There is a fox in the museum. It is the only thing that moves in the whole space: is this why the fox’s presence is so striking? Because it alone is unpredictable within the camera frame? Because it might do something to the paintings? No one else is present. Nighttime is inferred. The title of this work The Nightwatch suggests some kind of threat. Perhaps we are witnessing footage from an apocalypse. More likely, the museum is just closed. The stillness of the room adds to the potency of our fox. It passes like a shadow through the National Portait Gallery — the only representative of flesh and blood. It doesn’t notice the fine work hung on its bounding walls. And why should it? It has no relation to these figures, or at least it didn’t before it entered the museum. It stops and pokes its head through what might be a fireplace. Looking for a way outside? When one discovers a mouse in a high rise apartment, one imagines an unknown, or secret, exit. One, perhaps, not built to the human scale. In the case of our fox, the artist is the entrance and the exit. This is the fox of Francis Alÿs — the man who ties magnets to his feet and walks around Mexico City collecting metal. He has similarly pushed a giant block of ice around until it melted to a nub the size of a stone. There must have been a crook in his back by then. He also chases tornadoes and has lead a flock of sheep around a city square like a Pied Piper. The Nightwatch was one of seven works commissioned by London-based Artangel, wherein Alÿs was asked to make work in response to the city. I saw a striking video at PS1 last summer that was part of this same series, in which Alÿs videoed the English guard marching, at first alone, though the deserted city, and then slowly finding one another, growing every more comfortable as their number grew. The sound of their feet grew louder and louder, echoing through the empty corridors. Yet, I am most interested in his fox at the moment.
The fox articulates a non-human space within the cultural architecture of humanity. It is not simply that the museum was built by human enterprise, but that it functions as a temple of sorts, a house for historical works. The museum is a proper place, full of oil paintings and serious faces, poised with solemn and practiced grace. These works have survived the test of time. In that respect their presence is partly due to chance, for it is likely some have travelled great distances, across the sea for instance, barring wreckage, flooding, fires and sunlight. They hang now, like static vampires in gold frames, very much preserved. They are representatives of posterity: examples one might find inspiration in. The fox disrupts their solemnity, destabilizing whatever authority they might possess. The animal is so dynamic by comparison, trotting around with speed and self-possession. What is that statistic? In a matter of weeks the jungle would encroach upon New York City if human kind were not present to fend it off. It would take so little time to be gobbled up by trash, vines and rats — and then the larger beasts would come to sniff through our bodegas.
Joseph Beuys brought a coyote into a gallery in 1974. The interaction between Beuys and the coyote became a work of art, the performance of a developing relationship. It illustrated the process of equilibreum as it was discovered between a four-legged beast and a human being. Between two cultures, one wild, the other civilized. The coyote, of course, is endemic to American mythology — a trickster, a mirror, a scavenger. Alÿs’ fox, on the other hand, is closer to English lore. There are any number of pubs named after it. For Sunday sport, English gentry used to set out on horseback to hunt it. But foxes are also tricksters, though these (apparently) can sometimes climb trees. In Nightwatch, the artist is absent. Instead the fox interacts with the object of art-space; that physical space becomes a conduit for history, not, as in the case with Beuys, the artist and his props.
Alÿs began his project with the idea of using CCTV footage from surveillance cameras all over London. While it is legal for any member of the public to watch the footage, it is illegal to use it for some other purpose. Alÿs adjusted his plan and focused instead on the National Portrait Gallery as a site. They have state of the art surveillance cameras. To test this, to engage our interest in the strangeness of animals, he set a fox called Bandit loose in the museum at night. What is it that we are looking for when we watch this fox? Go here to watch an excerpt from this piece.