a social allegory. This story is not validated by any physical trace or addition to the landscape. We shall now leave the care of our story to oral tradition, as Plato says in the Republic. Only in its repetition and transmission is the work actualized. In this respect, art can never free itself from myth. Indeed, in modem no less than premodern societies, art operates precisely within the space of myth.
In this sense, myth is not about the veneration of ideals--of pagan gods or political ideology--but rather an active interpretive practice performed by the audience, who must give the work its meaning and its social value. After all, isn't the story of modern and contemporary art and its cult of the object really just a myth of materialism, of matter as an ideal? For me, it is a refusal to acknowledge the transitory, a failure to see that art really exists, so to speak, in transit.

The Miracle of the Gratuitous

by Cuauhtémoc Medina

1. Sometimes Doing Something Small Produces Something Immeasurable 

From the outset, When Faith Moves Mountains was a project marked by excess. Its production, like the ideas that the work holds, questions calculation by dint of flaw, critiques the notion of efficiency, and refuses to conform to the dictates of practical reason. That refusal is one of the terms of its argument; it is a meaning that the work explores and manifests in its basic premise and in the metaphorical outgrowths that it detonated. But excess was also a sign of its often-improvised production, as well as a threat to its completion on more than one occasion. When Faith Moves Mountains not only critiques the ideology of efficiency, but also—and to a large extent—violates the terms of that logic.

The very inception of the project was marked by an auspicious excess: in the dying days of the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship, the organization of the II Bienal Iberoamericana of Lima was, in some respects, a political intervention. As the intermediary between a number of curators who, at the end of the twentieth century, had articulated Latin American art scenes, Gustavo Buntinx added to the official invitation sent by Luis Lama a note that read more like a recruitment campaign: “The struggle against the dictatorship has given rise to a broad front […] to take back [for the people] Lima’s historic district.” In like fashion, it was an opportunity to break the isolation that had enshrouded the Peruvian art scene. [1] Cuauhtémoc Medina, the curator, initially met the invitation was a degree of skepticism. He suggested that he participate as a juror for one of the biennial’s sections; he wanted to confirm that the event was committed to a curatorial operation. But an invitation with the argument Buntinx had given could not be rejected so summarily. It created the expectation of turning cultural energy into a historical project. The little-known fact that behind the curator’s flagrantly Mexican name was a Peruvian mother made the prospect of doing something in Lima seem like the workings of fate.

Along with that rhetorical energy was, however, uncertainty about the resources available. The Lima Biennial would depend, it appeared, on the solidarity of the guest curators: there would be no government support or economic resources. The decision to include Francis Alÿs in the project was grounded in the possibility that he find in the city of Lima a series of analogies to the space his art had explored in Mexico City over the course of the previous decade—it was, then, a legitimate artistic justification. It was thought that Alÿs would likely be able to produce a symbolically powerful, but materially and logistically simple, act. Something like the Zapatos magnéticos [Magnetic Shoes, 1993] with which he walked the streets of Havana during that city’s 1994 biennial, or the austere interactions with the city he was always doing near his studio in Mexico City. The comparison of Lima and Mexico City was, to Alÿs’s mind and feet, most stimulating. The second prediction, however, could not have been more off target: Alÿs would end up making his most ambitious work.


2. Desperation Sometimes Produces Images

One of the things that made Alÿs’s work in Lima so memorable was his specific artistic approach to the city’s precariousness and social tension, an approach radically different from the aesthetic of documentation, sorrow, or protest. What the work did was offer a specific response to a critical juncture by means of a counter-image: an intervention that transformed the specifics of its referent into an unexpected illumination. In October 2000, artist and curator took an exploratory trip to Lima on the occasion of the Bienal Nacional where the local artists who would participate in the Lima Biennial were selected. Those were the dying days of the Alberto Fujimori regime. The political tension in the street was palpable; there were clashes between security forces and groups of workers and students, and it seemed that the Fujimori and Montesinos dictatorship was losing its grip on the situation. Artist and curator alike witnessed, for example, the admirable work of the Colectivo Sociedad Civil, which challenged the Fujimori administration in the Plaza de Armas. Their awesome symbolic action consisted of washing and hanging to dry the Peruvian flag (the intervention was called Lavabandera).The piece astutely formulated how the dictatorship had sullied the nation’s very existence. The political cost of crack downing on that artistic action would have been too high for the regime to pay. The dictatorship’s overarching economic and social failure was too glaring to be ignored.

Downtown Lima was particularly battered by the economic crisis, and the population’s poverty led to widespread theft and mugging. Foreign visitors had trouble believing some of the locals’ stories. We could not imagine the thievery in traffic jams carried out by dozens of small children—“the little piranhas” is what our colleagues called them—until we saw how a group of them climbed up the windows of a bus to steal the passengers’ watches and bags. We walked down the streets of Rimac one time, unaware of how dangerous the neighborhood is. The locals looked at us dubiously until a young man came over. He introduced himself as a disc jockey for Radio Rimac and invited us to be interviewed in a makeshift booth in a local house. Our presence was so jarring that the neighbors had informed him of our accidental bravado. Without the filter of fear, Alÿs delved into a territory outside cultural circuits. The only place we could n0t visit were the streets of the old port of Callao. Not even our cabdriver dared to drive down them.

The social and historical decline of Lima at the end of the year 2000 was the backdrop against which Alÿs walked. Walking through the whole city, but especially the shantytowns on its outskirts, was an act of defiance. But the crux of that defiance lay in deciding to undertake an action that could not be further from an illustration of abject poverty or hopelessness. Without knowing exactly what the work would be, Alÿs’s chief requirement was that it repudiate, in a fashion, what was going on in the country at the time. That was what he meant when, at the Bienal Nacional’s awards ceremony in Lima, which got underway while clashes between anti-riot forces and protesters were taking place in the Plaza de Armas, he described to the curator how moved he was by the way the neighborhoods of migrants on the outskirts of Lima set out to reconstruct the community life that their inhabitants had left behind in the mountains or jungle. The contrast Alÿs identified between the precariousness of those neighborhoods and that spirit was what led him to feel that the lack of a clear future for Peru we had experienced in October 2000 had to be met with what he called “a beautiful gesture.” There had to be, he thought, an allegory that could capture the energy it took not to succumb before what was a desperate situation.

A few weeks later, when artist and curator were back in Mexico City, the Fujimori dictatorship fell with the farce of an escape. Alberto Fujimori fled to Japan, resigning via fax on November 9. That turn of events would be decisive to the spirit of Alÿs’s work. The Lima Biennial was put off for a few months (it opened in April 2002). But having witnessed the dying breaths of the Fujimori dictatorship made an impression on us and heightened the intensity of that first visit. When Faith Moves Mountains is a work steeped in the experience of transition. It grew out of having witnessed the final contortions of a dying regime. The work would take place a year and a half later, by which time the restored democracy in Peru had begun to shatter the illusions the struggles of the earlier years had etched out.

One of the primary effects of having been happenstance witnesses to events of this magnitude was that artist and curator lost any filtering notion of realism. Alÿs was the artist that occurred to the curator because of his ability to create works from next to nothing. Alÿs—his sensibility—had opted not to respond to a social anecdote on the ground but rather to take on the historic moment itself, to make it his object. By the time curator and artist met in the spring of 2001, once the Lima Biennial had shown signs it would survive the change of political tide in Peru, Alÿs had reached the conclusion that the generous and unexpected act he wanted to bring about should be the equivalent of a gospel: Jesus, to illustrate the power of faith, promises his disciples that their belief will allow them to move mountains. A passage that, once again, is a perfect illustration of excess relates the power of miracles to an absurdly small amount—just a “grain of mustard seed”—of belief:

And Jesus said unto them, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” [2]

The images Alÿs had put together to illustrate his idea were hypnotic: lines representing a crowd that, together, formed a sort of bulldozer fueled by sheer muscle and conviction, with shovels vaguely reminiscent of Duchamp’s snow shovel. Images, these much more allegorical, of a giant hand or comb displacing the terrain such that the air and water make up the landscape. Rather than worry about how hard it would be to actually carry out the event proposed, when he came upon the image of a terrain displaced by the toil of a crowd, the curator voiced a uselessly Jacobian objection: he wondered whether or not the work’s title should refer to faith. [3] Alÿs had no doubt whatsoever: the piece, in a concession to the conditional nature of the miracle Jesus promises, had to be called “When faith moves mountains.” An element that put to rest any possibility that the artist or curator assess the difficulty that producing the action implied was Alÿs’s suggestion that the work’s artistic merit would be the same whether it was actually carried out or whether it failed trying.

What ended up cementing the decision to carry out the idea was, strangely, the very understandable concern that the project occasioned on the part of the biennial’s team, led by Luis Lama. In an e-mail sent in October 2001, he wrote that he did not believe the biennial would be capable of carrying out such an ambitious work. Lama explained that, though if realized, the project would be “the most important work of contemporary art ever produced in Peru,” the biennial did not have resources to cover the costs in infrastructure and wages that the work would require. [4] In retrospect, Lama’s hesitance did reflect the event’s economic and organizational limitations. But that skepticism would only serve to reinforce the conviction of the artist and the curator, thousands of miles away, that it was imperative to go ahead with the project. The biennial’s initial rejection of the proposal only made them more staunchly indifferent to any practical assessment.

After Gustavo Buntinx’s opportune feedback, and the clarification that we would use volunteers rather than wage workers, Alÿs’s project was put back on the biennial’s program. Be that as it may, hints of Lama’s understandable skepticism persisted in the biennial’s attitude; without telling the curator or the artist, a much more traditional parallel Mexican representation was organized for the event—a show of prints by José Luis Cuevas—in the likely case that this project never materialized. The militantly contemporary nature of the 2002 biennial, and of Alÿs’s work, have completely erased the Cuevas show from memory.


3. It Take Miracles to Make Some Miracles

Throughout the making of the project and as its legend spread, Alÿs’s clarity was a powerful and alluring vehicle of thought, one that explained to a large extent the energy and enthusiasm of those who helped make it. That clarity also, however, generated a certain practical blind spot. Despite the enthusiasm in the wake of the trip to Lima taken by Alÿs’s team—a trip during which they decided the action would take place on a dune at the edge of a migrant shantytown in the Ventanilla district outside Lima and reached a collaboration agreement with the National University of Engineering’s Student Union—the project could easily have gone under. Its collaborators in Lima failed to communicate to the team in Mexico that the recruitment of volunteers and other efforts at coordination on the ground were not going well. On the basis of Alÿs’s image of a sort of human bulldozer, a Peruvian industrial designer had designed a shovel for the action that ended up being seriously flawed—a waste of the few resources the artist had managed to muster. Finally, the curator’s inexperience at organizing mass events meant a failure to meet certain basic necessities for an action with a large group of people in the middle of a deserted area without access to public services or supplies.

As soon as it arrived in Peru in early April 2002, the team realized that the action was nowhere near ready and there was a serious paucity of participants. The fact that the action actually did take place on April 11 was thanks, to a large extent, to signing filmmaker Rafael Ortega onto the adventure. Ortega immediately detected all the logistical needs and, thanks to him, the artist and curator accepted the challenge of organizing the event from scratch in just over a week, which meant reformulating the action’s choreography. A division of labor was quickly established: Cuauhtémoc Medina, with the help of the Students’ Union at the National University of Engineering, would apply the tactics he had learned at student protests in Mexico in the nineteen-eighties to recruit volunteers; Ortega and Alÿs would negotiate funding, organize the filming of the project, and see to participants’ needs (access to food and basic services); they would also deal with new logistical problems that had arisen since the location had been temporarily occupied by the migrants’ reed dwellings. The support of the president of the university’s Architecture Students’ Union, Richard Perales Orellana, was key to enabling Medina to gradually bring in collaborators. Ortega’s experience as a film producer in Mexico and Alÿs’s commitment to redefining the project ended up bringing about, in just a few days’ time, what would rightfully have taken months to organize.

One anecdote captures the mix of improvisation and luck that ended up making the action possible. Because of how fragmented the hardware sector is in Lima, procuring a half a thousand shovels or hoes proved hellish: distributors had just a few dozen of the tools we needed and the price was exorbitant. Finally, just a few days before the announced date of the event, a Chinese businessman said he would be able to get together a large enough batch of the tools we needed. But the event was on the verge of falling through once again when Alÿs learned it was not possible to wire money for that purchase to Peru quickly enough. Artist and curator, dejected, were at a restaurant on Plaza de Armas when Rafael Ortega arrived on the scene. As soon as Alÿs explained the problem, Ortega blurted out theatrically, “When you have lost everything, you up the stakes.” So he took his wallet out of his pant pocket and removed a few credit cards. He asked us to do the same to see how many cards we had between us. Terribly nervous and terribly amused, we withdrew money for the bank machines in two shifts, before and after midnight. And that was how the resources to buy the shovels materialized as a suspicious stake of bills in a plastic bag.

But we had one final chance to fail at our efforts. We had asked the volunteers to come to the university to take the buses to Ventanilla 7:30 a.m. to keep from having to work under the noonday sun. At 8:30, only about thirty volunteers had shown up. As suddenly and inexplicably as in a miracle, people started turning up, sometimes as much as two and a half hours late. That meant that the action took place under the glaring midday sun in an utterly cloudless sky. The colors and contrasts before the camera’s merciless eye were stunning. The violence of the sun and heat was a sort of punishment for our collaborators’ considerable tardiness.


4. Sometimes There Is Infinity in the Concrete

Two sides of the action that took place on April 11, 2002 were joined by their difference. From a material standpoint, the action entailed an exhausting day’s work; it took longer than the team had predicted, and proved a challenge for all the participants—those on top of the dune and at its foot, those in front of the cameras and loudspeakers and behind them. From the standpoint of ideas, representations, and dreams, the action was potently productive, however. While artist and collaborators were engrossed in a task at once onerous and gratuitous —a dream drenched in sweat—the action almost immediately splintered into a variety of floating meanings. For starters, its communication was multifarious and wide. The participants knew themselves to be witnesses to and actors in a stunning act of will and folly. Onlookers grew in number as the rumor of the work started to spread in a flow of images and words. That dissemination was one thing deliberately prepared by the artist and team. Be that as it may, the expanse of the rumor’s spread surprised us all.

The exhibition in the old Desamparados station (the biennial’s primary seat) was the product of improvisation. It combined, by dint of accumulation, disparate words and images: a rough cut of various videos of the action surrounded by tables with documents, reflections, testimonies, and photographs that aimed to capture the impossibility of summing up the event in a single image or account. The fragmentary and mobile nature of the display was not fruit of a stylistic decision, but rather intrinsic to material that, whether in image or written form, always tended toward aphorism or allegory rather than to univocal account. Similarly, the work did not have a single unified meaning, but opened up in a number of directions, adding layer upon layer of references to the act of moving the mountain in a proliferation of ideas. In an agenda also mobile and shifting, the work took up issues like the role of peripheries in the construction of cities, domestic migration as a socially and culturally revolutionary force, mobilization as social aesthetic and—mostly—the defense of expending vast amounts of energy on something apparently gratuitous or irrational as hub of potential historic change.

The concept that Alÿs’s team explored most intensely was the anti-economic nature of historical action. When Faith’s slogan was “Maximum effort, minimal result,” and it attempted to highlight our capacity—fragile and limited, no matter how strenuous—to grasp the gist of society over time, not to critique it, but rather to defend it as a fact of history. Understanding historical changes as fruit of boundless sacrifice means not being dissuaded from boldly intervening and acting on history, no matter how disappointing the outcome. We were particularly delighted to find that that logic of history was a subversion of the logic of economic efficiency. It was a warning against the common sense of liberalism for which efficiency and productivity were axioms of global social engineering. The experience of history in the twenty-first century, with its constant combination of all orders of advances and setbacks, has more than justified that assessment, ironic and stoic though it may be.

Luck had it that this action was one of the first cultural events to benefit from twenty-first- century changes in the materiality of communication systems. Just a few hours after the action was completed, we sent, via e-mail and with the help of then-novel digital cameras, a series of images of it to friends and colleagues. Thanks to those e-mails, the action went viral in a matter of hours. That effect was bolstered by the images sent out by a nascent publishing platform in the global art world, efflux, and by the articles published in magazines like Artforum and Art Nexus. The fact that the documentation of the action was exhibited constantly in a range of places the world over is indicative of the way art—like social movements—in the new century tended to short circuit the localized with the generalized, and vice versa,  without formulating any aspiration to universality: circumstances specific to the social and political situation in Lima at the dawn of the twenty-first century might reverberate in a great many contingencies and circumstances in a great many places on Earth. Hence, the work became a sort of migratory illusion; metaphor for a political mirage, ripe for reinterpretation as work of art or as symbol almost anywhere.

How to assess When Faith almost two decades after its making? It unquestionably came to be a point of reference in socially informed twenty-first-century art; it partakes of the tendency to rethink the political role of art in a fabric of community collaborations and efforts. At the same time, the work’s unwillingness to accept a normative framework of usefulness or to embrace a specific political end—on the contrary, it declared itself an exercise in irrationality and inefficiency—is what divides it from a new political art adjacent to certain protest movements or aspirations to emancipation. Fairly immune to the expectation of illustrating a form of negotiation or of justice in the production of the work itself (after all, the collaborators were unpaid volunteers), the work’s form keeps a certain distance from a new aesthetic of political commitment. Jean Fisher hit the nail on the head when she said that the action had the effect of resisting globalization’s ever-increasing instrumentalization. “The responsibility of artistic practices is not to relinquish the right to imagine,” which might give up on the notion of “bringing art to the masses” in order to penetrate new collective imaginaries. The work, Fisher affirmed, “is utopian without promising Utopia.” [5]

Because of the mix of skepticism, hope, irrationality, and work that it represented, When Faith has lived on as an artistic and political milestone. Its political effect is not, however, limitingly specific: the work hypothesizes that taking action does not depend on ideological conviction or practical certainty, but rather on pleasure in the social capacity for organization and agency that the experience of protest and revolution in its entirety and the world over confirms every day. This combination of belief and disbelief means underscoring political action as gesture rather than emphasizing a supposed horizon of liberation or ultimate justice. Perhaps When Faith’s greatest blessing is that it always suggests the might of the image that crossed Alÿs’s mind when he proposed bringing about the age-old miracle of “moving a mountain”—regardless of practical complications and polemic vagaries. As Georges Didi-Huberman suggests, the intermittent and fragile character of an image’s appearances and re-appearances frees it from the pretention of the teleological “horizon” part and parcel of any messianic politics. Those appearances and re-appearances affirm its value as survival and as fissure:

The image isn’t much: a remnant, a crack. An accident of the time that renders it momentarily visible or readable. Whereas the horizon promises us the whole, constantly hiding behind its great fleeting “line.” [6]

The expectation of works of this sort, their political function, is to foster an open subjectivity alert to the traps of ideological counterfeit and mendacity that knowingly mistakes skepticism for passivity. They do not assign tasks or value, but rather suggest that we hold within us a multitude of assemblages and possibilities. The promise that works of art, in their precariousness, still hold is to enable us as subjects and to question the limits of the possible. When Faith was fated to become a tentative, mestizo myth full of cracks. A fable with tenuous moral, the work managed to accomplish next to nothing: our relationship to history—and to culture—cannot be based on calculation.



1. See the e-mail from Gustavo Buntinx to Cuauhtémoc Medina, dated February 20, 2000, and included in the documentary anthology of this show.

2. Mathew 17:20.

3. Strangely, at an encounter in London on the occasion of the opening of a Frida Kahlo show years later, Argentine-Mexican critic Raquel Tibol vigorously repudiated the curator for that religious reference.

4. Letter from Luis Lama to Cuauhtémoc Medina, dated October 29, 2001, included in the documentary section of this website.

5. Jean Fisher, “In the Spirit of Conviviality: When Faith Moves Mountains” in Cuauhtémoc Medina et. al., Francis Alÿs, London, Phaidon Press, 2007, p. 118).

6. George Didi-Huberman, Supervivencia de las luciérnagas, trad. Juan Calatrava,  Madrid, Abada Editores, 2009, p. 67 (English title: Suvival of the Fireflies)

Richard Perales

Lives and works in Lima. He studied at the National University of Engineering in Peru and the EM Lyon Business School in France. He is not only an architect and consultant to a number of firms, but also a photographer with particular interest in the landscape genre. In 2002, as the president of the Students’ Union at the National University of Engineering, he coordinated student participation in When Faith Moves Mountains.

Richard Perales recalls the moment when, as president of the Students’ Union at the National University of Engineering, he was visited by Francis Alÿs and Cuauhtémoc Medina. They asked him to participate in a project that consisted of physically moving a dune. Perales speaks of the sketches the artist and curator showed him, the difficulty of gathering student volunteers, and the emotion and sense of purpose he felt when the collective task was complete.

“Our task as students at the time was to help them recruit volunteers to go to a dune they had chosen in the north of the city, in the Ventanilla district to literally move a dune, the task wasn’t easy for us. The world was not as digital then and the way to recruit was reduced to knocking on doors and convincing people, one by one or group by group”.

Rafael Ortega
Artist, producer, and filmmaker

Lives and works between Mexico City and London. He started out in film as a cinematographer, and in that capacity he worked on over thirty projects, both fiction and documentary. In 1993, he began working in the visual arts; he has collaborated on, developed, photographed, and co-authored over eighty pieces with artists of his generation, among them Francis Alÿs, João Penalva, Amalia Pica, Pablo Vargas Lugo, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damián Ortega, Melanie Smith, and Silvia Gruner.

Rafael Ortega provides a detailed description of the production conditions of When Faith Moves Mountains: the trips, searches for sites and eventual discovery of the dune in Ventanilla, and the logistics required to organize the almost eight hundred participants, including the support team. He underscores the challenges at play in gathering a group for such a monumental project, and the ties formed in undertaking such an enormous feat together.

“We made a line of 150 people, there was a sound crew, everyone was there, we turned on the cameras and said ‘Action!’ and that’s when we heard the harsh sound of the shovels, picking up the soil and picking it up and throwing it, then we realized that was the piece”.

Natalia Majluf
Art historian and freelance curator

Lives and works in Lima. She has an undergraduate degree from Boston College, a master’s from the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. She was the chief curator at the Museo de Arte in Lima from 1995 to 2001, and its director until 2018. Her curatorial work and research revolves around nineteenth and twentieth century Latin American art. In 2018 and 2019, she was the Simón Bolívar Chair in Latin American Studies at Cambridge University. She sits on the editorial board of LASA-LARC and on Malba’s Academic Committee.

Natalia Majluf argues that the image of a comb sweeping the dune is not the most apt description of the When Faith Moves Mountain experience. Majluf recalls how hard it was to climb up the dune and shovel the sand; she points out that physical movement on the dune was rife with tensions and hesitations that broke up the line’s uniformity. For Majluf, undertaking an action outside the Lima art circuit opened up a new political and aesthetic horizon and ushered in an understanding of that marginal semi-urban space as dynamic landscape rather than as barren terrain.

“Francis builds a notion of the political which has to do with structural processes, with the development of the city, that has nothing to do with what was understood to be  a political discourse in Peru at that time. Therein lies the effectiveness and the power of the piece to touch on profoundly complex issues that affect daily life”.

Mark Godfrey
Art historian, critic, and curator

Lives and works in London. He is the senior curator of international art (Asia and the Americas) at Tate Modern, London, where he co-curator the show Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (2017). He was previously a professor of art history and theory at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. He has written essays for catalogues for exhibitions on the work of Tacita Dean, Matthew Buckingham, Sharon Lockhart, Fiona Tan, Eva Hesse, and Anri Sala. He has curated exhibitions of work by Catherine Yass, Douglas Huebler, and Matthew Buckingham. He is the author of Abstraction and the Holocaust, 2007. He has curated shows at the Pompidou, Tate Modern London, and the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Mark Godfrey remembers the Artforum cover featuring the performance; the same issue contained a text by Francis Alÿs [1000 Words, reproduced above on this same page]. Godfrey reflects on the iconic and memorable nature of certain images and their ability to capture complex projects and instigate myths. Finally, he reads the work as a critique of capitalist efficiency and reinterprets it from a present marked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In 2021, this image seems to have a different meaning for me. It’s just very moving to see an image of so many people together in one place, enjoying each other’s company, talking to each other, congregating to do something special outside, but without masks. We took all that for granted, and now, looking at the image of When Faith Moves Mountains, it just reminds of a time when people could come together and do something absurd, beautiful, purposeless… and we don’t have at the present moment”.

Gustavo Buntinx
Art historian, critic, and curator

Lives and works in Lima. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1978. After directing the Museo de Arte Italiano and the Museo de Arte de San Marcos, both in Lima, from 2001 to 2006, he became the general director of the Centro Cultural de San Marcos. He was the curator of the I Lima Photography Biennial in 2011. For almost forty years, he has been the “chauffeur” for the Micromuseo (“there’s room in the back”), an initiative that counters the longstanding paucity of museums in Peru with a mestizo, promiscuous, and plebeian museality. He is a founding member of Colectivo Sociedad Civil, active in 2000 and 2001.

Gustavo Buntinx calls When Faith Moves Mountains “a manipulation of the landscape.” He dwells on the idea of “maximum effort, minimal results” and compares the action with filmmaker Werner Herzog’s chimerical projects, with poet Allen Ginsberg’s attempt to levitate the Pentagon in 1967, and with Marcel Duchamp’s theories of inframince. ForBuntinx, in the piece the social is revealed as allegorical, and a utopian task renewed through absurdity and uselessness.

“The piece can now, two decades later, be seen as a mise en abyme of the notion of utopia at the very momento that that category began to transform itself as the illusion of the collective or the community, also began to transform itself (…) Over the battalion of volunteers marching, shovel in hand, we can see a horizon of mats announcing other, more dramatic shifts: the marching of shanty towns over the magnificent nature in extinction”.

Archive 2 >
Research and recruitment of volunteers

Pursuant to an invitation received from the Second Lima Biennial at the beginning of 2000, Alÿs and Medina traveled to Lima three times: an initial research trip in October 2000 on the occasion of the selection of Peruvian participants in the biennial; a second trip in early 2002; and a final trip to produce the event itself in April 2002. These images document those last two trips.

Even though the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship had fallen at the end of 2000, political tension was still visible on the streets of Lima. The new Toledo administration had failed to bring stability.

Huaca Juliana in the Miraflores section of Lima, Peru. The image of this pre-Columbian structure trapped between a fence and modern buildings struck the curator and artist as an apt symbol for the situation in Peru, and a telling background for the idea of moving a mountain.

Peruvian critic and curator Gustavo Buntinx was an instigator of the project, as well as an intellectual and affective collaborator over the course of its development.

This political mural by Acción Popular served as a sort of visual beacon for When Faith Moves Mountains.

The streets of Callao and the area’s social life represented urban vitality under a modernist surface.

The research led to the sand dunes within a radius of one hundred kilometers to the south and north of Lima. Eventually, a rise in the town of Ventanilla, soon to be the site of shantytowns, was selected.

The image of a young woman wrapped only in a towel seen on a beer ad on a highway billboard turned into a Felliniesque companion to the research trips on the desert-liked coastline.

In the makeshift neighborhoods constructed by peasant migrants who come to the city fleeing civil war and economic hardship, the artist found the newcomers’ drive to recreate the communities they had left behind. The action was a meditation on the informal urbanization enacted by the waves of displaced masses that arrive in cities like Lima.

The dune selected for the action in the Ventanilla district had three things in its favor: remarkably, it was isolated rather than part of a small range; its core was solid and rocky, but its surface loose sand; it was at the very edge of the expanding migrant settlement. The first structures in this incipient urbanization were rudimentary reed shelters from the sun.

Participants were solicited at the National University of Engineering. In the days prior to the event in April 2002, the curator, along with a group of students, went from classroom to classroom inviting others to take part in the action. The techniques used to recruit volunteers drew on the techniques for student mobilization used at Mexican universities.

The old Cordano bar located across the street from the Desamparados train station was the When Faith Moves Mountain team’s office. It gradually turned into a place to gather and rest for many artists participating in the biennial. The fleeting light cast on the wall by the front window was suggestive of the phantasmal quality of our entire effort.

Archive 3 >
Francis Alÿs’s
Projects and Drawings

During a trip to Lima with Cuauhtémoc Medina in October 2000, Francis Alÿs combed the city and surroundings in search of ideas. The impact of visiting informal settlements on the outskirts of the city and the political tension palpable on the streets led him to envision an action that consisted of effecting a semblance of a miracle. The idea of moving the dune in Lima was developed in a great many drawings and paintings, which the artist and his team used as a visual guide to the project. The image above shows Alÿs working with the curator in his studio in downtown Mexico City in the boreal summer of 2001.

Since the early nineteen-nineties, Alÿs has produced postcards to document his actions. The postcards contain a photograph, a text formulated as a guide to the action, and a concise fable of its unfolding.

In the case of When Faith Moves Mountains, the postcards served as a means to announce the action and to spread its legend. The artist produced a great many postcards of this action for its various exhibitions. The first, made before the event actually took place, includes an image of the dune displaced pursuant to what seems like a printing error. This “out of register” print was a technical challenge for the artist and the printers, since the effect sought was to make our eyes feel blurry.

In a series of painted images, Alÿs attempted to show the dreamlike and allegorical facet of the action. The image was envisioned to go beyond the action itself; it would lay out the project’s ethical and metaphysical orientation. Indeed, some works the artist had made before the action, works that bore no direct relation to it, were brought into this virtual iconographic guide.

On paper, the project Alÿs devised was deceptively straightforward: a row of people moving like a sort of tractor or excavator. Naïve and simple, that image kept the artist and curator from grasping the project’s excessiveness; for a time, they explored a misguided possibility: lining participants up to push the sand instead of having them use shovels.

A key moment in the conception of the project was when its script was laid out in a film-like sequence, that is, translated into a storyboard. Alÿs’s storyboard placed emphasis on certain key shots: he wanted the participants to emerge from behind the dune as a threatening line in a style reminiscent of Indians in old cowboy movies. A frontal image was planned, but ultimately the most impressive documentation was spontaneous.

This sheet of paper with typewritten text and an analog photograph stuck to it was the basis for the project’s poster and invitation, as well as the postcards that constituted the action’s first public formulation.

The inventive apex of Alÿs’s imaginative work on the project, at least from a figurative and allegorical point of view, consists of the color drawings on Albanene paper with which he thought through the action during 2001 and 2002. These are images not only of the mobilization, but also of its phantasmal historical implications.

In late 2001, the curator came upon the slogan that summed up the event’s heterogeneous logic. “Maximum effort, minimal result” inverted the traditional notion of bourgeois economic efficiency. Using traditional sign-painting techniques like dotted stencil line, Francis Alÿs worked in his studio to formalize that slogan and its graphic expression.

To fund the action, Alÿs sold it before its production. Fundación Jumex provided support in exchange for drawings and a copy of the event’s documentation in video. The artist also created a series of oil paintings with text like votive offering. These paintings explicitly recorded the miracle of procuring funds for an action seemingly doomed to failure.

Archive 4 >
Documentation of the action

When Faith… took place on April 11, 2002. Filmmaker Rafael Ortega and his camera were at the helm of the visual and logistic organization of the almost daylong action. Ortega had worked with Alÿs on many projects. His intervention in the event’s organization as well as his eye behind the camera was crucial to both the action’s aesthetic, which is indebted to classic mythology movies, and the experience of its participants.

Participants were asked to show up very early in the morning in hope of avoiding the midday heat and sun. But, in keeping with local custom, many did not show up at the gathering place until as much as two hours after the scheduled meeting time.

Under Rafael Ortega’s guidance, the team constructed bathrooms for participants and set out to find sponsors willing to contribute food and drink. But because of the heat and the grueling nature of the action, those facilities proved insufficient.

A handful of Alÿs’s friends and collaborators traveled to Lima to help with the event. Swedish curator Lisa Rosendahl, who works with Alÿs at one of his galleries, was involved in organizing the action and its exhibition.

At the start of the action, participants lined up in a row that would later advance over the conical dune. During a brief interchange with one of the witnesses to the event during set up, it was suggested that, in keeping with Andean customs, we thank the earth for letting us make the work.

The students in the Architecture Students’ Union insisted that we give participants shirts commemorating the event in recognition of their work and as a way to attract other participants. In Mexico, Alÿs produced light blue shirts with the event’s motto on the back. The participants found the formality of the uniform strange, but the shirts have become relics cherished by all those present on the day of the action.

Volunteers included a number of members of the staff at the Museo de Arte in Lima, including its director, Natalia Majluf; the head of public relations, Jimena González; and Lucía García de Polavieja.

The image of a line of workers climbing the dune shoulder to shoulder was the central visual symbol of the event. Over five hundred volunteers participated, whether they actually climbed the dune or kept the site clear of intruders and interference for the sake of the image.

An agreement with Televisión Nacional del Perú bound the artist and curator to offer the event as an exclusive story to that channel. In exchange, they were given access to views taken from a helicopter normally used by reporters for stories on fires and accidents. The spectacular nature of the aerial views was important to conveying the event’s magnitude, though the wind of the helicopter blades might have moved more sand that the participants themselves.

While the bulk of the documentation was produced at the foot of the dune or from the air, the artist meddled in the line of participants, often on his knees, to take photographs. These images document the flipside of the mass action’s geometry. They focus on the exhausting work of shoveling sand up and down the dune.

The completion of the action was cause for rejoicing on the part of the participants. Worn out, they ran, tools in hand, to get at the drinking water and facilities at the bottom of the dune, while the support team gathered their supplies.

Many of Alÿs’s drawings envision the action as a comb moving over the surface of the dune; each tooth would be a participant. To our surprise, at the end of the event in Ventanilla, we saw that the dune was lined with furrows, as if in fact a colossal comb had swept over it.

Richard Perales, on the right¬ in this image, was the president of the Architecture Students’ Union at the National University of Engineering. Perales was the project’s most committed and steadfast collaborator, a goad to other students to participate. To a large extent, the action depended on the enthusiasm of Perales and his closest friends.

Archive 5 >
Exhibition at Desamparados

As if the action at the dune in Ventanilla were not enough of a challenge, the Alÿs team then had less than a week to put together a version of When Faith to be exhibited at the Lima Biennial’s seat in the old Desamparados train station. While Rafael Ortega helped Alÿs edit the initial videos of the event, Medina, with the help of the team at Alta Tecnología Andina, put up the show.

A number of friends of the team volunteered to help with the installation of the show. Swedish curator Lisa Rosendahl and Peruvian friends like Gustavo Buntinx contributed time and ideas to an installation of fragments and multiple voices.

Some of the images were secret tributes. A series of lines of sand in the poster made reference to Hélio Oiticica’s Cosmococas, with their mounds of cocaine. These gestures had no target: part of a fabric, they were signs launched on the fly with no real communicational and physical purpose.

Friends who had come to Lima to help Alÿs made up for the shortage of assistants and security guards during the installation of the show. Gallerist Peter Kilchmann and collector Mercedes Villardel spent many hours poring over and working on the remains of the action.

In a provisional account of the project, the tables brought together a range of texts, documents, and images. That necessarily aphoristic and fragmentary style determined a set of items that never aspired to constitute a whole and, as such, was in keeping with the logic of an event that hoped to set off a chain of multiple nomadic and fluid meanings. The installation was envisioned as a materialized rumor. The content of these illuminations in sand would determine the many shapes in which the work would be communicated over the years.

The Lima Biennial was one of the events at the beginning of the twenty-first century that gathered agents and enthusiasts in the emerging Southern artistic circuit. One of the pleasures it provided was to share work spaces—and long meals—with fellow curators and artists like Virginia Pérez Ratton, Liliana Porter, Rosina Cazali, Ana Tiscornia, Priscilla Monge, Natalia Majluf, and many others. A biennial is more than an exhibition; it is a floating community joined by a common adventure—or everyone goes down together.

Exhausted and vexed by questions and doubts, Alÿs’s team’s main goal for the show at Desamparados was to recognize the volunteers, chiefly the students, who had participated in the event. Rather than a chance to dabble in the art world, the biennial’s opening was when the students and volunteers were able to revisit their experience that day and become aware of the implications of the action. In this case, audience and work were one and the same.

In suit and tie, Richard Perales, president of the Architecture Students’ Union at the National University of Engineering, was one of the event’s principal collaborators.

Some of the energy and images at play in the event were recorded in the notebooks the artist left on the worktables in the show. The notes written by participants were not only an expression of camaraderie and support but also evidence of the fact that, above all else, the work was a convergence of shared dreams and collective queries.

Archive 6 >
Press clippings and reviews

Summer 2002
[See the text by Francis Alÿs reproduced further up on this same page]

ArtNexus #45 [Spanish-language edition]
July–September 2002

ArtNexus #45 [English-language edition]
July–September 2002

Caretas magazine
August 15, 2002

La Jornada Semanal
July 13, 2003

The Economist
August 7, 2003

El Mercurio newspaper
August 22, 2004

April 1, 2006
January 18, 2010

Archive 7 >

In January 2005, Turner published this volume in which a handful of thinkers examine When Faith Moves Mountainsfrom a range of perspectives.

The book includes a great many photographs and texts by Susan Buck-Morss, Gustavo Buntinx, Corinne Disserens, and Gerardo Mosquera; several interviews with Francis Alÿs; and essays by Medina.

See entire publication >

Francis Alÿs’s notes during a conversation with Cuauhtémoc Medina, December 2020.