Christian Marclay’s The Clock
“We’re much happier when we don’t have to think about time.”
This quote from the artist Christian Marclay, creator of The Clock, is telling in terms of what he intended as the audience’s response to the work.
The 24-hour video, which recently opened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in Melbourne, was created by sampling fragments from films in which various times of day appear onscreen, moments edited to be synchronised with the actual time of day you are watching them. The work functions as a timepiece and a reflection on mortality, and has been the subject of rapturous responses from critics and audiences around the world.
It is playfully sadistic – to be made acutely aware of our propensity for escaping reality with the help of the moving image, and to render that mirror of sorts as a fully functioning timepiece unto itself. And in this sense, The Clock is truly masterful. It is like repeatedly cutting your fingers while trying to reassemble a shattered hourglass – there is no regaining the time we have lost in our lives.
“What am I doing here? This is an absolute waste of time.”
This is what I jotted down in my notes 10 minutes into my first viewing of The Clock. Two hours later I was still there, content to let the parade of images tell me the time, one by one, well into the evening.
In his seminal cinema theory book, Empty Moments, Leo Charney describes the defining quality of modernity as “drift” – the experience of being unable to locate a stable sense of the present. Given cinema is an art form modernism helped raise from infancy to middle age, Marclay’s relentless articulation of the present – with fragments of cinema carefully stitched to create a single day – can be viewed as a unified experience. A provocative, if not drolly perverse act in its construction.
There have, of course, been other experimental film and video works created to allow an audience to contemplate the passing of the immaterial present, such as Andy Warhol’s Empire and, more recently, the film installation 24 Hour Psycho, by Douglas Gordon, which slowed Hitchcock’s Psycho to a 24-hour dirge.
But The Clock is a wholly different endeavour – a roulette wheel of moving images, rotating at a slow and steady pace. A series of fragments that pass by in a metronomic, almost schematic fashion. No grand design is created and no narrative. Instead, the experience is akin to watching someone relentlessly practising their scales on the piano. It is a reassuring, hypnotic reduction of cinema’s potential into a series of emotional colour swatches.
In the late 1970s, Marclay was one of the first people to scratch and manipulate vinyl records on stage in New York and Boston. He became well known in the tar pit of New York’s Lower East Side in the early ’80s as an untrained musician with a penchant for appropriation, working alongside other notable experimental musicians, such as John Zorn. In the ’90s, he turned to sampling moving images, with the taut and effective seven-and-a-half minute Telephones (1995) and Video Quartet (2002).
For a long time Marclay kept the core concept for The Clock a well-guarded secret, fearing the idea would be stolen by another artist able to assemble the material before him. He proposed it to his gallery, White Cube in London, with an initial production budget of US$100,000. It was such a massive undertaking, they suggested a six-month feasibility study to see whether it was even possible to source a film and video clip for every minute of every hour of a day, in order to fulfil Marclay’s concept. Armed with editing software and six research interns, he began his search.
The Clock was completed in 2010, after three years of research and editing, with about 12,000 moments from different films and television programs knitted together. It won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and was sold as an edition of six works. Marclay strictly stipulated it must not be shown in more than one place around the world at any given time.
At an ACMI screening, I sat on one of the white Ikea couches specified by the artist and slowly let myself absorb the immensity of the task Marclay set himself more than 10 years ago. As the hours passed, even well-known actors were turned into a kind of disarming memento mori. At 12.27am, there was an image of Catherine Deneuve at 21 years old from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Four hours later she appeared again, now in her 50s, knocking a clock off a fireplace.
While it’s clear Marclay wanted to create a seamless editing style, one that could seduce an audience to slip into the work no matter what the juncture, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat alienated from his stylistic approach. In my favourite clip, a man pushes aside an ornate 19th-century clock from its prized position on a mantelpiece above a fireplace, only to replace it with a framed specimen of a huge tarantula. These six seconds were a moment of rupture – a surreal liberation – replacing time with another mode of measuring our lives. For the most part, though, I found the editing and the use of music throughout to be akin to an Academy Awards night montage – clips of a particular actress or actor strung together using comedic visual devices that link incongruous scenes and films.
As someone who’s spent years of my life in various edit suites, the art of editing and its endless potential obsesses me, especially the fact that subtle nuances of grammar in editing are yet to be explored to their full potential. We are still working with a very linear, causal chain of imagery and meaning in most narrative cinema. Watching The Clock, I realised, after a time, the fact that I have devoted my life to creating and ordering moving images makes this work slightly uncomfortable for me.
As Marclay says: “The narrative is constantly interrupted, and you’re constantly reminded how much time you have spent in front of the clock – so you’re there on your own terms ... You decide when to enter it and when to leave it.”
While I can’t dispute its clearly momentous impact on a huge array of audiences around the world over the past decade, personally I found The Clock to be a shimmeringly beautiful idea constructed without a lot of room for formal surprise in terms of its overarching film language.
Other critics have spoken of the joy of recognising certain clips from throughout cinema history. This is certainly a key aspect of the work – the more of a cinephile you are, the more familiar moments will pile up amid the unknown ones that insulate them. Sometimes there is only a twilight of half recognition that preoccupies you and bleeds into the next clip, creating a beautiful, queasy sense of benign cinematic dementia.
Ultimately, though, I found not recognising clips and hence being seduced into thinking one is watching a wholly authored work was the most satisfying aspect, as the more surreal moments of upending reality kept me inside the work’s pleasures.
The Clock is a highly seductive and metronomic call to arms that I found wholly immersive. It is a scaffolding around a nebulous truth – that we expend a lot of our energy building empty temples of culture in an attempt to escape death. This denial of death pervades our culture and is the source of an immense amount of violence and suffering in the world. In this sense, The Clock is a steady meditation on the banality we endure to fool ourselves into staving off our own mortality.
Beyond the superficial anxieties of time passing before our eyes, and the occasional sight gag planted by Marclay, The Clock also strips us of our illusions of invulnerability and allows the permeable membrane between life and death to be punctured.
In an age when the visual literacy of the general public is staggeringly sophisticated – when GIFs of slivers of pop culture that would have once screened in experimental short film programs are now shared online in lieu of text messages – it is extremely difficult for an artist to create found-footage work that establishes a language capable of cutting through with some sense of transgression or transcendence.
The paradox of Marclay utilising an art form that is, at its core, about escaping reality to present a moment-to-moment reminder of our mortality ultimately provides a robust joy that will stay with you forever. By transposing our two philosophical conceptions of time – symbolic and imaginary – and filling a film with clock faces, he presents a series of rabbit holes, all of which are just the right size to disappear into, albeit momentarily.
The Clock is a singular and arresting work and I would recommend experiencing the complete 24-hour version, which ACMI will screen each Thursday for the next five weeks, if possible.
Perhaps the best summary of the work’s paradoxes is provided by the artist. “It’s an odd experience,” Marclay concedes. “If I told you to look at a clock for 24 hours you would go mad...”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2019 as "Killing time". Subscribe here.