Francis Alÿs, The Nightwatch, 2004
Encountering favourite works again by chance is always a real pleasure. My visit to the Exchange in Penzance while on holiday in Cornwall was brief but unexpectedly enjoyable. Apart from seeing the title of the show, I hadn’t really checked what was on before pitching up there (I also hadn’t checked what time the gallery closed, hence the brevity of my visit; why do I never learn?) so beyond thinking 3am: wonder, paranoia and the restless night sounded like my kind of exhibition, I arrived, as is so often the case, essentially clueless. In the main the works I liked the most were the ones I knew already but that’s hardly a problem when those works included some real favourites, especially Francis Alÿs’s The Nightwatch, seen here as a single channel video but sometimes shown as a bank of monitors. Francis Alÿs is probably one of my favourite artists (I’m fickle, it’s an ever changing list; but he’s usually on it, I would say) and The Nightwatch is one of the main reasons why.
Though seemingly unaware of our gaze but probably well used to being an unwelcome guest, the fox often stays in the shadows, skirting the edges of rooms or seeking the cover of benches. He investigates the space but pays as little heed to the paintings as might be expected (the audience for art may be at an all time high but it seldom includes pets leave alone wild animals).
The work was made in 2004 in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Alÿs released a fox into the empty gallery at night; its movements were recorded by the museum’s CCTV system and it’s this video footage that forms the work. There is something extraordinary and utterly unexpected about watching a wild animal roam a museum space at night; at times we watch empty gallery spaces before catching sight of the elusive subject of our search. It’s here that the different strategies for showing the piece give the work two very different feels. As a single screen work (which can be seen on Francis Alÿs’s website), we watch the fox’s progress knowing that if it isn’t on screen right now it will be soon. As a multi-screen piece, the work – and the process of watching it – is more complex; in this format, catching a glimpse of the fox feels like a rare treat, a reward for looking at the right screen at the right time. In this configuration, the work speaks also of the burden of watching and the challenge of monitoring a bank of CCTV screens hoping to spot anything out of the ordinary in time to stop jt becoming a problem. We are watched all the time and, unsurprisingly, often resent it; we – or, at any rate, I – think little of those whose job it is to do the watching.