“Time present and time past”, as T.S. Eliot famously claimed in Burnt Norton, are “both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.” So, “If all time is eternally present”, he suggests “All time is irredeemable.” These celebrated lines from The Four Quartets might well describe The Clock by the American Swiss artist, Christian Marclay, a work that is both a cinematic feat and a philosophical conundrum. A 24 hour montage, The Clock is made up of thousands of carefully researched moments of cinematic and television history spliced together to depict the passage of time. Functioning as a real timepiece, it marks the actual flow of time over a 24 hour period and is synchronised to function in whatever time-zone it’s shown.
Marclay, originally, developed the idea whilst working on his 2005 piece Screen Play. With the support of the London-based White Cub gallery he assembled a team to engage in the herculean task of finding relevant footage, which he edited over the course of three years. Six people watched DVDs and searched for scenes that contained clocks or watches. Marclay, himself, was often unfamiliar with the source works so Google spreadsheets were used to record the copious clips. Originally, he wanted to include more outlandish episodes but began to worry that it would be too exhausting to watch over a long period. Instead he chose to focus on incidental moments. His head assistant, Paul Anton Smith, has said that Marclay wanted scenes that were “banal and plain but visually interesting.” One assistant who focused too much on violent scenes was fired, while those remaining began to specialise in particular film genres. The final version contains around 12,000 films clips.
First shown at White Cube’s London gallery in 2010, The Clock won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice biennale. In his acceptance speech Marclay ironically invoked Andy Warhol, thanking the judges for “giving The Clock its 15 minutes”. It’s six editions have been purchased by major museums and attracted a widespread following. It’s now being shown at Tate Modern, in the Blavatnick Building extension. Marclay declined to show it in the Turbine Hall because of poor acoustics. This space is equipped with comfortable soft sofas so that viewers are able come and go. Marclay didn’t want conventional cinema seating where those getting up and leaving would disturb other members of the audience. An inherent element of the work is the decision made by individual viewers as to how long he or she will stay. Once there, it’s certainly addictive. Though made of fragments that have no apparent narrative relationship, there’s a sense of tension and an irrational desire to find out what ‘happens next’.
Christian Ernest Maracly, to give him his full name, was born in San Rafael in California in 1955 but grew up in Switzerland where he attend the École Supérieure d’Art Visuel in Geneva. (It’s perhaps not fanciful to suggest a youth spent in the country that Orson Wells famously proclaimed had produced nothing but the cuckoo clock during five hundred years of democracy, might have had some influence on his subject matter). After Geneva, Marcaly continued his education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Cooper Union in New York, where he spent his student years exploring noise music, influenced by the neo-Dadaist movement and artists such as Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono. He also listened – if that’s the right word – to John Cage, borrowing his philosophy “that if you listen, and keep listening, eventually you find something interesting.” A pioneer of the use of turntables and gramophone records – often found in junk and thrift shops – as musical instruments to create sound collages, Marclay was described by the critic Thom Jurek as the “unwitting inventor of turntabalism.”
These anarchic works allowed Marclay to explore human perception and what it means to experience sensory data. Starting out, as so many artists have done, as a musician, in the band Mon Ton Son, he would often play records starting from the middle, breaking them and gluing them back together to disrupt harmonies and create a stream of noise that dissolved into disorder. Melding different technical media – sound, photography, film and video – as well as a range of artistic references, he created rich fusions that synthesised into more than the sum of their separate parts. In the spirit of those more utopian times, Marcaly’s interest was in ‘pure art’ that had no obvious commercial value. In The Clock he explores – just as Eliot did in the Four Quartets (in a different medium and a different century) – how time is experienced by the human mind. What it feels like to be caught in its relentless, irredeemable stream. Time is shown to be both an abstract construct, yet also integral to our diurnal and nocturnal rhythms, to our biology and sense of what means to grow older.
The research is brilliant and one wonders how his team managed to find so many clips that show exactly the right time. Though drawn mostly from mainstream cinema, there’s an obvious influence of experimental filmmakers of the 60s and 70s who played around with structure and found footage. A great deal of the pleasure to be had in watching The Clock is to be found in ticking off a list of familiar films. Great for cinema buffs. There’s also the enjoyment of recognising actors, especially in their youthful incarnations. The young Robert Redford, Tom Courtney, Jack Nicholson and Sidney Poitier, for instance. And it was particularly poignant to see the late Robin Williams but impossible not to see Bill Crosby through the lens of recent sexual allegations. There are also some really funny moments. Peter Sellers waking in a hotel room in a bright red eye mask and hair net, is a gem. As is what, I assume, to be a Buster Keaton clip of some slapstick goings on on a vertiginous clock tower.
There are iconic clocks everywhere. Big Ben and the Waterloo station clock, as well as an array of period wristwatches, early digital models, grandfather clocks and pocket watches. The passing of time is also experienced though forgotten period details. Things seen through a glass darkly: a 50s watchstrap or a Blackberry. Who uses those short-lived status symbols now? And throughout there’s the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, along with ashtrays full of stubs. Another aspect of time and memory is that we forget old habits.
I went to see The Clock at 2.pm and was surprised at how many people were in bed. Between 4.pm and 5.pm characters appear to be travelling on planes, trains and in cars. Then, as the evening sets in, they eat dinner, become involved in shootouts and attend parties. Mid-evening they go to the theatre and shows. Although I wasn’t watching at midnight, I gather Orson Welles is impaled on a clock tower in The Stranger, and Big Ben explodes in V for Vendetta. After that people begin to drift into bars to drink and search for intimacy. Others are annoyed at being woken up by the phone. In the small hours, unsurprisingly, many are sleeping. While between 3 am. and 5 am there are a number of dream sequences. Then around 7 am. people begin to wake up and from 9 am. to midday eat breakfast and have morning sex. As noon approaches, the bells ring out in High Noon.
As I sat in the dark I found myself constantly checking my watch to see if it was in sync with what was happening on the screen. I was also aware that it’s only been in the last 100 years – since the beginning of cinema – that we are able to look back and see life as it actually was; taking place in real time. Before the invention of film people had to rely on memories and stories. Now we can experience the past in all its incidental details, just as it was before we existed.
The Clock is an epic feat that both reveals and hides the mysteries of time. Watching it felt like being on a train and staring out of the window as the world flashes by and you catch segments and incidents of unknown lives, fleeting glimpses of small mini-dramas without ever knowing how they end. It is a masterful work that reminds us that life is not a linear narrative but a series of broken fragments. Not everything has a beginning, a middle and a clear end.