Minutes from ‘The Clock’

ARTS, EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, Features, FILM, Visual Arts
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Notes on Christian Marclay’s staggering 24-hour video installation.

“Wish I’d thought of it,” was the response of novelist and filmmaker Chris Petit to the phenomenon of Christian Marclay’s The Clock: a groundbreaking, internationally acclaimed 24-hour video installation currently in house at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art until June 3. Petit is certainly not alone in his envy towards the art world sensation: at once ingenious and obvious in conceptualization, its fundamental idea of telling time through moving images sourced from the history of film and television not only delivers an elaborate spectacle, but it shares the simplicity and inventiveness of the wheel, as verified by the scores of parents and their children present at many of the sessions I attended. As Petit goes on to point out in his correspondence with writer Iain Sinclair (their discussion published in a 2011 issue of Film Comment), “it does exactly what it says on the tin,” and it is this immediacy that makes The Clock an uncommon denominator in contemporary art: a work that can be understood instantaneously, regardless of when a person steps into the exhibition space, and by people of all ages and cultural persuasions.

Even more remarkable is The Clock’s genuine hold on audiences, able to rivet them to their seats for hours on end in a setting where art is more often glanced at rather than absorbed, and in an era where moviegoers raise an eyebrow at anything over 120 minutes in duration. (Comfy IKEA couches aid Marclay’s unseen grip on visitors usually subjected to the rock hard benches of modernist gallery design.) As an exciting array of paradoxes, The Clock is most conspicuous as a visual art blockbuster; a kind of avant-garde entertainment on the one hand tailor-made for the attention span of the YouTube generation; on the other a cleverly constructed narrative on the illusion of film composition, situated just below the surface of its addictive collage. Similarly, the unmitigated success is hard to ignore—critics worldwide have heaped praise on Marclay since The Clock debuted at London’s White Cube in October 2010, while foot traffic has never been greater for those galleries at the top of the waiting list to host the work—and yet the mass appeal has the potential to just as easily invite backlash. In some quarters, at least, its populist drive and literal ‘mashup’ technique is something to be scoffed at. Art snobs have every right to question its accessibility and zeitgeist-baiting when at the expense of any real intrinsic value (is it anything other than a brilliant idea?); conceptual video artists whose practice operates on a more sophisticated—and by extension, remote—level of engagement may well be among the jealous skeptics and naysayers.

Give Marclay’s undeniably impressive creation a minute or two though, and it soon becomes apparent how deceptive the simplicity of the package really is. No mere compilation of film clips, The Clock is a highly evolved, multifaceted assemblage of found footage, which, in the hands of an online video jockey, would resemble nothing more than a screeching remix. If it’s evident that Marclay has taken a particular subgenre of Internet culture to its logical extreme, then it’s important to trace the concept’s genesis to his preceding video works, which date back as far as 1995, when YouTube was all but a figment of the imagination. Indeed, in the hours approaching midnight of The Clock, a short but familiar sequence draws our attention: an amusing series of phone conversations, juxtaposed to the point of absurdity, which is in fact a self-serving homage to Marclay’s first foray into film montage, the seven-minute long Telephones.

Although Marclay is widely known as a multi-discipline artist, prolific across sculpture, photography, collage, and painting in addition to his experimental sound work as a pioneering turntablist, film appropriation became a celebrated feature of his subsequent video installations: namely, Video Quartet (2002), a collection of musical performances from movies edited across four screens so they appeared to be singing, dancing, and playing instruments in tandem towards a delirious crescendo; and Crossfire (2007), another multi-screen setup that surrounded the viewer in a barrage of gun shots sourced from the annals of Hollywood cinema. While these works contained few hints of the scale and ambition that would characterise the artist’s next move, it is fascinating to observe the constituent parts of The Clock in relation to these earlier attempts at film collage. Fundamentally, the achievement of The Clock isn’t the genius of the central premise, but how that premise has been filled out. Faced with a canvas the length of an entire day, Marclay has approached the daunting task as if he were making a succession of smaller time-based works bound together by an overall theme. As a result, there are enough ideas housed within The Clock’s overarching timeline to last an artist’s lifetime—or in the case of Marclay, give or take three years (the period it took to complete the work).

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From the exterior, The Clock is simply forward momentum as dictated by its visual and spoken illustration of the time: timepieces on film (public clocks, wrists watches, alarm clocks), or actors referring to time constitute the majority of its ‘clock-face’; in theory, a clip unearthed to represent every minute of the day. The apparent dilemma of this undertaking—that film time is not actual time, but a condensed version of time and space that loses its impetus when stretched out—is in reality the project’s masterstroke, and is at the heart of what makes The Clock such compelling viewing. In order to maintain the conceit of ‘real time’ across a single scene which has had its beginning and end disembodied from its middle, Marclay contrives to plug the gaps by either intercutting with another scene which takes place at the same time of day (as if alternating between two parallel movie universes), or inserting excerpts from another source in furtherance of a momentary obsession: cars and their passengers in motion, characters rushing to an undetermined destination, people in mourning or prayer. The juggling act is multi-tiered in the same way Inception was—incidentally, another feat of precision intercutting across an elongated timeline.

Careful calibration goes hand-in-hand with The Clock’s mechanical function, however part of the joy of the time-watching experience is witnessing Marclay lose himself in these moments. There are many odd, incidental tangents throughout the duration—too many to cite here—but the gist of Marclay’s editing strategy is to run with a subplot if it presents itself. Some have argued that these ‘detours’ defeat the purpose of the work, and yet it is this free-associative urge beneath an otherwise structured format that unites the disparity of the material, transforming a dispassionate assembly of pieces into a fractured, but coherent form of storytelling. For example, the inclusion of clips with no discernable reference to time stick out like a sore thumb: they are there purely to sustain an ongoing train of thought, a brief preoccupation, or occasionally, because of their singularity. (It explains the presence of cinematic landmarks not time-stamped in any particular way: scenes from The 400 Blows, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Ordet, and so on.) Generally speaking, this is refreshing rather than distracting. For an artist who confesses to a cursory knowledge of cinema (his relationship to music, despite being a revered creator of it, is much the same), the fact that Marclay pauses from the relentless march of time to admire these iconic artifacts is a decidedly—if unwittingly—cinephilic gesture.

By far the most abstract section of Marclay’s collage is from 12-6am, where the editing flows in and out of a perverse dream logic. Initially, these nocturnal hours feel repetitive and uninspired: consisting primarily of people in different states of sleep(lessness), they lack the variation and dexterous rhythm of the pre-midnight period. Hardy viewers refocused through an injection of caffeine though will notice stranger things are afoot. Like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, the arrangement begins to take on surreal, frenzied quality; characters appear to be stuck in limbo or slowly going mad; the night and its emptiness is inescapable. It would not be amiss to suggest that Marclay is taunting his audience and their exhaustion through these ungodly hours, with footage deliberately weighted in instances of sleep disturbance: the restless toss and turn in bed, teens terrorized by Freddie Krueger try their darndest not to fall asleep, insomniacs resort to sex or midnight snacks, others are awoken by foreboding phone calls in the middle of the night. Eventually, things turn positively hallucinogenic: Dali’s dream sequence from Spellbound arrives around the 5am mark; the nightmare incarceration of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor follows shortly thereafter.

What makes these ‘after hours’ disorienting yet strangely hypnotic—besides the fact that sleep deprivation messes with the mind—is that it’s much harder to identify where the excerpts originate from due to their intentionally monotonous order. Elsewhere, The Clock is stacked spontaneously with recognizable off-cuts and tantalizing film memories. For cinephiles, this represents an especially desirable form of Pop Art—Marclay’s 24-hour mosaic a postmodern movie marathon composed equally of high and low culture. Irresistible as that sounds, to play the ‘guessing game’, while undoubtedly a hoot, is not the objective of the artwork. If The Clock has a major flaw, it’s that it is seductive to the point of disengagement, and I personally noticed too many gallery visitors and their companions caught up in the allure of long forgotten actors and the nagging pull of images from the past. Access through recognition and nostalgia, I should clarify, is by no means an invalid way to interact with the work, and it’s in these superficial moments that the potential for art to be fun is realized. And it must be said that Marclay’s take on film anthology is gloriously indiscriminate: TV shows as varied as Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Colombo, and Macgyver (all those ticking time bombs) are borrowed from liberally; old Hollywood (Design for Living, Ace in the Hole, Meet Me in St. Louis) clashes repeatedly with the new (House of the Devil, Bubble, He’s Just Not That Into You); the eccentric taste of Marclay’s ‘scavengers’ (a team of film buffs hired to compile the footage from which he edited from) makes for consistently surprising viewing, from Robert Altman’s obscure Beyond Therapy, to the cult of Adventures in Babysitting, to a few precious seconds of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The sheer diversity of material certainly gives The Clock a mesmerizing texture, as it rapidly alternates between monochrome and colour, to film grain and digital degeneration. Still, to merely admire these aesthetic choices from a distance is to deny the impulse to, at any given moment, correlate what is seen on screen in cinematic time with the real world time in which the work is being experienced. This dichotomy between time standards is an uncanny device on two counts: initially, it teases, and therefore hooks the audience by prolonging, and in most cases, withholding the outcome of scenes placed within the 24-hour timeline; and crucially, it makes them increasingly conscious of the conventional cinematic language by which their understanding of moving images is founded on. Students of film learn that montage was pioneered by the Soviets, which then evolved into a set of continuity rules governing what we know as traditional narrative cinema, however for every moviegoer, this basic film literacy already resides in the subconscious; our comprehension of film grammar exists not because we were taught it, but because we have been conditioned to it from the earliest age.

By deconstructing this classical framework, Marclay ruthlessly exposes our dependence on fast, accelerated images, tidy plot delineation, and, through an abundance of Hollywood blockbusters, mainstream cinema’s proven method for binding time, advancing it willfully, and leading us unambiguously through events by holding our hand. Clips involving suspenseful scenarios or dramatic urgency feature prominently as expected—touchstones such as High Noon, Nick of Time, Back to the Future, the Saw movies, and more or less anything directed by Tony Scott only underscore the notion that action and thriller genres are wedded to the concept of finite time and anticipation—and yet virtually every scene in this category has had the wind knocked out of it. In the 1978 version of The Thirty Nine Steps, Robert Powell hangs precariously from the longhand of Big Ben; the plot concerning a bomb set to detonate when the clock strikes 11.45am is never resolved. Or, from the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, John Travolta is repeatedly shown checking his wristwatch and barking demands down a walkie-talkie as a fatal deadline—which we never reach—draws nearer by the second. (Respectfully, the original 1974 film is also utilised.) Marclay’s tactic of deflating the tension and denying us the payoff is none too subtle, but it makes perfect sense. After all, The Clock is an endless measure of time—there are no endings or climaxes. (In actuality, the artwork is a computer programme designed to synchronise with the present time whenever ‘play’ is pressed. It literally has no beginning.)

When Marclay does indulge us with a denouement, it’s to emphasise the extent to which time is condensed in the editing room. Metaphorically, The Clock is a decompression chamber: within, events are allowed to run their natural course as the 1:1 ratio of time is restored. If there’s a fiendish side to Marclay’s scheme—every scene taken apart and put back together is a provocation—a sly sense of humour comes through in many of his editorial choices. Does an antsy Steve Martin make his 6pm flight? If you’ve seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles, you know that he doesn’t (because the flight has been delayed), and yet there’s something oddly amusing about seeing him arrive at the airport literally an hour after first watching him squirm in a never-ending boardroom meeting—a lead-in to a punchline that’s been rendered more or less a distant memory. For all of Marclay’s efforts to suppress satisfaction and delay our reaction, it’s his shrewd comic timing between unrelated content that provides plenty of pleasure in lieu of cause and effect. A Hollywood fireball in one film, for instance, is met with a slapstick injury to Oliver Hardy, followed by a singed Peter Sellers (naturally, as Inspector Clouseau); later, Big Ben explodes at the stroke of midnight (as obliterated in the finale of V for Vendetta), only to farcically reappear intact the very next minute.

Not by coincidence, Big Ben stars as an omnipresent landmark, marking time at regular intervals in the background of numerous film excerpts—a reminder that time stands still for no one, not even movie producers. What is evident in many these examples—not to mention any filmed close-up of a clock—is that a glimpse of the time usually only lasts a few seconds. Fittingly, Marclay compensates for the shortfall by scattering other time motifs throughout: hourglasses and metronomes are visible signs of keeping time; burning cigarettes strike a note of contemplation or ennui; the length of shadows or the position of the sun offer an approximation in relation to the cosmos. Furthermore, he defines each and every hour within the schedule of an archetypal day: at 6am, Robin Williams screams a wakeup call in Good Morning Vietnam; episodes of breakfast, lunch, and dinner happen on cue; at 5pm, a flurry of scenes depicting employees leaving work; in the evening, couples socialize while lonely housewives wait for their neglectful husbands to crawl home. Finally, he torments us with the burden of time and its existential questions: when characters aren’t running late, waiting for something, or bemoaning the lack of time, they’re pondering its meaning in a gleefully self-referential way. As a modern anxiety, our constant awareness of time can be oppressive, and Marclay drives home that notion with self-conscious aplomb.

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As a centerpiece, The Clock tends to overpower other major works at the Musuem of Contemporary Art curated to coincide with its Southern Hemisphere premiere—unfortunate, given the adjacent “Marking Time” exhibition thoroughly extends the investigation of time through art. And Marclay’s creation is far from the only work showcased with a cinematic flavour. Most beguiling among those is Jim Campbell’s Home Movies 1040 (2008), a vertically suspended grid of LEDs which cast onto the wall remnants of old home movies. The footage is cloudy and often barely discernible—it mimics a state of near-blindness—and yet the closeness of perception makes for an utterly entrancing video work. Significantly, the installation itself is a form of two-dimensional sculpture: the fragile projection device hangs directly in front of the image like a tapestry of pixels, mediating our vision through a sort of reverse-resolution. As visual technology scrambles towards a high-definition standard, it’s arresting to encounter an artist—never mind one who’s a MIT-trained engineer—determined to invert the process of digital image making. Meanwhile, erected on the Museum’s front lawn is Campbell’s stunning Scattered Light, an outdoor monument employing a similar, albeit more complex and sculptural set-up of translucent images composed through thousands of computer-programmed LEDs.

Beyond the mutual reinterpretation of cinema, Campbell and Marclay transfigure the flickering image through divergent practices: one focuses on image reception, the other on image comprehension. Campbell’s LED layouts are something new altogether—the moving images themselves are primitive in character, however the medium in which they are transmitted is technically advanced and, particularly in the case of Scattered Light, strikingly original. In contrast, Marclay sets about reconstituting a codified medium in order to underline its shortcomings, and in the same breath, shed light on its origins. If Marclay’s deconstruction of a conventional cinematic treatment is transparent in what it reveals about the inner workings of a linear narrative sequence, then his reconstruction of key components is central to unmasking the illusory nature of film. Perhaps the true feat of The Clock is not the expansive cinematic fabric from which it was made from, but how astutely those thousands of elements have been sewn together to create a ‘Frankenstein narrative’—one in which the parts are dissimilar, the crude stitching is plain to see, and yet the anatomy is ironically the same.

Installation view of ‘Home Movies 1040’ (2008), Jim Campbell; 120x84x5", custom electronics, 1040 LEDs

Ironic, because behind the whiz-bang attraction of Marclay’s triumphantly popular video art, I sense a burning avant-garde tendency. One of Marclay’s favourite methods for fabricating transitions is to match eyelines across two or more extracts: a sidelong glance to the left in one scene is meet with the gaze to the right in another; Peter Greene looks through the window of a car in Clean, Shaven, while the very next shot is of a clock seen from a moving vehicle which just happens to approximate a point-of-view angle. Hundreds of other examples instruct the viewer in the basics of film continuity and screen space, defined in classical terms by the 180-degree rule. Shot mechanics aside though, what strikes me most about these jury-rigged montages is the frequency and absurdity of shifting perspectives. Action is either communicated in shorthand or splintered into pieces; the formula is expeditious without any real sense of clarity; continuity is achieved, but it’s synthetic. This prevailing visual code is a distinctly North American one, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the majority of films chosen were Hollywood productions. Even so, it begs the question why foreign-language cinema seems, at times, inadequately represented in The Clock.

While Marclay has opted not to subtitle dialogue in the presentation (thus disqualifying films which reference time verbally in a language other than English), the answer may lie in art cinema’s lingua franca of static camera angles and uninterrupted long takes—an established ‘real time’ mandate already observed by Marclay, only from another vantage point. Although there are notable exceptions—we’re treated to glimpses of Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Clouds of May, and most appropriately, Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is it There?—the style of minimalist cinema seems both incompatible and overly blunt for Marclay’s needs. In the end, he can prove his point by showing us how traditional film narratives operate, thus allowing avant-garde cinema to be conspicuous by its absence. In a roundabout way, it could be argued that The Clock is a plea for ‘slow cinema’: if it can glue viewers to the screen by bombarding them with predominantly commercial images decelerated to a snail’s pace, and trick them into losing all sense of time while simultaneously making them alert to every second that passes by, does it also succeed in deprogramming the pedestrian moviegoer? Whether or not The Clock qualifies as experimental therapy, its ability to completely transfix the audience in an unblinking, subdued state conjures up at least one infamous cinematic howl: Malcolm McDowell incapacitated, eyelids pried open, as a montage of screen violence rushes forth in A Clockwork Orange.

Of course, the great contradiction of The Clock is that it remains incredibly enjoyable to watch, so much so that Marclay’s preference for depictions of boredom, human routine, and the minutiae of everyday life—an art cinema trend if ever there was one—is scarcely noticeable. And there are many other details that go unnoticed in the scheme things, not the least of which is the intricate sound design, a critical link in the synthesis of discordant movie worlds. (A notable example: Jeremy Irons is seen speaking into a radio microphone in an unidentified British drama, and can continue to be heard over the wireless in a scene from the western Open Range.) It’s also a relief to discover, in the face of Marclay’s dogged methodology, a work still receptive to the romance of cinematic iconography. Trains, above all, occupy a special place in the realm of The Clock: arriving or departing, they pass through not only as a constant reminder of time’s perpetual motion, but of cinema’s power to transform the ordinary, from the Lumière Brothers’ earliest recording of an oncoming locomotive, to the romance genre itself, in which the films Falling in Love, Brief Encounter, Love in the Afternoon, and Indiscretion of an American Wife become inseparable from the emotive pull of train platforms.

Ultimately, the pertinent question is not whether The Clock has intrinsic value, but if it is in fact a material work. Sure enough, its density can be measured in actual units—the unorthodox history of cinema it promises is an unprecedented 24-hour journey dotted with several thousand films. Boiled down to its essence though, and Marclay’s long-form film collage is intimately tactile in a way few video works are. Not a minute goes by when you aren’t aware of the artist’s motive or touch; his fingerprints, either from sleight-of-hand or force of will, are smeared over every pivotal cut, transition, and juxtaposition. Moreover, what’s concrete about the infinite montage at play is the vast interconnectedness of its parts. The relationships Marclay builds between films of different genres, eras, and attitudes are formed not only laterally, but cyclically (as a loop with no fixed starting point) to produce something nearing three-dimensionality. At least in terms of fullness, I’m not sure the same can be said of most other conceptual artworks based in film appropriation—not even Australian artist Tracey Moffat’s excellent film montages (especially Love [2003] and Doomed [2007]), who like Marclay, takes great liberties with the content owned by Hollywood studios. Both artists escape copyright laws under the safeguard of working in a gallery context, and in a digital age where everything is already up for grabs, they cannot be begrudged (not even if their works sell for ten to hundreds of thousands of dollars). But with all this borrowing and digitising comes the inevitable complication of impermanence. As an artwork tied irrevocably to the permanence of time, The Clock, you would think, faces no such fate.

Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” exhibits in conjunction with the group show “Marking Time” at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art until June 3.

Christian Marclay
The Clock, 2010

Main Image
Installation view at the MCA
Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Limited
Photograph: Alex Davies

Additional Images
Single channel video
Duration: 24 hours
© The Artist
Courtesy White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Filed under: ARTS, EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, Features, FILM, Visual Arts

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.