(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. 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 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.