Christian Marclay: The Clock

27 mins read

1. Clock-Watching
We have come to watch Christian Marclay’s video installation The Clock, but due to the popularity of the work, a line has formed outside the doors of the Power Plant and we are required to wait our turn and to take some time before entering the gallery. I look at my watch and already, The Clock is upon me, as time is both checked and felt. Marclay’s single-channel video is a compilation work comprised of thousands of film clips depicting clocks and watches synchronized to the actual time of viewing. The Clock is notable for the encyclopedic scope of its image retrieval as well as the masterful way in which sound and image are edited together. Audiences enter a darkened gallery to find, if lucky, a seat on one of the couches to view the images on a large screen; if not, they crouch or sit on the floor, absorbing the images and sound.

As one shot of a clock leads to another, time moves forward, highlighting the temporal continuity of a linear structure and time itself as subject matter. And yet into this chronological sequence of inevitability, of a ‘tick’ that follows a ‘tock,’ the video takes unexpected turns as it directs us to a diverse range of cinematic scenarios that introduce contingency into this temporal system. Deceptively simple, The Clock is a conceptual work involving paradoxical pairings of inevitability and contingency. Continuity and frozen time arise and are brought into an epic and looping 24-hour structure that takes the day into itself.

2. Anxiety
The Clock references the cinematic past through the recycling of known films. As viewers, we look for anchor points or moments of identification in the montage of clocks appearing before us. For cinephiles, to identify a known actor or the film from which the fragment of time is detached is to locate oneself as an informed viewer in a structure of familiar territory. As comforting as this is, the linear structure of the work and the rapid exchange of one temporal reference by another reminds one that time never stops. Expectation comes to propel the film forward from one clip to another. The expectation is that a reference to time will be found embedded in the next clip. A ‘where’s Waldo’ of time ensues as we are conditioned by the film to look for clocks. Finding the temporal signifier resolves the expectation but this resolution is short-lived, replaced immediately with the expectation that the next scene will provide another image of time. Viewers are kept continually in a state of perpetual and anxious receptivity. The film’s oscillation between anticipation and resolution burns out the continuous punctuality of our attention span. The Clock is relentless.

3. Simultaneity
One of the conceptual strengths of The Clock concerns the overlap between the temporal references that appear on the screen and the viewer’s experience of actual time in the gallery. When it is 2:15 p.m. on the screen it is 2:15 p.m. in real time. Representation and reality are thus brought into parallel registers and the outward manifestation of time on a timepiece functions as a common denominator to plug viewers into a relation of simultaneity with the screened clips. The genius of Marclay is in realizing that time as signified in film and as marked in real life could achieve one of the most sought-after goals of modern cinema—the linking of image to reality. As mainstream Hollywood film looks to three-dimensional cinema to heighten the real, Marclay has turned his attention to temporality as the basis upon which to make visible the now time of our experience in the gallery. To be clear, it is not the seamless reproduction of reality that is brought to the surface but the temporality of a viewing experience that The Clock makes visible. In The Emergence of Cinematic Time, film theorist Mary Ann Doane notes that toward the end of the 19th century there was a rapid diffusion of pocket watches in the general population and that “[m]odernity was characterized by an impulse to wear time.” Reproducing clips from films produced throughout the modern period, The Clock depicts many scenes in which actors wearing time pry open a pocket watch or look down upon a wristwatch. As if on cue and seemingly linked, as I stood at the back of the Power Plant gallery watching the film in the dark, I couldn’t help but notice the distracting glow of cell phones emanating occasionally from random points in the gallery. Some viewers appeared to be checking the time, simultaneously visible on screens, both private and public.

4. Clocks
Do you love timepieces? If you don’t before sitting down to view this installation, one can only hope you do by the time you leave. You see alarm clocks, clock radios, digital clocks, gorgeous art deco clocks, atomic clocks, ships’ clocks and, of course, grandfather clocks.

Marclay’s work presents some of the most beautiful and arcane watches and clocks in history. There are elaborately crafted pieces, made out of the best wood—mahogany and chestnut and oak—constructed to hang on walls or tower in an entranceway or sit on a mantelpiece above a fireplace.

The clocks are glorious: on walls in constructions that mirror castles or churches, outdoors, keeping time for the world—London’s Big Ben is a character actor in this work—or on a table with wooden “shoulders” rounded out of oak, protecting a proud “face” that is recording the passage of every second. Name a style, any style, from gothic to deco to moderne, and you’ll see it in The Clocks clocks.

If the clocks, intended for the public, are extraordinary, Marclay offers the same treatment in the selection of wristwatches worn “privately” for characters in the film clips. Actors whose emotions are the key to every scene in the installation proudly wear them. The faces for the bizarre and brilliant timepieces, so elaborate in early film clips, become more functional during World War II and the post-war era and then become cool again in the ’60s. With wristwatches, one can’t forget the straps: beaded for hippies, plastic for spies and computer programmers, leather for cowboys and private eyes.

Wonderful clocks and wristwatches are the iconic stars of this installation whether Hermann Miller or Braun or Westclox designs them.

5. Construction and Reaction
Like a minimalist composition by John Adams, Christian Marclay has created something apparently simple that plays out in increasingly complex ways. Very quickly, the viewer grasps what is being presented: a series of clips from films, all of which feature clocks in dramatic ways.

That’s why everyone “gets” The Clock. But given that this is a gallery piece, intended for appreciators of fine art, their reaction to understanding the work is surprising. Instead of looking for a bit and then moving on, as one frequently does while viewing contemporary art, people sit on couches or even the floor—often for hours.

Marclay has constructed a piece that seduces viewers, enticing them to stay. Part of the power lies in the use of narrative cinema, a genre designed to hold people’s interest through action, direction and mise-en-scene. However, while what’s being seen on screen is of primary importance, it’s in the structure that one can find the methodology that holds audiences, transforming The Clock into an international success.

We live in a time when things move at incredibly swift speeds. We cater to, and are enamoured of, anything that can be understood and enjoyed quickly. It’s part and parcel of our ADD culture. The Clock fits snugly into that paradigm. We see the clip, we enjoy the clip, we go to the next clip. And we don’t have to use a channel clicker—Marclay does it for us.

Evoking old-time cinema, Marclay is able to resurrect and repurpose another device that the public has always enjoyed—coming attractions or, as they’re called now, movie trailers. In The Clock, Marclay offers one precisely chosen clip after another, modulated to the sharpened sensibility of contemporary art and media consumers. Viewers anticipate the next piece the way they do trailers in cineplexes—as items to love or despise or find hilarious. In any case, there’s a reaction—sometimes as many as three in a minute.

Marclay and his team cleverly appropriate the working methods of post-production experts on a film crew. The Clock is brilliantly edited: scenes have been chosen by Marclay for maximum effect and cut with great delicacy, both in each ”intro” to a scene and its “extro.” The punch line—where’s the clock?—is used very well, and when there is no clock, Marclay and crew have devised montage sequences of people running upstairs or through a crowd—cut/cut/cut—to a final point when a timepiece does make an appearance.

Sound is often employed in a non-diegetic manner to begin with but in a sequence using three or four clips edited together, the “reveal”—where the sound really is—finally becomes apparent, offering a closure that most viewers probably don’t apprehend while they’re watching The Clock. Non-diegetic to diegetic: Marclay can claim a post-modern award simply for the concept, let alone the execution.

6. Telling time
In this work, telling time takes place through images as well as words. Not all of the scenes depict clocks or watches but the hectic pace of the film keeps time with actors who are consistently referencing the temporal: “You wouldn’t have the time, I suppose, Miss,” or “I’m late!” Much of the dialogue is predictive, providing for viewers a prefiguration of what will happen next. For example, John Wayne, ‘the Duke,’ appears in the generalized past of a Western so conventionalized it feels like I have seen it before, but I can’t be sure. Wayne looks to his left at a character walking into a saloon and says: “He knows he is going to get shot.” Moments later, the man is dead. Paradoxically, we might say that John Wayne predicts a future we discover in the past. In this example of collapsing temporality, I hear the faint echo of Roland Barthes and his writing about a photograph of Lewis Payne by Alexander Gardner. Gardner photographed Payne, who was awaiting execution for the attempted murder of the U.S. Secretary of State W.H. Seward. In Camera Lucida, Barthes describes the photograph’s pure authenticity as a representation of this has been but also, paradoxically, a representation of this will be. As such, the portrait of Payne is of a man “that is dead and that is going to die.” Looking forward and backward across the dialectical temporality of then and now, the narratives referenced in The Clock move forward in time while recalling the past.

7. Locales and Locations
Here’s a documentary question: when and where do you look at clocks? Marclay’s piece surveys the places where timepieces are central to a scene.

First answer from a long viewing of The Clock: the bed. People wake up on it. They make love in it. Sometimes they die and are discovered lying on it. In The Clock, viewers sitting on couches, often late at night, spend considerable time watching beds. The clocks next to them act as a reality check to bedroom fantasies. Lovers wake up and want to know what time it is; so do office workers and housewives. If someone is found dead, people always want to know when the final moment occurred. If they’re alive, the reveries of the bed are changed as soon as the clock comes into play.

Second favourite location: the kitchen. It seems that the morning is the prime time for clocks and watches. If characters aren’t in bed, they’re in the kitchen. Making breakfast or at least a cup of coffee with lovers, children and friends while revelations are spewed out or matter-of-factly delivered. The locus of domestic activity, the kitchen, is the perfect place for eat-and-runs while clock-watching.

Third best, followed by number four: train stations and airport terminals. Arrivals and departures allow for moments of high drama; directors and writers take advantage of that to place momentous scenes in stations and terminals. Marclay’s crew seemed to prefer trains to airplanes—or perhaps they liked the architecture in stations more than terminals. Whatever the reason, viewers are offered many scenes in lustrous black and white as characters wave goodbye over the plumes of train smoke and the less romantic departures in the cool colours of modernist airports.

One of the visual pleasures of The Clock is that Marclay and his team took a Euro-centric approach to their film materials. While there are plenty of clips with Bette Davis and other Hollywood notables, the viewer is offered a pleasing variety of films from Germany and France—with no subtitles!—and England. We’re likely to be transported in film clips from Berlin during the Cold War to post-Blitz-bombed London to an antic Parisian nightclub—and then to a Hollywood studio.

8. Narrative devices
Veteran actor Burgess Meredith in The Obsolete Man is tied to a post. Next to him is a bomb attached to a clock. When the clock strikes twelve, it will explode.

Near the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the handsome and usually vacant visage of Hugh Grant is locked in deep sleep. Suddenly his repose is shattered by an alarm clock. Then two. Then five. Each ring is different, some shattering in its intensity. He wakes up startled to a room full of alarm clocks.

In Hitchcock’s early British thriller Sabotage, a young lad in a tram is excited as he travels through the streets of 1930s London. But the camera keeps panning down to the briefcase he’s carrying. We realize that he’s carrying explosives wired to a clock, which is ticking. Of course, the boy doesn’t know.

Three scenarios out of many that appear in The Clock. Christian Marclay’s selections are curated in a variety of ways: to offer us views of clocks, locales and narrative tropes. Employing anticipation and rising levels of hope mixed with anxiety, his film clips evoke nostalgia, anger, romance, hilarity and eroticism—to name a few.

In some cases, he returns to scenes while scrupulously following his rules—time moves inexorably forward as the situation for Meredith and the boy in Hitchcock’s Sabotage grow more desperate. Withal the principle remains the same: to feature timepieces either as counterpoints to scenes or as the main element in a short, taut scene.

9. Control
In drawing a connection between time on screen and time in everyday life, the video reminds us, if reminding was ever needed, that we are conditioned by the clock, that our days are marked and measured. We watch the clock and the clock watches us. The clock is a dictator and the ultimate Panopticon. Our daily and lived relation to the clock can be aggressive or passive: we might punch the clock at work but in so doing, we are kept in line by systems of regulation and labour that demands our time. In The Clock a recurring trope of the bedside stand with a ringing ‘alarm’ clock repeats across numerous settings. Early mornings become hectic as time rings down like a hammer and repeated images of the time roust a sleepy subject to life, to work, and to responsibility. If the bedside stand is littered with cigarette butts, drugs or alcohol, we suspect that the subject will awake impaired and suffer from some sort of anxiety for sleeping in or for sleeping with the wrong person. In a culture of rationalized labour and incessant performance demands, The Clock reminds us again and again of who we are and who we must become when the world is watching and the clock is ticking.

10. Capitalism
Could capitalism exist if we didn’t keep time, do we not need timepieces to turn our bodily rhythms into mechanistic extensions of a production cycle running 9 to 5 or through the night on the graveyard shift? Each tick of the clock rules against contingency, takes us to the next station or task. It is perhaps not surprising that The Clock contains a number of scenes in banks or where money is being exchanged. The clocks are visible to all in the bank and typically mounted high on the wall. Banks are metonyms for capital. Time is money and we mustn’t waste either. Bank heists happen on time, yet because each scene is a fragment, cut loose from an originating continuum, we never get to see what robbers do with the money they steal. Robbers are workers too, and in The Clock, they are alienated from the fruits of their labour. But this is how the video functions overall, as one scene is exchanged for the next in a continual flow of visually disconnected clips. The Clock functions like a factory of film clips, each depiction a mere widget alienated from the whole, providing a cause without an effect, a depiction of characters separated from the consequence of their actions.

11. Waking and Dreaming
After a soft launch, starting the week before, The Clock truly opened at the Power Plant on the night of Nuit Blanche, the annual event that displays art all night long. Nuit Blanche was, however, not the only night the gallery stayed open to screen the video in its entirety. Kyra, a student at Ryerson University, tells a story of attending one of the all-night screenings. She and four or five friends arrived at the Power Plant sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., after attending a party. Each member of her group was able to find a seat on one of the couches provided for the screening. The couches are very comfortable and roomy and sometime during the early-morning screening they all fell asleep. Kyra started to dream, only to wake up to a dream sequence. She remembers seeing a melting clock but can’t be sure if it was in the film. She was awoken at approximately 6 a.m., as alarm clocks began to go off and a series of wake-up sequences on screen pushed one character after another out of bed. Kyra and her friends responded in turn. Daylight awaited them outside of the gallery as they headed off to Kensington Market to find a place for breakfast.

12. Pieces of time
“If you’re good, what you’re doing is giving people little tiny pieces of time that they never forget.” — Hollywood icon James Stewart, abridged, to director-critic Peter Bogdanovich

Time seems most precious when it’s offered in short bursts. Childhood is extolled because it’s a time of first impressions, primary experiences. So is old age: the end of life allowing for moments of reflections and revelations.

Performing arts capture revelatory gestures, speech and movement—epiphanies of the body and spirit. The visual arts are often about decisive moments, particularly photography but also in a range of other disciplines from painting to film.

In The Clock, Christian Marclay has offered 24 hours of fragmented time, a day’s worth of transformative moments. In the century after Proust’s exploration of the meaning of time, Marclay has distilled the pleasures of narrative cinema into a form that allows us to appreciate and critique key moments in temporal existence. In a work that celebrates and investigates pop cultural history, he has managed to create a timeless piece of his own.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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