Several Failed Attempts to Understand Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”


Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” has become that rare work of art beloved by both critics and museum-goers. Though “museum-goer” might not be the right word, since “The Clock” draws crowds out of proportion for a 24-hour long piece of video art.

It’s been debated by art critics and film critics (sometimes simultaneously), and the New Yorker‘s dissected it from every possible angle. (Exhibits A, B, C, and D.)

I’ve seen five hours of “The Clock” so far. I plan on watching several more when it returns to New York  (at MoMA from Dec. 21 to Jan. 21). I thought this would be a good time to share a few impressions from the last go-round.

The “Maker” Theory: A twenty-four hour collage of cinematic depictions of time doubles as a utilitarian piece of art–it is indeed a functioning clock. Viewers always know the time, and an intrepid designer could turn this giant Rube Goldberg device into a wrist-watch with an iPod-mini-size video display. Whatever the arguments about the “usefulness” of art, this one skirts ’em, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Cloud Atlas on Crack: There are those mainstream entertainments like Cloud Atlas and Todd Solondz’s Palindromes which cast multiple actors in the same roles (or vice versa). You could imagine “The Clock” as a ramped-up version of this idea with hundreds of actors playing a handful of characters. They’re obsessed with time, hitting the snooze button, running late for appointments, nervously eyeing a ticking time bomb’s countdown.

As Anti-Cinema: In a commercial film, when two characters speak in a diner, you might have a medium-wide shot in profile plus a close-up on each character. After watching “The Clock” for an hour, this setup looks simultaneously radical and archaic. Marclay’s assemblage continually frustrates the narrativizing instinct we’ve been trained to accept by thousands of Hollywood movies. We see a time bomb programmed but never detonated (or diffused), we witness duels and Mexican standoffs without the pleasure of setup or conclusion. We watch tearful train-station farewells without context. To paraphrase Shaw, “The Clock” is a series of guns appearing in the first act that never, ever go off.

The Director’s Commentary: There are several cheeky references to “The Clock” in “The Clock.” A museumgoer remarks of an offscreen painting: “I like it. It’s complicated, but it’s also simple.” Lucas Haas tells Sidney Poitier he wants to build a perpetual clock that can run for 100 years without delay or error; the impracticality and ambition of such an endeavor shouldn’t preclude its construction. You have to love an artist with a sense of humor, and I wonder how much this humor contributes to the piece’s effectiveness.

As Social Anthropology: By indexing the common behaviors of the human race (or at least, the first world) at different times of day, “The Clock” bears witness to a kind of cinematic sociology, a more nuanced and intelligent articulation of similar ideas in Koyaanisqatsi: at 9am there’s a flutter of students silently scribbling in their exam notebooks; at 5pm, phalanxes of office workers close shop for the day and head home. (At noon, a lot of us shoot each other in the street.)

It helps that science fiction and animation is largely absent. The clips are instantly recognizable as drawn from our world. And certain repeated activities reveal generational differences. At 8:15am, characters from 1940s and 1950s films complain about sleeping in; we hear the same lament an hour later from 1970s and 1980s. A contemporary Julia Roberts is very upset she slept until 12:15pm.

This Time With Feeling: By amassing material from commercial film (instead of, say, YouTube), every clip on view has been deemed worthy of a mass audience. Though it’s an imprecise and arguably dubious metric, it’s worth noting that everything we see has been determined by someone as the best take, in addition to the the requisite man hours of postproduction (color-correction, musical scoring). Even when the activity onscreen is incredibly banal–winding a clock, getting dressed–it’s performed by professional actors and movie stars on expensive sets. (The breadth of décor alone is Pinterest come to life.)

In this way every minute of “The Clock” is a more exciting version of that same minute we’re experiencing in real-time. And I would argue this isn’t the familiar escapism of cinema as it’s usually defined, because it never ends. There’s no climax, no resolution. Rather there’s an aggregate effect from these minutes and hours, a sense of spectacle many of us thought had dissipated from our image-saturated culture and its ever-higher bar for visual wonder. (In music, we have Girl Talk: not just a mashup of party music, it’s the best party music record of all time. Where do you go from there?) Might this be what audiences felt in the early days of cinema? Before the conventions of the medium had been set and repeated ad nauseum?

Afterwards, Walking Around the City: Its real-time aspect creates a temporal afterglow after a long viewing session. In other words, “The Clock” infiltrates the real world: every clock you see transports you back inside the artwork. Or to put it differently, the demarcation between art and reality is blurred, with elements borrowed from one another. You feel as though you’re living through Marclay Time. And, in a way, of course you are, as long as you live by the 24-hour clock.

DeLillo: If “24 Hour Psycho” inspired Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, I can only marvel at what literature he might spin from “The Clock.”

You Can’t Watch All of It: One could watch all 24 hours in a row, though this is surely not Marclay’s intention; his instructions that it’s best viewed on generic (uncomfortable) Ikea couches seems to reinforce this. The audience cannot “totalize” the piece, just as we cannot totalize “24 Hour Psycho,” or John Cage’s “Organ/ASLSP.” The piece is bigger than us. (Also: do those brave souls who’ve sat through all of it “know” anything more than more casual viewers?)

In this way “The Clock” reflects the rhizomatic culture of the internet. There are facile connections between millions of nodes–sometimes wonderful, sometimes maddening–and evaluating it as a formalist is a fool’s errand. It’s best to stop resisting and let the images, connections, fillips,  and the spectacle wash over you.



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