11:12 am Jul. 18, 2012
It was 9:30 a.m. and I was late for The Clock.
To those familiar with Christian Marclay’s epic video piece, the irony of that is apparent. But in case you’re just now hearing the buzz about this, which has intensified upon its present return to New York for a two-week run at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium, here’s what you should know: Marclay, collagist and champion of the remix, has created a 24-hour installation piece that aggregates clips from thousands of films to create a cinematic clock accounting for every minute of the day, either visually or aurally referenced on-screen, and synchronized to run in real time.
At 12 p.m. there are the ringing bells of High Noon, and at midnight it’s Orson Welles atop Big Ben in The Stranger. Functioning as both homage to the history of cinema and a critique of lost time, the work has enthralled audiences around the world.
Having planned to watch the entirety of the installation in one stretch, I was determined to get there for the 8 a.m. opening—a prohibitively early hour for an art fan. Like so many of the characters shown in the morning scenes of Marclay’s work, I mashed down the snooze button when my alarm first went off at 7:30. When I finally woke I checked the atrium's Twitter feed to check on the length of the line to get into the screening. I was certain it would have already circled the block.
“Our first audiences are inside, but there's still room. Now's a great time to come down,” Twitter teased. A lucky break.
On arrival I was greeted by a few staffers (there are roughly a dozen at any given time working in shifts around the clock) armed with iPads, tally counters, and flashlights; the exhibition is as meticulously controlled as the work itself. A pop-up movie theatre has been constructed in the atrium, with curtained walls, house lights, and, as specified by Marclay, seating for 96 on ivory-colored Ikea couches—a staple at previous presentations of the work. There’s plenty of legroom, and none of that movie-theater shuffling when someone has to get up and use the restroom. People came and went but the audience never dissipated, as individual replacements were quickly ushered in to fall under the spell of Marclay's siren song. Many stayed for hours.
Marclay scoffs at the the idea of viewing the whole thing in one stretch.
"Oh, I never encourage people to watch the whole thing," he said in an interview with Time Out. "It's not an endurance test! Some folks try to see all of it, but whether or not they're actually awake once the bit that happens at 4:15 a.m. rolls around…" In this, the piece differs from the major works of endurance cinema: long-duration art films like Andy Warhol's Empire or cinematic marathons like Bela Tarr's Satantango, or Kobayashi's The Human Condition. The Clock has no natural end: 24 hours after one leaves it's still keeping time (its computer code makes sure of that), and in this way the piece persists with or without our complicity.
When I learned that there was no food or water allowed inside I quickly abandoned my own endurance ambitions, and opted instead to clock in and out over the course of the weekend. By Sunday evening I had consumed The Clock's morning-hours flurry of agitated risers, afternoon lunch breaks enjoyed by myriad working men, all the saved-by-the-bell moments that swarm around the ends of school days, dinner dates made and missed, and even the dreamlike wee hours of the night, during which my own experience was not so different from the surreality on screen.
I watched scenes from thousands of films: people chatting, sitting in rooms, waiting, but perhaps more often people running to make trains, catch planes, stop bombs—action movies are privileged in the mix as they so often rely on time to create suspense, and many are returned to repeatedly, broken up by minutes and sometimes hours. The thriller Déjà Vu, where Denzel Washington must go back in time to stop a bomb from exploding, recurs a number of times (he spends most of the movie running around carrying a kitchen clock); watching him stress about the seconds becomes something of a gag in the new context.
The more you watch, the more you appreciate some of the peculiar nuance: in a moment from Mickey Blue Eyes shown at 1:25 p.m., Hugh Grant announces to Jeanne Tripplehorn “We’re now 25 minutes late.” Presumably they had to be somewhere at 1:00 p.m. but we're seeing them here, later, a time noted only for not being another time.
The real genius of the work is not found in those moments of wit, but rather in the overall effect The Clock has of tricking its viewers into imagining there's some metanarrative at work, which of course there isn't. This is achieved in no small part by the soundtrack. Constructed after the editing process in collaboration with Quentin Chiappetta, the soundtrack Marclay deploys creates an aural logic that stitches otherwise jarringly disparate clips together by extending, remixing, and wholly reinventing the sounds of the scenes. It is this element more than any other that is responsible for the trancelike effect the piece seems to have on audiences: one often doesn't immediately notice the changeover between clips, which is a tremendous feat and a testament to the artist's success as a remixer.
“What’s The Clock about?” I overheard a woman ask a staffer while waiting on line. There’s no obvious answer, but the work's many scenes are rife with metaphors that imply that our relationship to time may be a bit troubled: there’s the epigraph on the tombstone at 3:39 p.m. that reads, “Do not squander time. That is the stuff life is made of.” Then there’s the scene in which a clock is sent downriver on a wooden plank. The myriad burning cigarettes, all of these seem to suggest we may be wasting our time, or killing it. And of course, there’s the fact that this all takes place in a movie theatre, the house of lost time. Marclay, like Proust, has put involuntary memory on display, and with each recognizable clip one finds the work more personally, even autobiographically resonant.
At 10 p.m. on Sunday night, after having run for 62 hours straight, the house lights finally came up, the sound was muted, and a staff member appeared before those still gathered in the screening room.
“It is now, as you already know, ten o’clock,” he said. Laughter sprang up in the theater.
The audience shuffled out slowly to the sequence portraying 10:01.
“It has an affect on you that you couldn’t anticipate,” said one viewer as he was leaving. I hung back, hoping to watch them shut the film off, hoping to see time stop, but it just kept going. When I asked one of the security guards when they would shut the piece down, he said that it would continue to run in the empty theater until audiences returned on Tuesday morning.
Whether he was correct or not, I like the idea that the piece never stops. Like time itself we just don’t notice until, curious, we take a look at the clock.
'The Clock' is on view at Lincoln Center's David Rubinstein Atrium through August 1. Screening times are Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and continuously from Fridays at 8 a.m. through Sundays at 10 p.m.; the screening is closed Mondays. The event is free but admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. All images by Todd-White Photography, © Christian Marclay, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.