Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 12, 2017
Francis Alÿs: The Fabiola Project
Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Menil Collection, Houston, TX, May 21, 2016 – Oct 28, 2018
Installation image, Francis Alÿs: The Fabiola Project (photograph © Paul Hester; provided by the Menil Collection, Houston)

Installed at the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston, Texas, more than four hundred handmade images of the fourth-century saint Fabiola comprise Francis Alÿs’s latest version of The Fabiola Project. Except for a few small objects displayed in an adjoining room, the pictures are hung on a single wall 24 feet tall by 40.5 feet wide. The lower one-third of the works can be inspected closely, but the rest reside too high for such pursuits and are subsequently absorbed into a field of color dominated by the figures’ red veils. Adorning the left-facing profile of a woman, the red veil along with the pose comprise a minimal iconography that derives from a lost source—an 1885 painting by Jean-Jacques Henner. Beginning in the early 1990s, Alÿs collected the images with help from colleagues and friends at flea markets, second-hand shops, and antique stores around the world. The current installation, curated by Toby Kamps, provokes a unique engagement with the reiterative function of these depictions. Many have attended to the work’s provocation of itineraries—either of the artist’s own movement that facilitated the process of collecting, or of the images themselves and their original uses. These two elements—reiteration and itinerary—are central to Alÿs’s work. The former is explored throughout his Sign Painting Project (1993–7) with Juan García, Emilio Rivera, and Enrique Huerta; and the latter is provoked in the artist’s many walking projects, from the early The Collector (1990–2) to the well-known The Green Line (2004).

But, what of the figure, or sign, itself? In The Fabiola Project, the itinerary seems a matter less of the artist or the object than of the concept or personage: it is the figure, Fabiola, in her recurrent usage for distinct purposes that is at stake. Here, a building up of that figure acts to concretize her visage into a single term as much as it reveals her to be an amalgam of sources, uses, and stories—that is, the project constructs meaning through the guise of a contemporary art installation, but it simultaneously unravels that meaning through the trail of previous existences. This tension is triggered by the Menil installation precisely because the objects are hung salon-style with a majority beyond the reach of a studious eye. In a chapel formerly dedicated to housing a collection of Byzantine icons, Alÿs raises issues about the crossroads of private devotion and public appreciation.

As Lynne Cooke recounts, Fabiola was canonized in 537 CE but did not come into substantial recognition until the late nineteenth-century Catholic revival in Europe (“Francis Alÿs: Instigator/Investigator,” in Francis Alÿs: Fabiola: an Investigation, New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2008). At that time, a version of her story appeared in the form of a romantic historical novel written by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman titled Fabiola, or the Church of the Catacombs. Similar to the novel, devotional images of the saint were used privately by individuals, rather than for public events or worship. Moreover, in early versions of Alÿs’s project, at the Hispanic Society of America in New York (2007–8) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2008–9), the images of Fabiola were displayed at a height that allowed close individuated examination. As Roberta Smith noted, this provoked a tendency to analyze comparatively (“On Postcards and Even in Rice, Portraits of a Beloved Saint,” New York Times, January 5, 2008). Indeed, size and shape immediately begin to differentiate the objects: the occasional exceedingly large or small image emerges, as do those in round frames. Material differences appear: paint on canvas or board is contrasted with needlepoint on mesh, wood or plaster reliefs, or a mosaic of grains and beans. Distinctions in frames become apparent: though most appear in simple frames or are simply unframed, a few are encased in elaborately carved wood. The color and tone of the images differentiate as well: in rare cases the veil is colored green, but more variance occurs in the backgrounds, which range from dark greys and browns to lighter blues and greens. In some cases the figures are left facing, in others multiple perspectives of the subject are displayed within a single image. The form of the veil too offers occasion to parse the collection: the folds at times vanish into a flat, red field, while at other times they emerge exuberantly in an intense spiral as the cloth bends to make its way down the back of the figure’s head. In this provocation to categorize or to map the images, a type of intimacy is incited wherein previous uses for private devotion are reiterated, this time within a mode of formal evaluation—or, put differently, private and religious uses are thinly pasted over by connoisseurial and formalist judgments.

Within the current large-scale grid of the Menil installation, the objects appear closer—in spatial terms—to Fabiola’s story as delivered in several films that loosely follow Wiseman’s novel: the first, a silent version from 1918, titled Fabiola; a second, of the same title but with sound, released in 1949; and a third, La rivolta degli schiavi (The Revolt of the Slaves), of 1960. Distance is required to properly view a film, of course: if one moves too close, the screen’s image becomes distorted. The gallery at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, in a manner similar to a film house, structures a distanced viewing of the objects. This does not concern cinematic time or a linear experience. That type of viewing is more apparent in previous versions where, again, the progressive movement through galleries manifests a conception of aesthetic progress (though, crucially, this is never delivered evenly by Alÿs). At the Menil, a single door on the right side of the wall opposite the images requires the viewer to enter and then double back to exit the space. Shown together, in its enormity, the installation demonstrates the impossibility of mentally cataloguing the individual elements in the series—all those distinctions blend together under the weight of so many objects. A distinct view emerges that sees the accumulated mass of forms and colors as a single element. In a seeming echo of the gallery’s previous use (as public viewing space for religious icons), Fabiola’s image in its accumulative presence functions not only as an object of public aesthetic appreciation but also as a stand-in, of sorts, for the historical absence of a public shrine or veneration for the saint. Once again there is a layering of Fabiola—as figure and as constitutive element of an installation—that muddies a distinction between religious, cinematic, and contemporary art forms.

A person is reiterated as saint, as novel, as painting, as film, as amateur picture, and now as a wall of red. Perhaps, this itinerary of Fabiola-as-sign does not entirely overwhelm the trajectories of the material objects themselves that bear her image. Alÿs does, in fact, provide locations, dates, and costs for most of the works. But, when contemplating Alÿs’s and the objects’ movements, are we meant to laud the objects’ new lives or mourn the ones they’ve lost? Alternatively, following Fabiola from person to saint, to commercial novel, to academic painting, to epic films, to private devotion and decoration, to The Fabiola Project, an implied throughline suggests the arbitrary and constructed history of art. Tom McDonough, in a 2010 essay, linked Alÿs’s work to the Dadaist practice of exposing an artwork’s tail—a tactic to integrate or uncover the symbolic order that guarantees a work’s function as art (“Trips and Traps,” in Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010). As McDonough explained, in Alÿs’s work this element not only challenges the institution, but also acts to trip up the viewer. In The Fabiola Project, the distance between viewer and object (incited by the dimensions of the installation) paradoxically challenges our pretensions to appreciation and to analysis: Is this an aesthetic, commercial, or religious experience? It is not principally the institution that is under scrutiny here, it is the viewer: our place within the historical present is made uncertain as we parse the politics of this practice of collecting, and as the sacred and the profane tumble back into view.

Philip Kelleher
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Rice University