The Nightwatch, which is an ironic reference to the celebrated painting by Rembrandt, follows the course of a fox wandering among the celebrated collections of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The path of the fox, from galleries containing 16th, 17th and 18th century portraits of historic figures from British history hung on plush walls, is circuitous and seemingly random.The fox tracks back and forth, sometimes inspecting the gallery furniture, often walking through the middle of the room but sometimes around its perimeter until eventually it climbs on top of a showcase, covered in fabric where he settles down to sleep. The actions of the fox are observed from the close-circuit television cameras which form part of the museum’s security system. Foxes are now commonly found in London roaming the suburban streets at night-time. They are in a sense flaneurs sauvages. The insertion of a fox in such an august institution is at once bizarre and yet in some sense perfectly normal. There is a constant tension in the film: will the fox do some damage, what attracts him to particualr places that he returns to; how does he decide where he will settle. The fox acculturises to the gallery in the same way he has become acclimatised to the city. The fox is an outsider, an interloper banned from the city that has re-inserted itself. Alys draws a parallel between the fox and himself. ‘No matter how long I have been away, I have one foot in a European culture, and one foot out… A lot of my work has played on the double status’. The theme of surveillance is multi-layered. On the one hand the fox is staking out the gallery; the portraits on the wall appear to be watching him; the security cameras are monitoring both the paintings and the fox and finally, we the viewer are observing the whole action.
Trained as an architect, Alÿs turned to a visual arts based practice in the early 1990s as a more immediate, direct, and effective way of exploring issues related to urbanization, to the ordering and signification of urban space and to the semiotics of its use. His work initiates with a simple action, either by him or others, which is then documented in a range of media. Alÿs explores subjects such as modernizing programs in Latin America and border zones in areas of conflict, often asking about the relevance of poetic acts in politicized situations. Documentation is central to his practice as well as painting, drawing, and video. In his work, When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) made in collaboration with Mexican critic Cuauhtemoc Medina, Alÿs recruited 500 volunteers outside of Lima, Peru. Each person moved a shovel full of sand one step at a time form one side of a dune to the other, and together they moved the entire geographical location of the dune by a few inches. Critic Jean Fisher linked Alÿs’ work to the radical event of precipitating a crisis of meaning, where the exposure of a void of meaning is confronted by its social situation, leading up to some kind of truth.
Francis Alÿs was born in Belgium in 1959. He lives and works in Mexico City.