Francis Alÿs’s Cuentos Patrioticos: Sheep marching in patriotic tales

Francis Alÿs - Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec
Francis Alÿs – Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec

Introduction

In 1997, Belgian artist Francis Alÿs collaborated with Rafael Ortega to create Cuentos Patrióticos (Patriotic Tales) in Mexico City. The single-screen video projection features Alÿs leading a flock of sheep around a flagpole, with a new sheep joining at every turn.

Francis Alÿs - Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec
Francis Alÿs – Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec

What it shows

At first glance, the black & white video depicts a seemingly simple scenario: Alÿs leads a single sheep on a rope, circling the flagpole in the Zócalo, officially known as Plaza de la Constitución, the main square in central Mexico City. With each completed rotation, another sheep joins the procession until a flock of 25 sheep forms a continuous, meandering circle.

At this stage, it is not possible to distinguish between follower and leader. Gradually, the artist removes the rope and the animals begin to disperse one by one until the last sheep remains, only to eventually wander off, leaving the flagpole bare once again.

YouTube video
25 min 36 sec

Accompanying this visual spectacle is an auditory tapestry. A constant bell sound from the Metropolitan Cathedral forms the backdrop. This continuous noise is punctuated at different intervals by the resonant tolling of a louder bell, adding depth and solemnity to the atmosphere.

The video’s powerful symbolism

This deceptively straightforward narrative carries a powerful symbolic weight, referencing a pivotal moment in Mexico’s history during the student protests of 1968. On August 28, following a massive student demonstration in the Zócalo, the government claimed national symbols had been “insulted” by the protesters’ red and black flags. In response, thousands of civil servants were herded into the Zócalo to demonstrate loyalty to the government and “restore dignity” to the Mexican flag.

However, this attempt at a counter-demonstration backfired spectacularly. In an unexpected act of defiance, the assembled bureaucrats and government employees turned their backs on the official tribune and began bleating like sheep. They shouted1, “We are sheep, they take us by force!“, refusing to be mere docile followers.

The Mexican Army dislodges the Zócalo in Mexico City in the early morning of August 28, 1968
The Mexican Army dislodges the Zócalo in Mexico City in the early morning of August 28, 1968, photo: public domain

This spontaneous rebellion forced authorities to disperse the crowd using armored tanks and infantry. This event marked a significant shift as the student movement’s influence spread to middle-class citizens. Nearly thirty years later, the incident was reenacted and filmed in the same location, demonstrating the lasting impact of the 1968 protests on Mexican society and politics.

The Mexican Army in an M8 Greyhound at the Zócalo in Mexico City on August 28, 1968
The Mexican Army in an M8 Greyhound at the Zócalo in Mexico City on August 28, 1968, photo: public domain

Alÿs’s 25-minute, 36-second video breathes new life into this act of resistance, transforming the Zócalo into a stage for a powerful allegory about conformity, dissent and the cyclical nature of social movements. The continued commemoration of this act of mockery and defiance also represents the enduring legacy of resistance against authoritarianism in Mexico.

Speaking about the playful character of Cuentos Patrióticos and other works such as Paradox of Praxis I2, Alÿs said in an interview3:

Games have indeed been a direct wellspring of inspiration for much of my work. In a game, you establish an initial scenario, but the evolution of the game’s dynamics remains uncertain. Some parameters are predefined – who does what and when – but the rest is open-ended.

Francis Alÿs - Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec
Francis Alÿs – Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec

Historical & political context

The political context of Alÿs’ work extends beyond this single incident. Throughout much of the 20th century, Mexico’s political landscape was dominated by a system that had grown stagnant and resistant to change.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held power for seven decades, creating an environment where corruption and dysfunction became deeply entrenched. This political apparatus effectively froze progress, stifling dissent and maintaining a façade of stability at the cost of genuine democratic development.

Francis Alÿs - Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec
Francis Alÿs – Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec

Cuentos Patrióticos can be seen as a commentary on this broader political paralysis. The circular movement of the sheep around the flagpole mirrors the cyclical nature of a political system trapped in its own repetitive patterns, unable or unwilling to break free from established norms.

The artist’s act of leading the sheep, only to eventually let them disperse, might symbolize the potential for change that exists within even the most rigid systems, hinting at the possibility of breaking free from entrenched political behaviors.

The beauty in the details

What makes Cuentos Patrióticos compelling is the way it invites viewers to appreciate the subtle nuances and complexities within its seemingly repetitive structure. As the sheep navigate the circular path, their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies become apparent: Some stride confidently, others dawdle, and others dart back into the formation after momentarily straying.

This diversity within the flock mirrors the inherent variability in human behavior, even among those who initially appear uniform or conformist. Like Andy Warhol’s iconic depictions of mass-produced objects, Alÿs’s work challenges the notion of true repetition, revealing the unique characteristics that underlie apparent sameness.

Francis Alÿs - Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec
Francis Alÿs – Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec

A meditation on time & change

Cuentos Patrióticos serves as a powerful commentary on Mexico’s intricate political history, inviting viewers to contemplate the impact of collective nonconformity.

Beyond its political undertones, the work invites contemplation on the cyclical nature of time and the inevitability of change. The sheep’s circular journey around the flagpole evokes the perpetual cycle of day and night, the seasons, and the ebb and flow of social movements.

Francis Alÿs - Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec
Francis Alÿs – Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec

Just as no two springs are truly identical, Alÿs’s work reminds us that even the most repetitive routines are imbued with subtle variations and unpredictable deviations. In this way, the installation becomes a thoughtful reflection on how nothing lasts forever. It encourages viewers to see the beauty in life’s constant changes and to value the richness of each passing moment.

Francis Alÿs & Zócalo

Interestingly, Francis Alÿs created several artworks centered around the Zócalo in Mexico City, demonstrating his ongoing interest in the site’s political, historical, and social significance. Some of his notable works related to this location are:

Turista, 1994. In this performance, Francis Alÿs stood among local workers in Mexico City’s Zócalo, holding a sign offering his services as a “tourist,” highlighting issues of labor, identity, and social dynamics in urban spaces.

If You Are a Typical Spectator, What You Are Really Doing Is Waiting for the Accident to Happen, 1996: Francis Alÿs serendipitously filmed a plastic bottle’s journey across Zócalo, only to have his own role as a passive observer disrupted when his pursuit of the bottle led to an unexpected accident, subverting the expected narrative and highlighting the unpredictable consequences of artistic intervention in everyday life.

Cuentos Patrióticos, 1997

Sunpath, 1999 or Zócalo, May 22, 1999, 1999: This is a 12-hour single-channel video that captures the movement of people seeking shade from a flagpole in Mexico City’s main square, transforming a mundane daily occurrence into a powerful metaphor for social behavior and urban dynamics.

Francis Alÿs - Sunpath (film still), 1999, Mexico City
Francis Alÿs – Sunpath (film still), 1999, Mexico City

About Francis Alÿs

Behind the powerful allegory of Cuentos Patrióticos lies the visionary mind of Francis Alÿs, a Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist whose multidisciplinary practice transcends boundaries between art, architecture and social engagement.

Born in 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium, Alÿs embarked on an unconventional path, abandoning his career as an architect in 1986 to relocate to Mexico City. This city would profoundly shape his artistic sensibilities.

Through a diverse array of media, ranging from performance art and video installations to painting and drawing, he explores the tensions that arise between individual actions and societal structures, between personal narratives and collective mythologies.

Francis Alÿs - Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec
Francis Alÿs – Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, Mexico City, Mexico, 25 min 36 sec

All images: Francis Alÿs unless otherwise noted.

 

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Footnotes

1. https://www.cronica.com.mx/notas-fracaso_estrepitoso_del_gobierno-1053021-2017.html ^
2. https://publicdelivery.org/francis-alys-ice/ ^
3. https://www.artcologne.com/journal/articles/boundless-fun-part-2.php ^