Last month, a large exhibition of the socially relevant work of Belgian interdisciplinary artist Francis Alÿs opened in Tokyo, the artist’s first solo show to be held in Japan. The exhibition, split into two parts, presents people’s actions that engage with political spaces by reclaiming them as sites for telling stories.

The first half, a sampling of works based on walks in the center of Mexico City, consists of actions that play with everyday life, allowing the depiction of brief and often random encounters in the city to pose philosophical questions. The second half, a new work in the Strait of Gibraltar set to open this summer, digs into one particular story — one that forms a meaningful link between Europe and Africa through the activities of children.

Much of Alÿs’ work and life have been determined by chance. He started a career as an architect in Italy and would very likely still be there if he hadn’t gone to the countryside of Mexico in order to escape Belgian military service. During our interview in Tokyo he puffs on an electronic cigarette while discussing the early experiences that made him become an artist.

You arrived in Mexico City not long after an 8.1 magnitude earthquake. How did you end up staying there?

In the aftermath of the earthquake, there was a big change in Mexican society. Civil society took destiny into its own hands. It really opened up a different sense of the city as source material. Visual artists started looking at the city for the first time, and coming from an architecture and urbanism background I fit perfectly in the momentum. I quickly found an entry point into a completely different scene. There was a need of the locals for a different discourse, a different way of having their city represented. Something that would create a portrait of the city at that moment was needed. Mexico City, possibly like Tokyo, is a very saturated environment. Instead of adding physical elements to the city my reaction was to insert stories. It is this chance encounter with Mexico City that led me to become an artist.

What did you discover while conducting “Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing” for which you pushed a block of ice through the city?

It was a fantastic way of getting some kind of interaction (with) a very clear goal from beginning to end. There was a sense of task. I was interested in the relation of doing/not doing. I was trying to define my own artistic language. Most often those experiments would not lead to anything.

Many of your works rely on local participation. What interactions lead you to create an “action” with others?

Most often the people inspire the actions. I watch them and then ask them to collaborate in the same situation but with a slight twist to it. Or situations are misunderstood, and I make something else of it, eventually giving the spark for an action. A lot of the works, especially in this show of early work, are (about) finding a way to make sense of the place where I am at a certain time. Both personal time and local time, being in sync with that place.

Like drawing a big map; mapping out the territory. In this show it’s a very reduced territory: it is the equivalent of 12 by 12 blocks in the historical center of Mexico City. It’s a bit like an island. I concentrated on this as a territory for my work; people were starting to consider me a part of their daily landscape. That’s what I did for the first 10 years — developing some kind of language.

When do you improvise and when do you instruct?

I am interested in seeing how a certain situation can develop with potential accidents. First, I am inspired by the acts of potential collaborators. It tends to be an action they have already done in a different context. I am very clear about the rules of the game, but once it’s launched I don’t intervene at all. Whatever development it takes is valid. Sometimes it leads to failure; sometimes it leads to a different outcome. I am not even a participant, I retrieve and I watch.

Do you do the filming?

I film, but if I can avoid it I just watch. It’s very active at first and then very passive. After that, the way I tell the story is a different chapter (of the artistic process) too. I touch on this in the video “Re-enactment,” (for which) I buy a gun and walk to see how far I can go before being stopped. On the first day, the police took me into custody after 12 minutes. Then I convinced them to act the next day. We redo our roles, this time it’s completely staged leading to the same outcome. Then I put the two documents together. My question is: How can one tell a story after the facts?

It turns out there is no unique answer. Each time you have to find a different way of telling the story. But each time you (also) have to accept that it’s another part of the project, you can’t pretend that the film of the action is going to recreate the same sensation for the people who watch it in a museum context as (it would for) the ones who were watching it on the street. You just have to accept that there are different lives of a project and find a way of recreating the intention behind the work. And that doesn’t mean strictly representing the action as it happened; sometimes you have to build around it.

What concept are you building around in the Strait of Gibraltar for the second part of this exhibit?

There was an idea, a recession, lots of developments, the events and then the story. That show will be mostly about trying to articulate all those moments with all the possible ways of telling one same story. Through paintings, drawings, documentary videos or photos — through the action itself.

All the different approaches — one simple scenario. They are all valid in their own kind of space. They have all got a reason to be. They are all quite different in the end. But they all talk about the same thing. What I can’t tell with a photo I will tell with a painting, and what I can’t tell with a painting I will tell with a video or text sometimes, et cetera. They are all different lives of the project.

Why do your recent works rely more and more on the playful games of children?

I am curious to see how much of my scenarios can be enacted by others. I am always fascinated by the way kids create their own world. That is something I am very attentive to anywhere I go. I haven’t come across that many children’s games in Japan yet, but I have seen kids crossing avenues jumping on the white or black stripes.

It’s largely a desire to retreat from the protagonist role and pass it on to others. Those others happen to be the kids.

“Francis Alÿs: Mexico Survey” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo runs till June 9; Part two, “Gibraltar Focus” runs from June 29-Sept. 8, 2013; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. (except July 15), July 16. www.mot-art-museum.jp/alys See our Ticket Giveaway below Art Openings for an opportunity to win a pair of tickets to this exhibition.

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