Christian Marclay’s The Clock: Does the 24-Hour Artwork Live Up to the Hype?


Stills from The Clock by Christian Marclay (Photo courtesy


(NOTE: This review is from the summer of 2012. Marclay’s The Clock is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through January 21, 2013, with a special 24-hour screening on New Year’s Eve. For more information, visit MoMA’s website.)



Last week I made the four-and-a-half-hour drive to New York City and stood in line for an hour in the rain to see a rare screening of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, currently on view at The Lincoln Center Festival. Before I arrived, playwright Wallace Shawn had been spotted in the queue. The Twitter feed for the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center has also reported sightings of Angelica Huston, Marlo Thomas, and Dr. Ruth. Wait times for screenings have burgeoned to two hours at some points and can be longest around midnight, when the ultimate climax of this 24-hour art installation occurs.

So is The Clock really worth of all this trouble? I’m happy to report that it is.

The Clock is the brainchild of Swiss sound and video artist Christan Marclay, the same artist who created the brilliant video works Telephone (1995) and Video Quartet (2002). (Note: You can watch Marclay’s Telephone at the end of this article).

But while Video Quartet was only fourteen minutes long, and Telephone a mere seven, The Clock is Marclay’s magnum opus, a mesmerizing 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related movie clips that have been masterfully edited and synchronized to show the actual time. The time is conveyed through dialogue, clocks, watches, and other timepieces. One moment Patrick Macnee is looking at his pocket watch in The Avengers; the next, Tobey Maguire is racing to deliver pizzas in Spiderman. The Clock has no beginning and no end, but endlessly loops, just as a real clock does.

As the clocks tick and we see snippets of shootouts, bank heists, chase scenes, romances, comedies, and detective dramas all appropriated from the rich history of cinema, patterns begin to emerge—travelers rushing to catch trains, men with hangovers smashing alarm clocks. The top of the hour is a popular time for cinema’s most dramatic moments—hangings, bombings, shootouts, trains leaving the station. But life is less outlandish when the hour hand passes the 12. This is the time when people wait, comb their hair, smoke, call a friend on the phone, commute to work, or cook dinner. In other words, its more like real life. In The Clock time passes not only in minutes, but also in years, as we glimpse actors like Joan Crawford, Catherine Deneuve, and Jack Nicholson in youth and in old age.


It took Marclay three years to make The Clock with the help of six assistants.


It took Marclay three years to make The Clock with the help of six assistants. The assistants’ job was to watch movies all day long and to bring Marclay any time-related clips they could find. For the first year, Marclay wasn’t even sure the project would be possible. Were there enough time-related clips in film history to create a 24-hour artwork?

For three years Marclay sat at his computer editing. “It was a gruesome three years,” Marclay told David Zlaewski in The New Yorker:

“But I became addicted to finding those little solutions. It gives you a bit of a high. You put two things together, and you get, like, ‘Oh my God, this works!’…The worst was when I worked really hard on figuring out some nice transition at 10:46 a.m. and someone would bring another 10:46, which was better footage or worked better with the narrative. There was constant remodeling.”


The Clock is a film about film, but also a film about our own mortality and obsession with time. (Photo courtesy


The Clock finally debuted at the end of 2010 at London’s White Cube Gallery and was first shown in New York at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Both galleries gave Marclay financial support to cover the budget of creating the piece, which cost more than $100,000.

One cost that didn‘t factor into Marclay’s budget was copyright payments. As Zalewski details in his New Yorker profile, no one has ever objected to the artist’s appropriation of sounds and images in the past, so using thousands of film and music clips in The Clock didn’t give Marclay pause. “If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it,” Marclay told Zalweski. At the 2011 Venice Biennale, Marclay won the Golden Lion for best artist in the exhibit. Accepting the Golden Lion, the artist humorously invoked Andy Warhol, thanking the jury “for giving The Clock its fifteen minutes.”

No description of this 24-hour installation can possibly convey its genius. Marclay’s collage is nothing less than a masterpiece, and one that must be experienced in person to be appreciated.

First, there is the event of it all, of gathering together with fellow film-goers to have a common and unique experience. Even the wait in line adds to the anticipation. The ability to watch any film or television show on demand in the privacy of our homes whenever we feel like it makes the rarity of The Clock screenings quite exceptional. The Clock is a live event, meant to be seen in real time. The audience is an integral part of the piece. The experience begins the moment we enter the space and ends the second we leave it.


It’s Marclay’s brilliance as an editor, his uncanny ability to stitch the right scenes and sounds together, that is the secret of The Clock‘s power as a work of art. (Photo courtesy Time Out New York)


The fact that only six copies of The Clock exist has turned these live screenings into a kind of competitive sport. Five copies of The Clock have been acquired by museums (or collectors who intend to donate the piece to a museum), including MoMA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. One copy has been purchased jointly by the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in February of this year, the Tate, Israel Museum, and Centre Pompidou collaboratively purchased one of the last remaining copies. The sixth copy was sold to Steven A. Cohen, a Connecticut hedge-fund manager. These institutions were right to act quickly, for I have no doubt that Marclay’s piece is destined to become a seminal piece of 21st century art.

When I learned that Lincoln Center was offering a rare chance to see The Clock for free as part of The Lincoln Center Festival in New York City, I immediately made plans to visit. After waiting in line for an hour outside the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, I was ushered into a darkened room and directed to one of the carefully arranged IKEA couches. I had forgotten my cell phone during the screening, but conveniently, keeping track of time wasn’t an issue.

With the hard work of getting there behind me, I settled into my front row seat and put myself into Marclay’s hands.

The artist doesn’t disappoint. Marclay is a gifted editor, particularly when it comes to sound. He has had a long-standing interest in fusing fine art and audio culture. Earlier in his career, he was known for creating sound collages out of broken records, which he would cut up and then rejoin. Playing these assemblages produced a mix of music, as well as strange pops and hisses each time the turntable needle hit a seam. The artist began working with turntables in the late 1970s independently, but also parallel to hip hop’s use of the instrument.


Christian Marclay, Recycled Records, 1983. Collaged vinyl records, 10 inches diameter. (Photo © Christian Marclay. Courtesy of the artist and the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)



What surprised me most about The Clock was its emotional pulse. There are moments of poignancy, humor, and surprise: a sudden car wreck, humorous, well-timed cameo appearances from Woody Allen, clock-watching lovers who have been left waiting a bit too long. (Photo: The Clock by Christian Marclay)


Marclay’s experience as a d.j. and sound artist serves him well in The Clock. Whenever he joins two scenes together, transitioning from one film clip to the next, he carefully chooses which sounds to highlight and which to exclude—everything from conversation, background music and noise, clocks and watches ticking, crickets and birds, etc. must be taken into consideration. Marclay expertly stitches these disparate pieces together, introducing a strange sound in one scene, only to have the sound explained when it is carried through and revealed in the next clip. He makes similar choices when assembling various music scores together. He might keep the soundtrack from one film running as The Clock transitions from one scene to the next, give a scene an entirely new score, or eliminate the music entirely and opt for silence instead. The sound is literally the acoustic glue that holds The Clock together, and gives the piece its continuity. The real art lies in the brilliance of these transitions.

While Marclay did all of the visual editing himself, he did enlist Brooklyn sound artist Quentin Chiappetta to hone The Clock’s sonic elements. In The New Yorker article, Chiappetta explains Marclay’s philosophy on sound editing, which eschews easy solutions:

“He doesn’t like fadeouts…He thinks it’s weak. It’s his work with turntables—the easiest way to get out of a spot is to turn the knob down. So to do it in a more clever, rhythmic way became the goal.”

The mere technical feat of creating The Clock is astounding in of itself, but technical virtuosity alone is not enough to create memorable art. What surprised me most about The Clock was its emotional pulse. There are moments of poignancy, humor, and surprise: a sudden car wreck, humorous, well-timed cameo appearances from Woody Allen, clock-watching lovers who have been left waiting a bit too long.

It doesn’t matter if the clip is from some Chinese or French film and that there are no subtitles. The specifics of a scene don’t matter, for Marclay expertly conveys universal feelings of longing and heartbreak, anger and joy, on the faces of his chosen actors. It’s Marclay’s brilliance as an editor, his uncanny ability to stitch the right scenes and sounds together, that is the secret of The Clock‘s power as a work of art. Marclay’s timing an intuition are impeccable, and its remarkable that he can conjure so much feeling and anticipation by assembling thousands of disparate images.


I was mesmerized, and yet also made painfully aware that watching actors replicating life on screen is not the same thing as living life itself. (Photo courtesy


During the three and a half hours I spent in the theater, I found the potency of The Clock to be formidable, and the effect resonated long after I left the theater. Typically, we go to the movies to escape the grind of reality–to forget time. Time in film is an artificial construct; but in The Clock reality collides with the artificial. The Clock is a film about film, but also a film about our own mortality and obsession with time.

Marclay’s work never let me forget where I was and how much time I had spent shifting around on the over-sized IKEA couch. At mid-afternoon The Clock shows people eating lunch, sipping glasses of wine, and discussing official business. There are workers in offices, trains leaving the station, factories humming, and lovers making love. The on-screen actions are carefully choreographed to coincide with daily life outside of the theater. After three and half hours I wanted to linger, to see what was next. And yet, Marclay’s piece was constantly reminding me that I had a long drive home ahead of me. It was Friday, there was traffic to consider, and the minutes were ticking away. And what about all of those lengthy French lunches, the work being accomplished, and the passionate lovemaking? I was mesmerized, and yet also made painfully aware that watching actors replicating life on screen is not the same thing as living life itself.

The Clock made me hyper aware of time in a more immediate sense, as well as in a larger one. The artwork is essentially one, giant, 24-hour memento-mori. But this is a memento-mori for the 21st century. No skulls or tombstones are needed to experience the full force of our impermanence. While watching The Clock, time’s passage is literally staring us in the face.

When I left the David Rubenstein Atrium that rainy afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice clocks and watches everywhere I went. And as I inched my car down the West Side Highway, a woman announced the time over the radio. 4:30. Did I regret not leaving The Clock sooner to avoid rush hour traffic? Not for a minute.



The Clock is on view at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center through August 1st as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. It runs continuously only from Friday morning to Sunday night; from Tuesday to Thursday, it can be viewed from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is free. Visitors are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis; there are no reservations. Once inside the installation, visitors are invited to stay as long as they like. The installation has couches and standing room to accommodate 96 visitors at one time. For information about current wait times, please check the David Rubenstein Atrium website and follow @LCAtrium on Twitter.



You can watch Christian Marclay’s 1995 piece Telephone above.

A special thanks to Dean Klingler at The MacDowell Colony and Matt Barolo at the Keith Haring Foundation, who made my visit to New York possible.



New Perks for Gwarlingo Members

Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive. $5000 of the $15,000 goal has been raised so far. Thank you!

Though art work by Matthew Northridge, Bill Jacobson, and Rachel Perry Welty quickly sold out, I have added a new perk for $100 donors. This gorgeous, signed, limited-edition book by Margaret Lanzetta…






This special edition photograph by Barry Underwood has just arrived in the Gwarlingo studio, as well. The print is limited to ten lucky donors, so don’t wait too long…




Rachel Perry Welty’s artist books were quickly snatched up, but ONE $1000 donor will receive a fruit sticker drawing by Rachel similar to this one…


Rachel Perry Welty, Sin and Paradise, 2009. Fruit stickers and archival adhesive on paper. 21.5 x 21.5 inches (Photo by Clements Howcroft, Boston courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York)



The interactive Member Profiles available to donors who give $50 are more are proving to be extremely popular as well. This is a great chance to share your own work or the work of your arts organization with Gwarlingo readers…



There are lots of other cool rewards too, including a personalized Complete Creative Intensive with me. It’s a great way to jump-start your work in 2013.

If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video, artist bios, and all of the member perks here on the Gwarlingo site. A big thank you to everyone who has already supported Gwarlingo. I couldn’t do it without you.

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By | 2016-11-11T21:52:46+00:00 07.27.12|Events, Greatest Hits, Images, Sounds|5 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Maria July 27, 2012 at 4:17 am

    I haven’t seen this yet, and I wish I could. My main gripe with this is something you did mention, but I disagree– This work should be made more available, more accessible, and not just to peope who have the time to wait for an hour or more on line. Its magic and message is not made more significant by its rarity and difficulty to access. Movies are made for far more than 100,000, and then they are dispersed into the world. The fact that this is ART doesn’t really justify the exclusivity and in my opinion everyone could get a return on their investment and more people could enjoy the magic if it was made into real clock that 100,000 people could buy for 100 dollars, say, or an app that a million people could…. you get my point. Im not trying to cheapen or reduce this to a gimmick, but for all the publicity this work has gotten it mainly serves to make it harder for a wider public to see and enjoy it and creates a sense of frustration in the face lack of access. I think this is one of the key downfalls of ART in this time– that when a work is framed as such, it leaves the realm of accesibility, as a function of the works role in the economy of luxury objects. Notwithstanding that it is ‘free’ for a few weeks in NYC.

    • Michelle Aldredge July 27, 2012 at 9:47 am

      You make an excellent point, Maria. While talking to a friend about The Clock, his immediate response was, “I want it to be the clock on my iPad!”

      While writing the essay, the issue of access did occur to me. The key would be to offer the work online, say, or as an app, as you suggest, so that it runs continuously and is still synched with the real time. I, for one, would buy it. Otherwise, the odds are good that I’ll never be able to see the entire work in my lifetime.

      I’m the last person to endorse exclusivity in the art world. As my readers know, it’s against everything I believe. But would something be lost in the translation from the theater to the web? Definitely. I do feel certain that watching The Clock on your phone would diminish the experience, just as it would for any great film. And yet this is the trade off we’ve decided to make today: we trade ideal viewing conditions for accessibility. Without digital access on demand, many films would die a quick death after a short run at the theater.

      This is a debate that is actually happening right now in the film industry. Is there a value to limiting access when a movie is released or should it be available online and for download right away?

      While most filmmakers prefer audiences to see their work as it was intended (in a darkened room where distractions are minimal), few artists can afford to insist on such ideal conditions. The trade off for such perfectionism is a limited audience. In my mind, theater attendance and home viewing are two radically different experiences. I suspect that watching The Clock online or on any small screen would be the equivalent of listening to a digital download of a great piece of music instead of attending a live performance. Is something lost in translation? Yes. But are our lives enriched by having easy access to films, music, and other works of art? Definitely.

      I wonder of Marclay’s piece will morph and be available in new formats once the buzz dies down? It’s possible. Right now, it’s having an exclusive opening run in theaters. Would making the piece available on different platforms lessen the impact of seeing The Clock live? Not necessarily. The live experience will always be preferable.

      But providing wider accessibility to The Clock will really boil down to Marclay’s flexibility (or lack thereof) on the issue. So much of Marclay’s pervious work is about live performance, about creating one-of-a-kind experiences that can’t be duplicated. His works hinge on gathering random people together in a room or museum and conducting some type of sound experiment to see what comes of it. Like the compositions of John Cage, chance and presence plays a big role in Marclay’s art.

      At some point in the creative process, however, artists must relinquish control of their creation and let the work develop a life of its own. Artistic intention has a limited lifespan. I’m reminded of a controversy that occurred at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, when I was there. The architect Richard Meier became outraged when the museum commissioned Sol LeWitt to install a colorful mural on the precious white walls in the museum’s atrium. Meier argued that those walls were intended to remain white so that light and shadow would be an integral part of the building’s experience. The museum argued that Meier’s building was an organic creation subject to change and alteration. It’s a fascinating debate.

      I did find the following passage from The New Yorker profile of Christian Marclay telling:

      “We ascended a curved staircase, and entered Jopling’s library. Amid the bookshelves was a bachelor-pad-size television, and on it, at a volume that could not be heard above the party’s roar, was a grainy, letterbox copy of The Clock. Marclay winced, ‘I’m not happy about this,’ he said. Curators at the party would see it, undercutting the claim that The Clock was never shown in suboptimal conditions. Marclay didn’t confront his patron, but he and Yee promptly went home.”

      If The Clock is going to find a wider audience, Christian Marclay will need to find a way to make peace with the “suboptimal.”

      • Clara Burns July 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

        I was happy to see the above comment, and your reply. I think ingenuity that can create the fabulous (as in this piece of art) may also be up to the challenge of creating optimal showings that are also accessible. For instance, create public viewing venues EVERYWHERE; admission could be equivalent of movie admission, but allow the viewer to see the movie in (real-time) slices by coming multiple times, if the viewer chooses to do so.

        Of course, the moment you make something more accessible, you remove the filtering of wealth; such filtering generally leans toward ensuring a respectful audience, and if the rest of us are allowed to see it, conditions might no longer be “optimal” in the view of the artist, i.e., some audiences might not treat the work with the respect it deserves. Catcalls, boos, and crunching popcorn could happen. However, is art only to be seen by “qualified” viewers?

        I’m a great believer in public art, as I am also in public libraries. So many of us would have remained frustratingly ignorant but for these free opportunities to imbibe great works of literature, art, history, science, music . . . and who would claim that no one should be allowed to eat, unless the food met gourmet standards? Since the vast majority of people can never afford the “optimal” conditions currently available for this remarkable work, we will never see it. Should most people be starved of the best experiences in the world of art? I believe this type of stance impoverishes the already increasingly impoverished world of “the most of us.”

        Thank you for this wonderful article, and for the important discussion it has stimulated.

        • Michelle Aldredge July 27, 2012 at 1:13 pm

          What a thoughtful response, Clara. Thanks for posting this. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of public art, libraries, etc. (I’m an ex librarian myself!). I love the parallel you’ve drawn between art and food. “Optimal” is not the only option, as you point out, and it is not the role of the artist and other arts institutions to weed out “unqualified viewers.” It’s up to each individual to react to art on a personal level.

          Your idea of making The Clock available EVERYWHERE is an interesting one and strikes at the heart of the matter (no pun intended). I’m afraid that money is the driving force behind The Clock‘s limited access, at least for right now. Since there are only six copies of The Clock available, it has become “limited” and “rare,” and therefore extremely valuable in the marketplace. White Cube and Paula Cooper Gallery knew what they were doing when they created this scarcity. But my cynicism surrounding The Clock‘s accessibility and the marketplace doesn’t change the fact that the work is pure genius. (I’d like to reserve the right to be cynical AND appreciative at the same time!)

          This issue of accessibility and the marketplace raises an interesting point. Now that all of the copies of The Clock have been purchased for large sums of money, would changing the rules by allowing a more accessible version lessen the value of the copies now owned by MoMA, the MFA, etc.? If so, then I suspect that these institutions and collectors won’t be keen on Marclay making his masterpiece more accessible to the general public.

          Somehow, it always comes back to money in the end, doesn’t it?

          • Clara Burns July 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm

            Indeed. And yes, I agree re the pure genius, too! I am appreciating it vicariously . . . (I am also a former librarian).

Comments are closed.