On By the Fourth Watch by Siân Robinson Davies (2007)

Performance works in a different way to most other art forms. When a performer is at work (s)he necessarily has a different perspective on the piece to the viewing audience – this is meant quite literally. The performer becomes the artwork and looks out at the world, with the world deciding whether or not to meet its gaze. Sometimes a performer moves as if completely isolated from the actual environment, other times a performer will interact directly with the audience, and both of these tactics can be used to great effect.

In By the Fourth Watch the audience-performer relationship operates in a different way. At first we are seemingly ignored. One woman sits at a desk with her back to us, speaking in muffled tones into a paper cup; another woman is outside, her ear pressed to a glass tumbler at the window; a third woman paces the room, hands in her pockets. The audience seems on a different plane to the performers, and one could easily leave with this impression if too hasty. This work needs a little more time invested in it, and there are little clues to this fact if one glances around the room; from the slow movements of the performers to the clock perched on a mantelpiece, its face and mechanism eerily absent.

Siân Robinson Davies is the more itinerant of the three women; she moves around the space, sometimes uncomfortably close to the viewer, but though her eyes often pass over you they never make contact. Once the viewer settles in the room, something strange occurs. First, perhaps, you notice that the paper cup is joined by transparent wire to another cup imbedded in the dividing wall by the entrance to the room. A shock: through this paper cup the woman describes everyone in the room, performers as well as audience. This realisation is crucial, and creates an altered view of the work that reveals other hidden truths.

Meanwhile, Robinson Davies picks up an oar and moves it slowly along the base of one wall. All her attention is focussed on the oar’s tip. Her movements are strained as she steps neatly, shifting weight from one foot to another and following the slow progress of the oar. A visitor enters and she stops as if interrupted, but doesn’t look up. There is a sense she exists on a different plane, yet senses an invisible presence. Then, in what seems like an arbitrary decision, she leans the oar back against a wall and walks across the space with hands in her pockets. She moves with an affected nonchalance, like someone waiting at a bus stop who knows they are being watched. She stops by a wall and looks across the room as before, but this time something has changed: it’s as if she is observing us now, obliquely. She sighs, crosses her arms – with altered view we are now led to believe she expects as much from us as we do from her. With awareness comes reciprocity.

As well as playfulness, a sense of futility pervades all. One woman listens as if spying, but we can see her every movement; another woman describes the audience but only when out of view can you hear the descriptions; Robinson Davies winds the blinds up and down, moves objects around the room and then returns them to their original positions. But this futility is yet another veil which disguises reflection – in both senses of this word. Literal reflections are cast by mirrors placed around the room, and there is the impression she uses these details to focus people’s attentions and to gently create an atmosphere of thoughtfulness. It is as if she would like to share with us her fascination for simple objects and situations, so when she is motionless, directing all her attention on the tip of an oar, we stare too, rapt. In a sense we are, for a moment, seeing through her eyes. And then the spell is broken – she stands and walks away with hands in her pockets once more, existing on a different plane. Two worlds rub shoulders, but never acknowledge the other’s presence.