A minute-by-minute waltz: Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan bides his time at the Tate Modern's mesmerising installation.

16 September 2018 22:53

Midnight is explosive, of course. Orson Welles impaled on the hour. Big Ben blown to smithereens. In the early morning there are Spellbound, Dali dreams, but by 07:00 it’s all bedside alarms and breakfast cereals.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24-hour collage, built from thousands of clips from films and TV shows that feature clocks in-shot, or people talking about specific times of the day. At 12:05, Richard Gere polishes off a line of cocaine beside a clock radio. At 12:07, Henry Fonda waits in front of a watchmaker’s. The artwork is a working clock. You can sit in front of it from dawn to dusk, dusk to dawn, and keep track of the time via fragments of movies. It’s impossible not to. Every glance at a wristwatch, every throwaway comment about the hour is precise. Cinema time becomes real time, and you’re sat watching it tick away.

Taken altogether, it’s one of the greatest artworks of the Twenty-First Century. It’s a concept so neat that it’s a wonder no one made it before 2010, when the American artist first showed it to the public in London’s White Cube gallery. If Douglas Gordon’s 1993 artwork 24 Hour Psycho is an exercise of cinematic stretching, slowing Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller to two frames a second; Marclay’s The Clock is gleeful weave, a danse macabre across the whole of cinema, stitching a lifetime of films to the scaffolding of a day.

Last week, it returned to London with a free installation at the Tate Modern. Audiences will be able to wander in and out of Marclay’s film during normal opening hours, and once a month, until January 2019, the gallery will stay open overnight for the full 24 hours.

Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010

‘It is all at once an epic journey through the history of cinema, carefully pieced together by an artist who is fascinated by the relationship between sound and image, and a reflection on how we experience, waste and spend time,’ the Tate’s Fiontán Moran tells me. ‘It forces the viewer to literally watch moments pass them by.’

The Clock took three years to assemble, a team of researchers tasked with combing through films and TV shows for clocks. If a scene was spotted that made reference to a particular time, it was logged in a shared Google Doc. Over time, cell by cell, the basic structure of the montage came together.

A product of its time, material for The Clock wasn’t peeled from Netflix, but from rented DVDs gathered in person or collected through the post. If it were made today, perhaps that labour wouldn’t be so daunting. If it were made today, an artist might consider using some image recognition software to automatically identify and index shots of clocks.

‘The problem with that is you’d need access to some kind of central archive,’ says Paul Anton Smith, Marclay’s chief assistant on the project. ‘We were just going to the video store, Close-Up in Shoreditch, and renting shitloads of DVDs.’

Smith tells me that he and his flatmate would spend hours fast-forwarding through movies, scanning for traces of clocks. (‘Maybe he’s checking his watch. Oh no, he’s just picking something up.’) I’m told it’s hard to shake off this way of looking at things. Even years after the artwork was finished, Smith would still perk up everytime he saw ‘a good clock’ in a new film. ‘Now I’m over it,’ he adds with a stare.

‘We were just going to the video store, Close-Up in Shoreditch, and renting shitloads of DVDs.’

These shots were the raw material, and it was Marclay’s job to edit it all together into a cohesive whole; something made more manageable by breaking The Clock into 24, hour-long chapters. Like James Joyce’s own epic-in-a-day, Ulysses, each hour took on a different tone. In the early evening, characters tend to drive home from work. Cut to 20:00, and you’ll find clips of characters in cinemas, opera houses, on dates. There is a collective rhythm. Some hours are more romantic than others, some are more dramatic. Midnight, as I’ve said, is explosive.

‘Christian has always thought of The Clock as not being monumental,’ says Smith. ‘He thinks about it as something that’s minute and everyday, banal. A lot of the time, people are doing nothing important in The Clock. There’s a lot of waiting around, sleeping, sitting in rooms.’

There was once an idea of putting The Clock in a public place, like a train station or an airport; somewhere it could function as an accurate, albeit extravagant, timepiece. It hasn’t happened, perhaps in part because people would miss their connections. Indeed, while much of what plays out in The Clock is banal, the effect of watching it is hypnotising. Tune in at any hour and you’ll find a Shepard tone of dramatic moments, a barbershop pole that’s always ascending. At 22:28, Kirk Douglas reels around drunk, severed from original cause and effect, stitched somewhere between night-time baths and bedside medicine. There is drama, but it is uprooted, replanted, never quite realised.

Arguably more gripping are the imaginary milestones of the quarter hour, the half-past, the quarter-to. There’s anticipation in the air at 08:56. And then the hour arrives, passes, the next one on the horizon.

Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010

Beneath all the famous faces caught mid-scene, this numbers game is the real narrative that holds Marclay’s film together. But it is hollow. Watch The Clock for long enough and, all of a sudden, you’ll realise that you are watching sand. You are watching a circle. You are watching nothing at all.

The Surrealists loved a line by the 19th-Century French poet, the Comte de Lautréamont, describing a boy ‘as beautiful as the chance encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’. This clash of images will be familiar to watchers of The Clock. With its skeleton of calculated clock faces, the artwork is draped with absurd juxtapositions, placed beside each other only because they follow on in fictional time, rendered real. Laurel and Hardy at 14:19. Crocodile Dundee at 14:20. The whole of cinema is pressed into a shared continuity, with Marclay’s clever use of sound bleeding one scene into another.

Between it all, there are motifs of burning cigarettes, melting candles, skulls. Lots of ticking, naturally. The Clock is a memento mori of half-remembered movies. ‘It is a work that never gets old,’ says Moran. ‘Like a great painting, you can sit in front of it for hours and see something new every time.’

But the truth is it does get old. The dizzying scale of The Clock may seem infinite, but it is contained in the tightest structure there is. There is no escaping the tyranny of one minute following the next, no matter if you’re in the Wild West, or a penthouse in Manhattan, or an English office; no matter if you’re fighting crime, making love, falling asleep, waking up. The artwork gets older, hour by hour, just like the people watching it.

Then, on the stroke of midnight, after Big Ben has exploded in a bloom of orange, there is a brief moment of timelessness. 00:00. It lingers for a minute, before the numbers start to climb once more.

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